Letters Home: Betsy Kepes hears the good news in church with Jimmy Carter

Jimmy and Roselyn Carter and Betsy Kepes at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia.

Jimmy and Roselyn Carter and Betsy Kepes at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia.

A lizard ran across the floor this morning during the short chapel service that begins the day here at Koinonia Farm. It made me smile but I don’t think anyone else noticed or cared. The little lizards climb up the sides of buildings and hang out on railings, as common as houseflies.

Georgia astonishes me in so many ways. I’m the naïve northerner who had never eaten boiled peanuts or seen a giant round bale of cotton sitting out in a field of rusty red soil. And the roses are blooming, in December!

Roses bloom as Beria steps outside of the Koinonia store.

Roses bloom as Beria steps outside of the Koinonia store.

My husband, Tom, and I are down here for a few weeks to help out with “product season” at Koinonia Farm, an intentional community started in the 1940s. Many of the seasonal workers in the pecan-processing plant and bakery are paid but Koinonia also relies on interns and short-term volunteers to sort pecans, make chocolate pecan bark, and pack it up in boxes to ship around the country.

The first week here I worked with Tina on the pecan sorting line. We sat next to each other and separated bad pecans from good ones, pieces from halves, and placed other nuts in an ambiguous category called “ambers.” In her soft Tennessee voice Tina told me about her kids and grandkids, and gave me recipes for rich desserts. We listened to others in the room tell their stories as our hands threw pecans into plastic buckets. Sometimes we sang along with the gospel music on the boom box. Working together, even on Saturday, we are black and white, old and young, northern and southern, all of us hoping to get the pecans ready to ship.

Tina and Betsy on the pecan sorting line.

Tina and Betsy on the pecan sorting line.

On Sundays the community disperses as people attend one of the many churches in the area. When I heard that former President Jimmy Carter would be giving the adult Sunday school lesson at his church in Plains, I knew where I wanted to spend Sunday morning. My husband, Tom Van de Water, decided to attend a Mennonite service with some of the Koinonia folks.

Smiling peanut outside a Plains gas station.

Smiling peanut outside a Plains gas station.

Plains is about eight miles away from Koinonia Farm and on that quiet drive through farm country (almost all cotton this year) I passed four or five churches, with more when I got to Plains. Once again I was the astonished northerner. It doesn’t seem there are enough people for all these houses of worship. Carter’s church, Maranatha Baptist, as less than fifty members but it has a large sanctuary to hold all the tourists who flock to it when Carter is speaking. We were advised to come two hours early if we wanted a seat, although when I arrived at 8:15 am, most of the churchgoers had already made it through security and were waiting inside. We received detailed instructions on how to behave with Carter and were reminded that the Secret Service was watching us. It was an odd way to begin a church service.

After the long wait it was a thrill to see the former president walk into the church. He still has his big smile though at 91 years old his back is stooped and his hair snowy white. Carter announced that his cancer was gone and though we’d been warned not to clap, many did. He led us through a vigorous and thoughtful discussion of a Bible passage and what it meant to him to be a Christian. Southern Christianity is a bit strong for me but I listen to its ideas of helping others and living a thoughtful life.

That hour of religion was followed by another hour of church service led by a young minister. A small choir sang karaoke-style with a background orchestra and we sang Christmas hymns. And for the grand finale after the service, Jimmy and Roselyn sat up front and let tourists “make a picture with them.” It is all very organized and fast, but for about 30 seconds I was standing next to a former U.S. president, a man I admire for his peace work around the world.

Betsy stands in a cotton field with her cotton boll mustache.

Betsy stands in a cotton field with her cotton boll mustache.

While I was in Plains, I decided to do all the touristy things available there. I walked around the old Plains high school, now National Park headquarters for the Jimmy Carter National Park. Carter went to school there in the 1930’s and the classrooms are now filled with Carter history and photos. Next stop was the little store “downtown” (one short block) that sells peanut butter ice cream and has samples of fried peanuts and peanut brittle followed by a short drive out to the Jimmy Carter Boyhood Farm. It’s been restored to its 1930’s appearance, simple homes with no electricity or running water. The Carter’s house was white clapboard but the farm manager’s house next door was a small place of unpainted wood with newspapers glued to the thin walls to keep out the cold and heat. I lingered in the Carter’s small store where plastic models of tobacco and hams and canned goods lined the walls. Tenant farmers could buy on credit in an economy with very little cash.

On my drive back to Koinonia I noticed the ruins of tenant houses, sometimes only a chimney sticking up above a pile of wood. Millard Fuller, who started Habitat for Humanity, was a member of Koinonia and began his housing project here. Two wooded communities of affordable, sturdy homes flank the sides of the farm.

The workweek is back in full swing and I’m helping out in Shipping. I feel like one of Santa’s elves as I pack boxes full of chocolate and pecans. At the community meals we share stories and jokes. At the end the day, Tom and I have time for a short walk through the pecan groves before the sun goes down. This peaceful place has made it through the Civil Rights era and lean times. It is a gift to be able to help out in even a small way.

A Koinonia pecan orchard.

A Koinonia pecan orchard.

Tags: , ,

8 Comments on “Letters Home: Betsy Kepes hears the good news in church with Jimmy Carter”

  1. Mary Ellen Jones says:

    Jack and I enjoyed reading your interesting “Letter Home” about Jimmy Carter and Plains GA. What a great way to volunteer and help serve others. Your neighbors, Jack & Mary Ellen

  2. Betsy Kepes says:

    Hi Mary Ellen,

    Good to hear from you! I have to say that though we are working hard it is almost always delightful here. Warm sunshine and warm, welcoming people.

    Wave at our house for us the next time you go by.


  3. Teresa Stone says:

    What a lovely story Betsy. So much of the news has made my heart heavy these days — thank you for lightening my heart. Safe travels my friend.

  4. kathy curro says:

    Wonderful descriptions, important reading for those of us who might never know about this part of the world without your reporting. Thanks, Betsy!

  5. Paul Hetzler says:

    Thanks for the story–great to hear about your experiences at Koinonia farm, and about rural Georgia. Like you, I hold President Carter in very high esteem–so cool you got to meet him!

  6. Margaret MacDonald says:

    Hi Betsy!

    G’ma and I here. Nice cotton mustache, say hi to Jimmy Carter for us.

    See you @ Christmas.


    M & Grandma B

  7. Pat Nelson says:

    Thank you, Betsy, for bringing back something I had almost forgotten. When I was 5 and an Army brat in the 1940s, we lived in a house in Georgia that was probably closer to the tenant farmers’ housing than today’s workers’ houses. But the main thing I remember is the pecan trees all around where I could pick up nuts to eat off the ground. Wonderland to a little Chicagoan.

  8. Betsy Kepes says:

    Hello from Koinonia– I’m in the dining hall after our community dinner. We had home-made pizza and when we did our Joys and Sorrows after dinner someone said it was the best pizza in the world. I think it was the garlic and fresh greens from the garden.

    And yes Pat, I’ve been picking pecans off the ground. It sort of feels like Eden- delicious food and all you need to do is crack the shell in your hands and it falls apart.

    Today I was in Shipping then “the Nut House” (pecan sorting) and then on an emergency crew sent to the bakery to put labels on packages. They’d been held up in Customs in the Atlanta airport and we have needed them for several days so we can fill them with chocolate and nuts and, as the Koinonia motto says, “Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia!”

    Y’all have a good night,

Comments are closed.