Community speaks on Jimmy Carter’s legacy

“If you were his friend, you were so blessed”
Community speaks on Jimmy Carter’s legacy
Published: Feb. 19, 2023 at 9:50 PM EST
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - On one of the only roads into and out of Plains – a stone’s throw from the town center – Maranatha Baptist Church sits unassumingly in a field of green grass and pecan trees.

It’s easy to miss, except, that is, on Sunday mornings when Jimmy Carter was behind the pulpit. His famous Sunday School lessons drew crowds of hundreds, eagerly waiting for their chance to get inside and hear the 39th president deliver his famous mini-lectures on scripture and life.

Not all of them did.

RELATED: ‘Forever by your side’ | Secret Service’s heart-wrenching message to Jimmy Carter.

Each week, the little church was stuffed from wall to wall with people who came from far and wide, even some who crossed oceans, to come to Maranatha.

On this particular Sunday morning – the first since news of Carter’s declining health, Zac Steele, a deacon, is the first person to arrive.

“He’s a president, but to me, he’s a friend,” said Steele to the cameras crowded around. “And to a lot of us here, he’s just a fellow churchgoer that sits on the same pews.”

Although he’s known to most of the world as President Carter, that’s the one name you’ll never hear people in Plains call the 98-year-old. Especially not at Maranatha Baptist Church.

“Mr. Jimmy, J.C., deacon, we’ve got a long list of nicknames for him,” said Steele. “He’s the bedrock of the character here and he’s taught a lot of us to be better people.”

As the sun rises and the cool early-morning dampness gives way to heat, more people start to arrive. One of them is Jan Williams. For years, she wrangled the throngs of Sunday School hopefuls that descended on the tiny town to hear President Carter speak, like a South Georgia St. Peter.

She knows the Carters as well as anyone; Williams followed the Carters to Washington, D.C. as first-daughter Amy Carter’s teacher. If Jimmy Carter was at Maranatha, Williams was typically close by.

“There’s nothing bad about the man that I could ever say,” she said. “He cared about the people of Plains tremendously. He cares about the whole world.”

In contrast to many of his predecessors, the bulk of Carter’s legacy was cemented after his time in the Oval Office. He won a Nobel Prize for his efforts trying to secure peace in the Middle East region. He helped hammer and nail together hundreds of homes through his work with Habitat for Humanity, and he spread his message of goodwill and perseverance through his services at Maranatha for decades.

Inside the church, Carter’s mark is everywhere. Williams shows off the artifacts he brought back from near and far: a piece from Dallas and one gifted to Carter from the then-leader of the biblical city of Bethlehem.

The table they sit on was hand-carved by Carter himself, as were the tithing bowls and the very cross that hangs behind the altar. Not much has changed since Carter started going to church here, Williams points out. The same carpet, the same walls, the same Jimmy Carter.

“If you were his friend, you were so blessed,” she said. “If he was your friend, it was a greater blessing.”

At the outset of Sunday’s services, Maranatha played a recording of Carter that echoed through the chapel before an organ breaks into a rendition of America the Beautiful.

The future of Maranatha – so indelibly tied to Carter and his legacy – is uncertain without the former president in the world. Once a congregation of a few hundred, since Carter’s Sunday School lessons dropped in frequency, it’s dwindled to a few dozen.

“That’s a very tough question is what’s going to happen to my church,” said Williams. “Today, we might have a few more members here, but usually it’s less than 25.”

Without a doubt though, Williams and worshipers who joined Carter in his faith at Maranatha know that the church will always be his home.

“This man may be living this world, but he has a wonderful place he’s going to,” said Williams, “and we all should want to be there with him one day.”