PLAINS, Ga.—The early risers who managed to get to the front of the line on this dark and unseasonably cold Sunday morning in southern Georgia are the lucky ones. They will have the opportunity to warm up while sitting in the sanctuary of Maranatha Baptist Church on the outskirts of Plains.
This is the church where former President Jimmy Carter has been praying and teaching for decades, and he attracts the faithful and the curious from down the street and around the world.
Those who arrived late will have to take a seat in the church’s overflow room and watch the morning’s main attraction from a live video feed.
While those in the sanctuary wait a few hours once they’re in—and get a healthy dose of advance preparation with strict rules explained by church officials in the meantime—they are about to participate in a unique opportunity. And if the rules are followed, will get to have a picture that will forever commemorate the occasion.
“Good morning everybody!” Carter calls out as he takes his place behind the church podium. Clearly, it’s been a long morning for some in the congregation who don’t respond with quite the enthusiasm he’s expecting.
“I said good morning everybody!” This time a bit louder, and this time with the crowd in unison, cheerfully responding.
It is a familiar ritual for Carter, or Mr. Jimmy, to those who belong to his church and those who know him well, who has led religious lessons in some form or another since he was 18 years old. Now at 94, instead of weekly sessions each Sunday he is home in Plains, he teaches from the podium at church about twice a month. And, instead of standing for the entire 45-minute lesson, he sits on a custom built, hydraulically operated chair that elevates him above the crowd so everyone can see.
After a few minutes spent learning the names of the hometowns and countries of the hundreds of visitors packed into Maranatha Baptist Church this particular week, Carter gets down to the business of spreading the word of God, reciting and exploring passages from the Bible to both believers and nonbelievers alike, while connecting them to experiences in his own long and interesting life.
While his week in Plains began like many others since leaving the White House in 1981, it ends with the 39th president reaching a historic milestone in American history. On March 22, 2019, Carter became the longest living former U.S. president, surpassing President George H.W. Bush who reached the age of 94 years and 171 days before his death Nov. 30, 2018.
Now in the record books, Carter is on a short list of nonagenarian former presidents that includes founding father John Adams, who died on July 4, 1826, the exact date of the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Declaration of Independence from British rule. Adams was 90 years and 247 days old, an age not surpassed until Ronald Reagan broke the record in 2002.
For all of the historic overtones, it is a milestone many thought the one-time peanut farmer from Georgia would not live to see.
In an emotional and heartfelt press conference Aug. 20, 2015, Carter told the world he had cancer—melanoma—that had spread to his brain and liver.
“I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes,” he told the assembled media at the Carter Center in Atlanta, a week after surgery to remove tumors from his liver. “I’m ready for anything and looking forward to a new adventure.”
That “adventure” included an aggressive treatment plan of targeted radiation and immunotherapy. Four months later, Carter surprised visitors to his weekly Sunday School lesson in Plains with news that it appeared his cancer was gone.
“My most recent MRI brain scan did not reveal any signs of the original cancer spots nor any new ones,” Carter said in a separate announcement released through the Carter Center in December 2015.
WATCH: The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plains
One more wish
Today, Carter continues the longest post-White House career of any former president, a record set in 2012 surpassing Herbert Hoover.
Carter, who turns 95 in October, and his wife, Rosalynn, who turns 92 in August, continue to participate in their well-known, annual weeklong “Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project” with Habitat for Humanity, building houses around the world for those in need, most recently in South Bend, Indiana.
And Politico.com reports the former president who negotiated the 1978 Camp David Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel has told Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat, that he is willing to travel to North Korea to speak with Kim Jong Un and restart stalled efforts at nuclear talks.
Even so, both Carter and his wife have scaled back their once routinely busy schedules traveling the world “waging peace, building hope, and fighting disease” supporting various initiatives with their global nonprofit Carter Center.
But there is still one more milestone the former president wishes to reach.
“I would like to see Guinea worm completely eradicated before I die,” he explained during his 2015 press conference.
Eradication of the parasite, which grows in the human body and creates intense pain when it emerges, has been a signature project of the Carter Center’s health programs since the 1980s, when there were more than 3 million cases of infection in 21 countries in Africa and Asia.
In January, the Carter Center reported there are now less than 30 cases in three countries.