When as many as 500 visitors burst into applause at the end of Jimmy Carter’s Sunday school class on the first weekend in May, it went against one of the cardinal rules.
But who could blame them? After all, they’d prevailed at that week’s spiritual version of “Survivor,” arriving as early as 5 a.m., and then waiting in the Maranatha Baptist Church parking lot in Plains for hours to pass through a Secret Service checkpoint and claim a seat in Carter’s 10 a.m. class.
Left out in the proverbial southwest Georgia cold: At least 130 disappointed people who’d stuck around even after it became clear there simply was no more space inside — not even in a large “overflow” room.
With summer fast approaching and word continuing to spread that the former president, 93, is cutting back on his teaching schedule, the little church is bracing itself for more such scenes going forward.
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“From here on out, we’re going to be packed,” Brandon Patterson, Maranatha’s energetic young pastor, predicted just before Memorial Day. “We’re working on what we can do about it.”
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Maranatha has 25-30 active members, including Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. Maximum capacity is 550 to 600 people — including visitors it puts in the choir’s seats or in folding chairs in the aisles during peak Sunday school attendance times.
Among the possibilities being discussed, Patterson said, are creating more overflow rooms where people could watch on TVs or even erecting a small building outside for the same purpose.
Carter even brought the subject up at the start of that May 6 class, saying he’d “already apologized” on the way in to some of the people left out. “We’re going to have to do something about the crowds,” he added.
In fact, he and his wife had stopped in the parking lot on the way in to greet a group of more than 50 people who’d traveled up from the Florida Panhandle by bus on Saturday and overnighted in Cordele. They’d arrived at Maranatha around 6:40 a.m. — too late, it turned out, for more than a few members of the group even to make it into the overflow space. Instead, they all stayed outside, and the former first couple took several group photos with them.
That was a one-time thing, done so the group wouldn’t have to pick and choose who got to attend class. But in a way, this influx of visitors is nothing new for Maranatha. Carter has taught Sunday school there since leaving the White House in 1981, and he and his 90-year-old wife still pose for photos with visitors after the 11 a.m. worship service.
“We’ve been here many times before, but she hasn’t,” Sharon Woodall of Columbus, Ga., said as she and her husband, Brad, waited in line with Diane Forney, a friend who was visiting them from Brooklyn, N.Y. “We’ve never not gotten in before.”
Not even a brain cancer diagnosis in August 2015 could deter Carter; indeed, as he cut back on traveling to undergo treatment in Atlanta, he actually started teaching more frequently, including every Sunday in some months. With his cancer in remission, the massive crowds of those initial post-diagnosis weeks had mostly become a more manageable 200 to 300 people on “Jimmy Sundays” (as some Plains residents refer to days he teaches).
But then in January of this year, Carter announced he’d start reducing his teaching load soon. Since April, he’s taught twice a month and currently is scheduled to do so through August. (Because Carter’s busy schedule is subject to change, Maranatha lists his teaching dates only several months ahead on its website and Facebook page. See box.)
Meanwhile, the visitor calculus is much simpler to figure out:
The less he teaches, the more they’ll show up.
“They all say, ‘This has always been on my bucket list, and I don’t want to miss my chance,’” said Jan Williams, a longtime Maranatha member and Carter friend who manages the Sunday school line outside the church with a firm, yet affectionately humorous hand.
On Sunday, May 6, it fell to Williams to deliver the bad news to the large group still waiting outside just past 9 a.m.
“You’re not going to get in. And if you don’t get in, you don’t get a picture,” Williams said, pausing to absorb the groans from people dressed in their Sunday best, some of whom had traveled cross country or even from overseas to be there. And from Brooklyn, in Forney’s case. Williams went on: “Now, does anyone have any sensible suggestions to make to us, because we’re going to be faced with this every Sunday from now on.”
Ask, and ye shall receive. The ideas people called out ranged from installing a loudspeaker outside so future overflow crowds could follow along, to even having Carter teach the class outdoors on Maranatha’s large lawn. Williams listened thoughtfully, then pointed out some drawbacks, including the brutal heat and humidity of a typical South Georgia summer.
“I’ll definitely come back, but with my sleeping bag next time,” Forney half-joked, after Williams finished speaking to the group outside.
Maranatha narrowly avoided a repeat scene on the next Sunday Carter taught, May 20, when everyone managed to squeeze into the sanctuary and overflow room. But with schools out and the summer travel season now underway, many more people likely are Plains-bound.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Patterson said about the influx of church attendees, “but it’s also a problem we’re definitely talking about and taking seriously.”
Still, one possible solution’s not even up for discussion at Maranatha.
“The class will always be free, period,” Patterson declared firmly. “No matter what, you will never have to pay to come.”
PRESIDENT CARTER’S SUNDAY SCHOOL
Former President Jimmy Carter is currently scheduled to teach Sunday school on the following dates: June 10 and 24; July 8 and 22; Aug. 5 and 19 (schedule is tentative and subject to change). Class begins at 10 a.m., although doors open for seating at 8:30 a.m. and visitors are advised to arrive earlier to secure a spot. Maranatha Baptist Church, 148 Ga. 45, Plains. 229-824-7896, www.mbcplains.org (site is currently down for maintenance, but is expected to be functioning again soon). Maranatha’s Facebook page also contains regular updates on Carter’s Sunday school teaching schedule.