At Maranatha Baptist Church, former President Jimmy Carter is a presence even when he's not present.
He crafted the wooden cross that hangs in the sanctuary and the offering plates that ushers pass. Flip them over (not during the offertory, of course) and you can see his carved initials.
When he teaches Sunday school, the parking lot bustles long before the sun comes up, and security is strict. That was not the case on Sunday. Parking was plentiful. The "security guard" on duty was a pooch named Blazer who snoozed in the front pew ahead of the worship hour.
Carter had every intention of being back in church just days after hip surgery, but decided midday Saturday to take a little more time.
"I really think he was waiting until the last minute, hoping he would feel better," said his niece, Kim Fuller, who taught in his place.
Carter, 94, was preparing to go turkey hunting when he fell at his home May 13 and has been recovering at home since surgery. His greatest concern, he said in a statement, was not being able to bag more birds before turkey hunting season ended.
"He's so resilient," his niece Jana Carter, Fuller's sister, said during welcoming remarks.
A retired teacher, Fuller placed a favorite book, "To Kill a Mockingbird" on the custom-made, motorized chair where her uncle usually sits during lessons. With the lectern spilling over with reference materials, a study guide and her Bible, Fuller mused that he never needs to consult notes while teaching.
"When it comes to his ministry, he's done so much," she said. "I can't count all the things he's done for the world. Sometimes here in Plains, we take it for granted. We think of them as Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Rosalynn."
Plains residents say the Carters are the very embodiment of unassuming.
They blend right in during meetings of the Plains Better Hometown Program, although their U.S. Secret Service retinue does bring presidential pomp to the casual gatherings.
“It’s great that they will come,” said Cindy Williams, who has lived in Plains since she got married a native son nearly 47 years ago. “They listen politely and ask questions.”
World-renowned for their work in Guinea-worm disease eradication, mental health awareness and Habitat for Humanity builds, the Carters are active in projects closer to home. Last month, for example, they attended the official grand opening of a Boys & Girls Club facility named in their honor.
“He’s very supportive of the town,” Williams said.
Saturday evening found her walking through downtown, which boasts a giant xylophone in a little park across the street from the row of merchants and a banner proclaiming Plains as Carter’s hometown. Williams picked up a mallet and expertly played “Amazing Grace.”
She’s hopeful about the former president’s recovery - she knows lots of people who have gone through physical therapy after hip injuries. She was surprised he had planned to be back in church so soon after the injury, but hadn’t yet heard the news he would not be teaching on Sunday.
“He still may,” she mused. “You never know.”
He didn’t, and while worshipers were sorry to miss him, all felt he was right where he needed to be.
“I’m so glad he’s home resting,” said Savannah vocalist Kim Michael Polote, who met Carter years ago at restaurateur and author Paula Deen’s wedding. “I was concerned about his health. He’s a super man but he’s not Superman.”
The sanctuary was not quite full on Sunday — still a pretty good turnout.
“I can’t wait to tell him how many people still came,” Rev. Tony Lowden said. Ahead of time, he played the voice mail from Carter inviting him to lead the church.
He also gave an encouraging report about how “39,” as he calls the 39th U.S. president, is recovering.
“The day after his surgery, the physical therapist came in. He was jumping up halfway out of the bed saying, ‘Come on let’s get this going!’” Lowden said. “He’s 94. He’s up and walking up and down the hall.”
Amazed as he has been at his parishioner’s spirit and strength, Lowden has no doubt of the source.
“It’s the presence of God inside him that’s challenging him to live for Christ,” he said. “That’s why he wanted to be here so bad. He wanted to tell you about Christ even though he needed rest.”
He lifted up Carter during moments of prayer and during his sermon, but made sure to connect personally with the people in the pews.
“The same God that watches President Carter,” he said, “that’s the same God that watches you.”
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