Sunday school with the peanut farmer

James Phillips
Posted 6/11/17

Located in southwest Georgia among the pine trees, peanut fields, magnolias and gnats is Plains, Ga., a small town with a population of nearly 700.

Did I mention the gnats? I will elaborate more on those boogers later.

The mention of Plains …

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Sunday school with the peanut farmer


Located in southwest Georgia among the pine trees, peanut fields, magnolias and gnats is Plains, Ga., a small town with a population of nearly 700.

Did I mention the gnats? I will elaborate more on those boogers later.

The mention of Plains typically conjures up one particular name — Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States of America. The little town is best known as Carter’s hometown, and the former president still lives there today.

One week ago today, I was in Plains, waiting that humid Sunday morning to enter a tiny church to witness something that thousands of people flock to that tiny town to see a few times per month — the former president teaching a Sunday school class.

For quite some time, I have wanted to make this pilgrimage to Plains. Carter has long been an inspiration to me, believing him to be an outstanding example of a follower of Jesus.

Our morning in southern Georgia started out very early. The Sunday school class starts at 10 a.m., but many people who had made the trip in the past had told me that we needed to be at the church by 7 a.m. to assure ourselves of a seat in the sanctuary. After staying the night before at the historic Windsor Hotel in Americus, Ga., Andrea and I set an early alarm and were able to pull into the church parking lot at 7:05.

And that’s when we met the gnats.

About 30 seconds after exiting our vehicle, my body was covered in the tiny insects. Luckily, the gnats didn’t bite, but they were pests, constantly hovering around, flying into my ears and landing anywhere there was exposed skin.

I forgot to mention that the door of the church didn’t open until 8, so we would be standing in the gnats for nearly an hour.

During our time in line, we noticed the gnats seemed particularly fond of male humans. Most of the men were being swarmed while the ladies only had a few flying around their faces. As we talked to a family from Iran who was waiting in line behind us, the idea was brought up that it could be perfume that was keeping the gnats from the women. That sweet family had a bottle of lotion with the fragrance of gardenia and offered me some to see if it would ease the flying fury. The man in their group rubbed his face and neck in the lotion and the gnats flew away. I wasted no time in accepting the offer to borrow the lotion for myself. I may have smelled like a gardenia bush but the gnats were gone — at least for a while. The bugs did come back later in our wait when the fragrance had become much weaker.

As we waited in line, we had the opportunity to meet some great people.

For a few minutes, a light rain came over the area, and a nice couple from Auburn let us borrow an umbrella, even after I admitted that I cheered for the Crimson Tide. It was their fourth time to visit the church.

Directly in front of us in line was a lady who now lives in Birmingham, but for years had worked as a journalist in Mobile and Florence. She had covered Carter when he initially ran for president, showing us an old photo of her with the then-candidate.

As people were starting to be allowed into the church building, we were informed that we might not make it into the building.

We just happened to pick the 40th anniversary of the church as our day to visit. About 160 seats were being saved for charter members of the church and their families, so a fewer number of visitors were going to make it into the church on this particular day.

Security at Maranatha Baptist Church is strong. Secret Service members walk the grounds of the church and a bomb-sniffing dog also makes his rounds outside the building. We made it into the church, but not before a good frisking by security.

While we made it into the church, we did not make it into the sanctuary. We were in a group of 100 or so people in the church’s fellowship hall, which serves as an overflow room. We would be watching the Sunday school lesson and church service via a television. We were assured that we would still have a chance to meet the former president.

When Carter walked into the church, he immediately came to the overflow room to great our group before going into the sanctuary. He stayed for several minutes as organizers shuffled some of our group into the church because many of the expected guests had not come for the church’s anniversary service. He asked many of us where we were visiting from, and he also asked the group to remember in prayer a close family friend who had lost a child that week.

The 92-year-old former president teaches his Sunday school class about three Sundays per month. On our visit, he was starting a new series on the Holy Spirit. The lesson for the day was titled, “The Spirit in Creation,” with Carter citing scripture from Genesis and Job. The central message was recognizing the Spirit’s presence in others.

After he finished his lesson, church members asked if some of the guests who had been in the sanctuary during Sunday school would mind swapping with some of us who had remained in the overflow room. Andrea and I were then moved to the sanctuary, sitting directly four rows behind Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter.

The service was similar to others across the South. We sang familiar songs such as “They Will Know We Are Christians by our Love” and “Victory in Jesus.” A former pastor of the church, who I later found out shares a mutual friend with me, delivered the message, urging the church to celebrate the love it has shown to the Plains community and visitors from around the globe for over last 40 years.

After the service ended, we were allowed a few moments to greet the former president and have our picture taken with him. As I waited in line, I tried to think of something profound that I could say to not only a former president, but to someone who I have admired for most of my life.

Andrea and I greeted “Jimmy,” which he said was fine for us friends to call him. We smiled for a photo. He thanked us for visiting that day, and I said, “Thank you Jimmy for your inspiration and your example.” He smiled and said, “thank you.”

Our trip to Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., is something that I hope to never forget. Every person we encountered was friendly and welcoming. It is easy to discern the spirit that resides in a group of people. The spirit among these folks was loving, kind and hospitable.

Thanks again to Jimmy for his inspiration and example.

James Phillips is editor and publisher of the Daily Mountain Eagle. He may be reached at 205-221-2840 or