The pilgrims arrive early and from all over, gathering hours before daybreak in an old pecan grove that surrounds a country church. They come, they say, for a dose of simple decency and devotion wrapped up in a Bible lesson.

The teacher is the 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter.

Nearly four decades after he left office and despite a body that’s failing after 95 years, the nation’s oldest-ever ex-president still teaches Sunday school roughly twice a month at Maranatha Baptist Church in his tiny hometown of Plains in southwest Georgia. His message is unfailingly about Jesus, not himself.

In this Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, photo, the sun breaks the horizon as guests begin lining up to attend Sunday school class being taught by former President Jimmy Carter at Maranatha Baptist Church, in Plains, Ga. Guests begin arriving before dawn, some even the day before, spending the night in the parking lot, with hopes of attending the class. (AP Photo/John Amis)
In this Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, photo, the sun breaks the horizon as guests begin lining up to attend Sunday school class being taught by former President Jimmy Carter at Maranatha Baptist Church, in Plains, Ga. Guests begin arriving before dawn, some even the day before, spending the night in the parking lot, with hopes of attending the class. (AP Photo/John Amis)

The church has only 30 or so members, but as many as 450 people attend any week Carter teaches. About 200 people fill the sanctuary, with pale-green walls and stained glass windows, and others gather in side rooms where the lesson is shown on TVs.

It’s nearly impossible to separate even an ex-president from politics, and some come because they’re Democrats who recall voting for Carter when he was elected in 1976. Almost uniformly, they’re dismayed by the tone of President Donald Trump and his Republican administration.

But Trump has only been in office since 2017 and Carter has been drawing crowds for years. Those who attended Carter’s most recent lesson on Nov. 3 said they just wanted to be in the presence of someone who seems kind, humble and godly despite having been a world leader.

In this Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, photo, Plains Mayor Boze Godwin directs cars into a pecan grove to park behind Maranatha Baptist Church before dawn, in Plains, Ga. Guests begin arriving the day before to attend the Sunday school class that former President Jimmy Carter teaches. (AP Photo/John Amis)
In this Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, photo, Plains Mayor Boze Godwin directs cars into a pecan grove to park behind Maranatha Baptist Church before dawn, in Plains, Ga. Guests begin arriving the day before to attend the Sunday school class that former President Jimmy Carter teaches. (AP Photo/John Amis)

“He’s a role model and an inspiration for both of us both in public service and in faith,” said visitor Doug Kluth. He and his wife Ramona drove 2,400 miles (3,862 kilometers) round trip from their home in Columbus, Nebraska, to see Carter in person.

John and Sarah Dyer packed their four daughters, ages 2 through 12, into their Honda Pilot for the 1,700-mile (2,736-kilometer) round trip to Plains from suburban Chicago.

“To see a man who was once on top of the world choose to spend his twilight years lifting the world higher was inspirational to my family and I,” John Dyer wrote to the church’s pastor in a letter shared with The Associated Press.

In this Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, photo, Sarah Dyer, of Chicago, takes a photo of her daughters in the parking lot of Maranatha Baptist Church, before attending Sunday school taught by former President Jimmy Carter, in Plains, Ga. The Dyer family of six drove from Chicago listening to audio books by Carter along the way with hopes of attending the class that people began arriving for the day before with the same hopes. (AP Photo/John Amis)
In this Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, photo, Sarah Dyer, of Chicago, takes a photo of her daughters in the parking lot of Maranatha Baptist Church, before attending Sunday school taught by former President Jimmy Carter, in Plains, Ga. The Dyer family of six drove from Chicago listening to audio books by Carter along the way with hopes of attending the class that people began arriving for the day before with the same hopes. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Carter faced mockery for his Southern Baptist faith in 1976 when he said in a Playboy magazine interview that he was guilty of adultery in his heart because he lusted after women. The soul-baring sentiment paralleled Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, but it came across as odd and narrow-minded to many.

These days, with a twice-divorced president who curses in public and once said he’d never asked God for forgiveness, Carter’s approach to life — with his wife of 73 years, Rosalynn, by his side — seems especially appealing to fans.

They say they admire Carter’s work to eradicate disease and monitor elections worldwide; the time he has spent helping build homes as a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity; and his advocacy for food programs and rural health care in his home county. Many were touched by photos of a bruised-but-smiling Carter performing volunteer work after he fell and hit his head in October.

In this Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, photo, people wait in line to attend Sunday school being taught by former President Jimmy Carter at Maranatha Baptist Church, in Plains, Ga. Carter can still draw a crowd, and he does each time he teaches Sunday school in his hometown of Plains. (AP Photo/John Amis)
In this Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, photo, people wait in line to attend Sunday school being taught by former President Jimmy Carter at Maranatha Baptist Church, in Plains, Ga. Carter can still draw a crowd, and he does each time he teaches Sunday school in his hometown of Plains. (AP Photo/John Amis)

So they flock to Plains any week Maranatha Baptist posts on its website or Facebook page that Carter plans to teach.

Fray and Susan Carter of Russellville, Alabama, slept overnight in their car in the church parking lot to get a front-row view as Carter taught on his first Sunday back after falling and breaking his pelvis in October.

As recently as last year Carter would stand during his 45-minute lesson, but he now uses an electric lift chair at the front of the sanctuary as a concession to age. He breaks into that familiar smile when he raises the seat so he can see the crowd over a wooden lectern. A cross made by Carter, a longtime woodworker, adorns the choir loft. He also made the wooden offering plates, which bear his initials on the bottom.

In this Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, photo, Tammy Bailey wears a message on her shirt as she waits in line to attend former President Jimmy Carter's Sunday school class at Maranatha Baptist Church, in Plains, Ga. (AP Photo/John Amis)
In this Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, photo, Tammy Bailey wears a message on her shirt as she waits in line to attend former President Jimmy Carter’s Sunday school class at Maranatha Baptist Church, in Plains, Ga. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Carter’s lesson this day was on his belief in life after death. He ended the same way he always does, by challenging class members to do one nice thing for somebody over the next month.

“That’s what I think would make America a better country. It would make you a better person, right? And a better Christian,” Carter said. “Well, that’s the essence of my Sunday school lesson. Not anything fancy to it. Just some personal things to think about.”

Visitors that day included people from multiple U.S. states plus Venezuela and Ecuador. Rarely a week goes by without someone from overseas in the crowd, said the Rev. Tony Lowden, Carter’s pastor.

In this Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, photo, a crowd waits in line to attend Sunday school being taught by former President Jimmy Carter at Maranatha Baptist Church, in Plains, Ga. Carter can still draw a crowd, and he does each time he teaches Sunday school in his hometown of Plains. (AP Photo/John Amis)
In this Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, photo, a crowd waits in line to attend Sunday school being taught by former President Jimmy Carter at Maranatha Baptist Church, in Plains, Ga. Carter can still draw a crowd, and he does each time he teaches Sunday school in his hometown of Plains. (AP Photo/John Amis)

The church was formed in 1977 from a split when another church refused to accept blacks as members. Lowden was hired in March as Maranatha’s first black pastor. On any given Sunday, Lowden said, the congregation is a “mix of everything.”

“It’s a melting pot of people who are looking for faith and looking for something that they can believe in,” Lowden said. After a cancer diagnosis in 2015 and three falls this year, it’s unclear how much longer Carter can continue to teach, but Lowden said he’s welcome as long as he’s able.

The crowd on the first Sunday in November included Chet Mulholland, an evangelical Christian from Wisconsin, and Joey and Sabrina Fretwell, faithful churchgoers from conservative Mississippi in the heart of the Deep South. The couple’s daughter attended a Trump rally in Tupelo, Mississippi, just two days before they drove to Plains to see Carter.

In this Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, photo, former President Jimmy Carter, second from right, and former first lady Rosalynn Carter sit, as guests Romona Kluth, left, and husband Doug Kluth, from Nebraska, finish their turn of having their photo made with them, after Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church, in Plains, Ga. (AP Photo/John Amis)
In this Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, photo, former President Jimmy Carter, second from right, and former first lady Rosalynn Carter sit, as guests Romona Kluth, left, and husband Doug Kluth, from Nebraska, finish their turn of having their photo made with them, after Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church, in Plains, Ga. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Sabrina Fretwell, 46, doesn’t really remember Carter’s presidency, but she recalls hours spent listening to her grandparents talk about Carter when she was a girl. That’s one reason she wanted to see the former president, she said, to somehow honor that time.

“I remember that warm feeling of sitting and listening to their conversations, and not being old enough to grab what they were talking about but knowing it was still important to them and knowing they admired the things he was doing,” she said.

___

Former President Jimmy Carter can still draw a crowd, and he does each time he teaches Sunday school in his hometown of Plains, Georgia. (Nov. 11)
Former President Jimmy Carter can still draw a crowd, and he does each time he teaches Sunday school in his hometown of Plains, Georgia. (Nov. 11)

Tags: Categories: U.S.