“Take a right, then a left, go down a ways and turn right past the big peanut…”


The big peanut on Route 45 in Plains, GA

…those were the directions given to us by a friendly fireman last Sunday. There’s only one place on the planet where such directions can be heard: Plains, Georgia.

My wife, June, and I were trying to find Maranatha Baptist Church, where former President Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday school 2-3 Sundays each month. His class is at 10:00 and the service is at 11:00.

But this post isn’t about politics or religion.

The whole experience, which lasted nearly five hours, was a fascinating combination of presidential security, logistics, southern hospitality, and a little bit of showbiz.

First, the “why.” President and Mrs. Carter have always been near the top of the list of people we most admire. Their work to promote peace and justice around the world is the kind of non-partisan outreach that I expect most people can respect, regardless of political stripe.

We’ve known that President Carter teaches at the church and have wanted to check it out for years. When we found out that June was going to be at a conference in Atlanta last week, we started making plans. I flew down on Saturday to meet her and we were on our way.


June and me waiting for President Carter’s Sunday school class to begin

The website says the church opens at 8:30, but many folks online recommended getting there before that. We stayed the night before in nearby Americus, GA and we arrived at 7:40.  There was already a line of ten people in front of the church (along with two sheriff’s vehicles in the parking lot). The weather was cloudy and cool and very comfortable for waiting in line. Southern Georgia in July isn’t usually so agreeable. Soon after we got there a bomb-sniffing dog and his handler from a Marine Corps facility in Albany, GA arrived.

They swept the building, checked all of the cars already in the lot, then settled in near the parking lot entrance to check all arriving cars. While all of this was happening we were introduced to Jan Williams, or “Miss Jan,” as she likes to be called. For 20 years Miss Jan has greeted all visitors to the church and it is her responsibility to make everything run smoothly…and it does!

She’s a former school teacher, and served as Amy Carter’s 4th grade teacher, and later her governess during the Carter Administration. She stands on the lawn near the mid-point of the quickly-expanding line and offers a bit of a live FAQ of the Carter family, security procedures and the history of the church.


Miss Jan and June

Once the crowd’s questions are answered, Miss Jan goes back in to the church and three secret service officers set up a table at the church entrance.  Pockets are emptied and everyone gets wanded for any remaining metal objects. This all happens very quickly and in no time you’re in the church and directed to your pew. The middle section of the church is reserved for visitors and the two side sections are for members.  It should be noted that this is not a fancy church. It’s a comfortable, modest church on a country road across from a pecan field and holds just 300 people.  Its appearance, inside and out, is unremarkable.

Soon after everyone is seated, Miss Jan returns. By now it’s probably 9:30 and excitement is building. One of the first things Miss Jan tells everyone is “you are all welcome here and you are not a bother.”  That seems to put everyone at ease. Visitors are instructed on what they can do: photographs of President Carter may only be taken when he first addresses the crowd and asks where folks are visiting from, and he should be addressed as President Carter (not Mr. President). And, on what they can’t do: once he starts the lesson, no more pictures and he hates it when people applaud after his lesson. She also tests the crowd on their knowledge of Jimmy Carter trivia, e.g., did you know he’s the first US president to be born in a hospital?

Miss Jan is as no-nonsense as a drill sergeant but has the kindness of a loving grandmother, and she has a smile that tells you both of those things. Her speech to the visitors leaves nothing to chance and is a Broadway-worthy one woman show. But it’s not like she’s playing to a tough crowd. Visitors on this morning came from all over North America as well as Nepal, The Czech Republic, New Zealand and Germany.


President Carter talking to church visitors before Sunday school class. July 14, 2013.

She ends her presentation with a short prayer. Once the prayer is concluded, President Carter rises from a chair at the side of the sanctuary.  He slipped in while everyone’s heads were bowed and gasps are heard from the crowd.  He says “good morning” to the crowd and, still catching our breaths from his sudden appearance, our response was truly lame, and he knew it.  He gives the greeting another shot and this time we gave him a hearty “good morning” in return.  He then asked folks where they were visiting from and we called out our states and countries. When I said “New York” he mentions that he spent some time in Schenectady back in the 1940s, studying at Union College.

After that he briefly tells the crowd what projects he has been working on lately, then begins his Sunday school class.  As Miss Jan told us, he’s had some practice at this, having conducted a bible study class nearly every Sunday for 70 years, starting as an 18 year old midshipman at the Naval Academy. Even in his years as President he would often do this, both in Plains and Washington.  After just a couple of minutes the celebrity factor completely falls away and what you’re left with is a kind, familiar man speaking from his heart.  And it was great to quickly learn that at age 88, President Carter’s mind is as sharp as ever.


June and me with President and Mrs. Carter. July 14, 2013

There’s a 15 minute break between the lesson and the 11:00 service.  Those who wish to have their pictures taken with the Carters must stay for the service and not leave the property.  Once the service is concluded a line forms outside the church and there’s Miss Jan, serving as traffic cop. In her talk before the service she told us that when it’s picture time, there is no handshaking and we are to keep our arms at our sides.  If the Carters choose to put their hands on our backs, or their arms around us, we are not to reciprocate.  The line moves incredibly fast and when it’s your turn you hand your camera to the designated photographer, step up to the Carters and smile pretty because there are no second chances here.  Your camera is quickly handed back to you and you are expected to go to your car and leave the property.

And just like that it’s noon and you’re on State Route 45 headed back past the big peanut, delighted to have just put a big check mark on life’s wishlist.

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3 Comments on ““Take a right, then a left, go down a ways and turn right past the big peanut…””

  1. Lucy Martin says:

    What a wonderful experience – thank you so much for sharing it in such detail!

  2. J G King says:

    Mensch. Not a Baptist description, but fitting. Jimmy Carter is the best former President of my lifetime and probably the best since Washington. He lives what he preaches, and exemplifies what American’s should be.

  3. Dave Ruch says:

    What a great story. Thanks so much for sharing, and yes, “Their work to promote peace and justice around the world is the kind of non-partisan outreach that I expect most people can respect, regardless of political stripe.”

Comments are closed.