The sun is not yet up over Maranatha Baptist Church, a little red brick building in a south Georgia pecan grove, and already the line to get in wraps around the sanctuary. Some near the front of the line slept on the church porch, or even in their cars.
The crowd consists of the faithful and the curious alike: They’ve gathered here this Sunday to try to catch the Sunday school teachings of former President Jimmy Carter.
The church, located in Plains, Ga., is Carter’s home church. The former president recently announced he was diagnosed with cancer – melanoma, which has spread to his brain. But he has made it clear that he won’t give up his regular teaching at Maranatha Baptist.
Jane Gurley, who came Saturday from Hendersonville, N.C., says she plans to take notes in her Bible.
“Just regular Sunday school, that’s what this is to me,” she says. “Just happens to be a different teacher. A mighty fine teacher.”
Gurley says hearing Carter’s take on the gospel is one of those things she’s always intended to do but has never done. She isn’t alone.
Once many years ago, Maranatha Baptist tried to seat everyone on one of Carter’s teaching days. The sanctuary swelled to almost 900 people, which pushed the limits of the law, so the church said never again. Today, space is at a minimum.
Mildred Calhoun of Jacksonville, Fla., came with her husband and their 10-year-old grandson. She’s at peace with the idea they might not get in.
“It’s God’s will,” she says. “We prayed about it and if we don’t get in, it’s still OK.”
Denice Gamper came from Brooklyn, N.Y. For her, this is a chance to see a living president she ranks among the greats.
“He’s like my favorite,” she says. “It goes FDR, Jimmy Carter, Abraham Lincoln.”
As it gets closer to the time for church to start, the staff do their best to fit as many people as possible.
Still, about 200 people are left outside. As the crowd watches Carter’s wife Rosalynn enter the church, he slips in on the other side of the sanctuary. He asks where everyone is from, and attendees speak up with the names of their states.
Then, after briefly describing how his cancer will be treated, Carter gets right to it, teaching straight from the heart of his Christian faith.
He reads from the book of Matthew: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
After the lesson, Carter heads to the old schoolhouse in town to meet those who didn’t make it into the church.
Even there, a handful of people are locked out. Colby and Larry Sparkman of Hattiesburg, Miss., say now just a glimpse of President Carter would be fine.
“Hopefully the girls can wave at him,” she says.
“And we’ll try to come back, maybe in a month or so, and try this again,” he says.
They’re right to plan ahead. Carter has another Sunday school session on the calendar in a few weeks.