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The essence of power is a towel

President Jimmy Carter (right) and wife Rosalynn sit in the sanctuary at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga. Cory Vaillancourt photo President Jimmy Carter (right) and wife Rosalynn sit in the sanctuary at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga. Cory Vaillancourt photo

There, in Sumter County, Georgia, not far from the Alabama line lies the tiny town of Plains (pop. 784), a most unremarkable place home to a most remarkable man. 

Home for President Jimmy Carter has always been the clay roads and cotton fields of Plains, except when he was at Annapolis, in the Navy, or serving as state senator or governor or president. 

Once that was all over with, Carter returned to a rather Rockwellian existence in peanut-crazy Plains, but for decades of nonprofit work and occasional outings in North Korea, Sudan and Syria — efforts in furtherance of world peace that would earn him a Nobel Peace prize in 2002.

At 94, he’s been called the only man to use the presidency as a steppingstone to greatness, but Carter’s near-half century influence on global affairs might not be the most substantial way he’s achieved that reputation.

For more than 35 years, he’s taught Sunday school at the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, where he and his wife of 72 years Rosalynn still live. Free and open to the public, first-come first-served, non-denominational and non-political, Carter’s classes are a unique, intimate and interactive 45-minute peek beneath the surface of the spiritual soil from which sprouted one of recent history’s most powerful proponents of unity.

Southwest of Macon the Saturday after Thanksgiving, as sun dogs spotted warm hazy skies, I drove right by Andersonville, where more than 13,000 Union troops still lie skeletonized in a camp constructed by Confederates who couldn’t even feed themselves, much less their prisoners of war. It is perhaps the most profound American symbol of the politics of division and just 25 miles north of Plains. 

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Maranatha’s website says people begin lining up for the 10 a.m. class before 5:30, and with a capacity of only 475, people have been turned away, so a stay in nearby Americus made the 3:45 wake up call slightly more tolerable. 

After my 15-minute drive through fog thick as a fever dream, a man with a flashlight guided me into a spot in the lot at Maranatha. I was car number 21 and person number 36 at 4:26 a.m. 

By 5:15, 40 cars and 80 people were there. The first had arrived a bit after midnight. The furthest had come from the Netherlands. Number 23, two after me, had come walking up out of the mist in a black suit and tie with only his Bible in his hand. He sat in George’s truck — the man with the flashlight — while parked next to him I curled up on the front seat of mine with a seatbelt buckle in my side and rest elusive. 

At 7:45 a.m. Miss Jan, the man with the flashlight’s wife, did us the do’s and don’ts before Secret Service screening. We were then seated by George in the sanctuary in order, but for the guy with the Bible, who was escorted to the front row by Miss Jan, a former teacher with a no-nonsense proficiency in shepherding hundreds of people a month into and out of what she called “the most secure church in the country.”

Maranatha, started in 1981 because Carter’s previous church had voted not to allow black worshippers, has about 42 members, 16 of whom had shown up last week when Carter wasn’t teaching. There was also one guest. 

This week, the 350-seat sanctuary was nearly full.

Further instructions were given, during which Miss Jan asked if anyone was driving through Atlanta after the service. I got up from my pew and walked to the front row where she asked me to take the guy with the Bible, Caleb McSwain, back to Atlanta. I said I would, gave him my card, and sat back down just before Carter came in and began to speak on the Book of Ruth.

In it is described Boaz, a prosperous Bethlehem landowner who took notice of the dire plight of his steadfast familial relation Naomi’s widowed daughter-in-law, after whom the book is named. 

From his own largesse, Boaz sustains and protects Ruth and even ends up marrying her. The story is looked upon as one of compassion, kindness and service as much as one about loyalty, obligation and responsibility. 

“It shows that when you have a duty to perform like Boaz had, and if you have an opportunity to form a better relationship or take care of someone, you should do it,” said Carter. 

Boaz is an exemplar of humankind’s since-distorted paradigm of what power is and what power does, and as such can be viewed as a minor analogue to Christ. 

“How did Jesus demonstrate power?” Carter asked. “What are two of the symbols that you think about when you think about Jesus?”

The consensus of the crowd was the cross — just like the one cast against the deep red curtains on the wall behind Carter that the avid woodworker made with his own hands. 

“Is the cross a symbol of power? It’s a symbol of commitment and sacrifice for others,” he said. “What’s another even more simple symbol that Jesus used to demonstrate what the essence of power should be?”

Again the crowd responded but this time with less agreement; of all the symbolism associated with Christ, our modern notions of power in the form of gregarious greed and derisive discrimination are nonexistent. 

“I’d say a towel,” Carter explained. “Sometimes the very simple things like washing somebody else’s feet can be a good demonstration of what is power or influence, which comes under the heading of service.”

More than perhaps any president since George Washington, Jimmy Carter embodies the public service ethos of American self-rule — do your job as best you can in the public sphere, and then go home and do as best you can as a private citizen. 

But the two had starkly different approaches. 

Washington had, after two terms as the United States’ first president, declined to run for a third. Long leery of establishing an American aristocracy like the British one he’d first rejected and then helped overthrow, he retired to his sprawling Mount Vernon plantation in 1797 with the thought that his private successes would be to the public benefit. 

Calls to return to power, like that from Jonathan Trumbull, Jr., who was the second Speaker of the House of Representatives and briefly a senator from Connecticut, were rebuffed by Washington. At the time of Trumbull’s June 22, 1799, letter to Washington, Trumbull was just beginning his two-decade stint as the state’s governor. 

“You may perhaps recollect, my dear sir, that in some conversation of mine with you on the event of your resignation of the presidency, or in some letter written to you on that subject, I expressed to you my wish that no untoward events might take place which should once more draw you from your beloved solitude and retirement, and force you again to assume the cares of government,” Trumbull wrote, in asking Washington to run for president again in 1801. “… [but] unless some eminently prominent character shall be brought up to view on the occasion, the next election of president I fear will have a very ill-fated issue.”

Washington told Trumbull via letter a month later that he was presently less inclined to do so than he was in 1797.

“At that time, the line between parties was not so clearly drawn and the views of the opposition [weren’t] so clearly developed as they are at present; of course, allowing your observation (as it respects myself) to be founded, personal influence would be of no avail,” he said of political divisions so deeply and quickly rooted in a young nation that the party was now more important than the candidate. “Let that party set up a broomstick, and call it a true son of liberty, a Democrat, or give it any other epithet that will suit their purpose and it will command their votes in toto!”

 

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The boyhood farm of President Carter is now a National Historic Site. Lilly Knoepp photo

 

Although Carter didn’t willingly cede power as Washington did — Carter lost the 1980 presidential election to Ronald Reagan by an electoral tally of 489 to 49 — he’s yet to throw in the towel. 

Since 1982, the Atlanta-based Carter Center has been a powerful advocate for democracy and human rights both at home and abroad with well-funded programming aimed at eradicating disease, mediating conflict, promoting agriculture and developing public health initiatives. It employs almost 200 in more than a dozen countries, but has worked in at least 75. 

Around that same time, Carter began a highly visible association with Habitat for Humanity, and was known to swing a hammer on the job site from time to time. His hands-on approach to service means it’s no surprise that this was Carter’s 807th Sunday school lesson at Maranatha since he began teaching there in 1981. 

“Suppose I tell you we can make our country be a better country by helping one person,” he told the crowd, still rapt with attention. “Would you argue with that?”

No, we told him.

“So every one of you who thought a few minutes ago about Naomi’s relationship, just suppose that you really concentrate on having one person who is in the forefront of your thought when you leave here today. When you go back home, pick out one person — who may be with you today — and just try to concentrate the best you can to be a good friend with that person,” he replied. “Is that difficult?”

No, we told him.

“If everybody in America did that, would we not have a better country?”

We would, we told him. 

“Do you have any objection to you starting it off?”

Leaving Plains with McSwain, I learned he was an auto parts inspector from Lincolnton, North Carolina, and Saturday night had taken an Uber 40 miles to Charlotte for $42 from whence he took a bus to Atlanta for $32 before another Uber took him at 1:30 a.m. Sunday through150 miles of very low visibility to Plains for $142. 

“About 30 minutes outside Atlanta, we passed more deer than cars, and I knew I was going to be in trouble,” he said of his tenuous plan to Uber back to the bus station there from Plains after Carter’s lesson. 

As we put the miles behind us, McSwain revealed himself to be an avid history buff, which he admitted was part of the reason he’d traveled so far and at such expense to visit Maranatha. The other reason was his Bible, clad in a grey shopping bag during his trip so it wouldn’t get wet. 

“I think it was really cool to see [Carter] in a church atmosphere, a Sunday school atmosphere,” said McSwain, a member of the Church of God. “There’s not really any other former presidents doing anything like that — teaching Sunday school — so that was another big draw for me, to see what he has to say from a religious standpoint, to see if I would learn anything.”

During our three-hour drive three days after Thanksgiving we dissected Carter’s lesson on power six ways to Sunday, but one point still seemed to linger like the bumper-to-bumper traffic up Interstate 75 just south of Macon. 

“Another thing that God gave every one of us is a chance to answer the question, maybe 100 times a day when we make decisions, is ‘What kind of person do I want to be?’” Carter told us hours earlier. “Do I want to be generous or stingy? Do I want to tell lies or do I always want to tell the truth? Do I want to hold grudges against other people or do I want to be forgiving? Do I want to be filled with love, or hatred? Nobody — your husband or wife, nor your children nor your parents — can answer that question for you. Just you can answer it.”

As McSwain and I parted ways at the MARTA station outside Decatur, he’d offered me $50. I told him to give five bucks to the first 10 people who asked him and that being as we were at a MARTA station outside Decatur, it wouldn’t take him long. 

“I think it’s important to be unified and treat everybody with respect whether or not you agree with their political opinion,” said the 21 year-old registered Republican who voted for Donald Trump. “Treat them as your brother, or yourself — better than yourself, really.”

President Carter next appears at Maranatha this Sunday, Dec. 2. For more information on Carter’s Sunday school, visit www.mbcplains.org

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