Tourists en route to Plains, Ga., on State Highway 41 are often surprised to see former President Jimmy Carter mowing the lawn or gathering fallen pecan limbs at the Maranatha Baptist Church, a contingent of Secret Service agents nearby. Inside, Rosalyn Carter is doing janitorial duty.
The Carters fulfill these duties about six times each year, taking their turn just like other church members do.
Carter, a lifelong Baptist, joined Maranatha after leaving the White House. The church was founded as an inclusive congregation welcoming people of all races.
Carter, 79, is a deacon at Maranatha, but his most visible service to his church is teaching the adult Bible-study class on Sunday mornings. He does so about 75 percent of the time according to Pastor Dan Ariail. The church’s Web site announces these Sundays, and there most often is an overflow crowd.
Ariail has been Maranatha’s pastor for 21 years. He earned his D.Min. at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., completing his dissertation on the challenges of ministering in a tourist area.
“We registered 10,784 visitors in 2002,” Ariail said. “We had guests from most states and 23 foreign countries. Ours is a unique ministry.”
Visitors are told to arrive at least one hour early in order to get a seat. On the recent September weekend of Plains’ “Peanut Festival,” visitors began to arrive two hours early. A number of tour buses brought senior adult groups to the church hoping to be part of the president’s class.
The church’s auditorium seats approximately 300, though several pews are reserved for the church’s members. An overflow room with a video monitor seats another 150. Sometimes visitors have to be turned away.
Those fortunate enough to get in are first screened by agents at the door. A bomb-sniffing canine paces nearby.
Ariail greets the visitors, gives instructions and takes a few questions before Carter arrives. He explains that the president does not sign autographs at the church, but will remain after morning worship for photos with individuals and groups.
The president normally begins his remarks with a line guaranteed to bring a laugh: “Do we have any visitors today?” Visitors call out their states or countries. Then Carter asks if ministers or missionaries are present, enlisting one of them to begin the class with prayer.
Before the Bible lesson, Carter talks for a few minutes about what projects he and Mrs. Carter have been doing recently.
But when the lesson begins, the former president is strictly business. He uses few notes, and comments on the Scripture with familiarity and reverence. He talks frankly about the demands of discipleship and the value of a life of humble service.
Dale Lopus, a retired American history teacher from Romeo, Mich., attended the “Peanut Festival” and Sunday school at Maranatha with his wife, Judy. “Carter practices what he preaches,” Lopus said. “He’s set the ‘gold standard’ for public service in his post-presidency.”
Former White House press secretary Jody Powell agreed. “If he hadn’t been president, his reach would be shorter and his resources less, but Jimmy Carter would still be working to make a piece of the world better and to lighten the load of others,” Powell said.
Michael J. Brooks is associate professor of communications and assistant to the president for public relations at Judson College in Marion, Ala.