The website for Maranatha Baptist Church said that arriving by 5:30am would likely lead to no trouble in acquiring a seat in a pew of the church for President Carter’s Sunday School. I left Decatur at 2:45 and arrived at 5:25am. Through the darkness I could see that the church was on the edge of town. Plowed fields and trees with dramatic hanging limbs were barely visible without any street lights. George who was bald in a Shaker kind of manner with a straggly ring of hair and beard on his lower jaw line, held a flashlight and wrote 112-with a one tally mark on his envelope. I got the number 112 on a slip of paper that had been passed to others Sundays before. I was pleased with myself for arriving at the designated time but I was taken aback by the number 112. I wanted 33. Something smaller. George said to park behind the utility building. I wanted to do it right- to follow George’s instructions without asking this elderly man dumb questions like other tourists had before me. So I drove past the parked cars of the filled parking lot and down a dirt road and parked alone behind the utility building not sure if I was the only one who had succeeded in following the directions or if I was the only one who was flat wrong. The headlights showed me thick plowed brown dirt like I had never seen before. It was dry but clumpy and deep ridges were freshly dug and upturned. The dirt was pure brown- no red clay and no sandy silt. As I parked heaven appeared in the form of Port a Potties and I waked in the dark and dirt. I expected the dirt to infiltrate my flip flops and annoy the creases between each toe but this dirt stood still as I stepped. No line.
George had told me I could remain in my car until 7:35. I set my alarm and took a solid car nap with a blanket I had intended to drop off at Goodwill and never gotten around to.
At 7:10, I woke up with a start, scared I had missed something and saw the line for the bathroom stretch across the lawn. I changed into my church wear in the car and added a bra. Mine was the only car behind the utility building off the dirt road- it wasn’t much trouble.
Camera phone ready and I was giddy to see in the light what was here to see. George had told me not to bring my purse into the sanctuary- only a phone. The bathroom line was a sea of white women older than me in their Sunday finery. The cars lining the parking lot were interspersed with men sleeping in their drivers seat and people congregating by their bumpers with the car door lifted- a quiet college tail gate before a game. They gave the impression that they had done this before and that they did not have number 112.
Jan, George’s wife announced that she was a fourth grade teacher and she had worked with the Secret Service when Amy was in her class and that we needed to listen. I immediately loved her. Southern accent, commanding voice, no nonsense shoes, short hair cut. She reminded me of my mom or Cathy Lawson and other moms of the 80s- who didn’t know what botox was, could care less about premature gray hair and told their children on Friday afternoons to not come in the house because the moms were doing puzzles, eating Cheezits and drinking wine. We lined up as instructed and I realized I was the 112th car not person. Jan said numbers under 40-50 would get in the pews and the rest of us would be in overflow. Our line wound around the church as the Secret Service “wanded” us. We laid our number in the basket and walked into the overflow room with the accordion doors squeezed shut. The folding chairs were packed in and barely aisles to walk. Jan and George want as many people to get to see Carter as possible.
(There is a part 2 of the my Jimmy Carter Sunday School experience.)
If you feel inspired to visit Maranatha Baptist in Plains, Georgia, here is his current Sunday School schedule for Spring 2019. Good luck and pray for me.
President Carter’s Schedule:
February 3, 17
March 3, 17
On March 17th, it is a special Sunday so many seats
in the Sanctuary will be occupied with reserved seating
April 14, 28