Sunday in Church with Jimmy (Carter)

On Sunday, December 27, 2015 my family and I attended Jimmy Carter’s Sunday school class at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. We were in Atlanta visiting family for Christmas and we traveled from there to nearby Americus the evening before.  The church’s website advises visitors to arrive by 7:30 a.m. to ensure a seat in the sanctuary. Carter’s weekly lesson doesn’t begin until 10:00 a.m. but many people show up wanting to hear him. When we arrived at 7:45 a.m., there were an estimated 75 visitors already in line. Most were white Americans over the age of 50. They traveled to Plains from all over the United States.  However, a few visitors came from faraway countries like India and Sierra Leone.

For years, I had wanted to visit Plains for Jimmy Carter occupies a special place in my heart.  When I was seven-years-old, I wrote to then-president Carter from my dad’s office in Cleveland, Ohio.  In 1991, my dad, sister and I flew home to Atlanta – where we were living at the time – from New York City and Jimmy was on our Delta flight. He sat in first class but walked the aisles and greeted every passenger with a smile and a handshake.  My dad died seven and a half years ago – at the age of 69 – and now, whenever I see Jimmy Carter, I imagine my dad looking like Jimmy if my dad had lived longer.  Like Jimmy, my dad grew up in the south; he too was sensitive, intelligent and caring; a man of integrity.  The urge I have to hug Jimmy Carter and to ask him to adopt me is intense.  Like so many others, I’m also inspired by Carter’s dedication to helping folks who are suffering, notably women and girls.

With all the injustice and inhumanity in this world, including the oppression and despair I feel as a New York City public school teacher, I have been experiencing some form of soul loss.  I needed to be inspired and motivated by someone who keeps going in spite of life’s hardships.  What is Jimmy’s secret? How does he do it?  So I dragged my husband and six-year-old daughter to Plains to find out.

We managed to get seating in a pew towards the back of the sanctuary. But Maranatha Baptist Church is small so there are no bad seats.  It’s also an understated and intimate space.  Jimmy Carter himself crafted the church’s wooden cross and offering plates.  Beginning at 9:00 a.m., Jimmy’s no-nonsense friend and fellow congregant, Ms. Jan, went over the rules concerning photography and how to interact with President Carter.  She told the women to stand next to Jimmy during picture time.  According to Ms. Jan, Carter’s eyes “are good and he likes pretty ladies.” But then she reprimanded women who bring big handbags into the sanctuary, claiming said purses sully the photographs.

In the back of the church, children are welcome to attend Sunday school.  The kind Ms. Betty, another friend of Carter’s, made us feel at home in the nursery, which was full of vintage toys and books.  We chatted about the Plains community and our shared love for Jimmy.  She even showed me the selfie she had taken of herself with Carter.  I felt warm inside, at peace.  It was as if I had traveled back to my childhood and was sitting among Mema, my West Texas grandma, and her friends.  

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Ms. Jan’s DOs and DON’Ts, but mostly DON’Ts. For example, we were told that Jimmy doesn’t want any applause.  Rather, he wants us to apply his lesson to our everyday lives. 

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Uncharacteristically, my daughter was okay with not understanding the children’s Sunday school lesson with Ms. Christine. She didn’t know who any of the Bible characters were so she drew pictures of her cats instead. She now wants to go with our neighbors to Sunday school at a local Catholic church.

At exactly 10:00 a.m., Jimmy walked into the sanctuary with a smile on his face. Tears rolled down my face.  The Sunday before, he learned that his young grandson had died suddenly but Jimmy still managed to deliver his lesson on that day as well as on the 27th.  Jimmy started off by updating us on the good work that The Carter Center is doing (he is a key fundraiser for the organization).  Carter praised Merck , the pharmaceutical giant, for donating medicine to boost The Carter Center’s efforts to eradicate Guinea worm disease.  In his characteristic gentle manner, Jimmy detailed the horrors of this disease for us.  I sat in my pew transfixed, picturing a 30-inches-long worm taking 30 days to exit my body through my genitals.  According to Carter, presently only 14 cases of Guinea worm disease remain in the world.

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Jimmy Carter paced back and forth while delivering his lesson. Due to the current state of his health, he could not stand still for an extended period of time. He was seated during picture time. 

Jimmy then moved onto his Sunday school lesson, which centered on the messages of the five songs sung at Christmastime.  The prophet Isaiah, Jimmy told us, said to Jesus Christ “Go and be a light to ALL nations.” This was revolutionary in that Jesus was instructed to liberate everyone, not just the Hebrews.  To be Christian means to be a little Christ of love, compassion, grace and light.  Jimmy told us that we had the freedom to decide to what extent we wanted to emulate Christ.  Our success should be judged by God, not by humans.

Jimmy then asked if any of us were sinners.  We hesitantly raised our hands.  Jimmy called us a “large but mute crowd” because few people volunteered to answer his questions about the Bible.  Being largely ignorant of Bible stories, I didn’t know any of the answers.

According to Jimmy, another revolutionary idea came from Mary who said that anyone – sinners and common folk alike – could be a key person in the kingdom of God.  He cited Zechariah whose advice was not to worry about your profession.  Instead focus on what kind of person you will be.  “What kind of person am I?” Jimmy encouraged us to ask ourselves.  We should look at ourselves with courage.  What can we do about our flaws? It’s never too late to address our shortcomings; the best way is to copy the perfect life of Christ.  Through peace, humility, justice, compassion and service to others, Jesus Christ has set the standards for human behavior on Earth.  Jimmy’s shared reading with us was Simeon’s Song in Luke 2:25-35.

Afterwards, there was a 10-minute break followed by the 11:00 a.m. morning worship, which was led by guest preacher David Snell, President of The Fuller Center for Housing.  Snell talked about joy as a profound concept; it’s greater than pleasure and happiness, which are temporal. He encouraged us to rethink our new year’s resolutions in order to experience joy.  “Resolve to show an act of love and kindness that support the poor.  Share the gift of time.  Get involved in things that are bigger than we are.” Both Jimmy and Rosalynn attended the 11:00 am service – participating from a front pew – however only Jimmy was present for picture-taking at 12:00.

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I was about Norah’s age when I wrote to Jimmy Carter. I hope that this photograph will help me to raise her as a compassionate and peaceful human being, one who fills the world with light.  May Jimmy Carter’s life inspire her as much as he has inspired me. 

Because I have been suffering at work, I took to heart the message of focusing on what kind of person I want to be as opposed to what kind of profession I wish to have.  The politics, rigidity and ego-driven decisions within the New York City Department of Education fill me with rage and resentment.  As a teacher, I do feel that I am being of service to my students and their families, and as an activist, I am grateful to be involved in initiatives that are greater than myself. But how do I weather the storms of everyday life?  How do I accept a rating of “developing” because, according to someone’s interpretation of the Danielson rubric, the pacing of my lesson was “uneven”?  How do I administer developmentally inappropriate and highly flawed assessments to my English-language learners?  How do I support students who are given boring and uninspiring curriculum?  I’ll start by asking myself everyday What kind of person am I? What kind of person do I wish to be?, and when I falter, I will strive to do the next right thing.  Whether or not that brings me closer to joy, it will hopefully keep me going.

Thank you, Jimmy, for being a great teacher.

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