Don Follis | Attending Sunday school with a familiar face

Don Follis | Attending Sunday school with a familiar face

My wife and I left our Americus, Ga., hotel room at 5:20 a.m. June 10, and headed for Sunday school class.

Ever left for Sunday school that early?

We wanted to make sure we got a seat at Maranatha Baptist Church, where the Sunday school class cannot exceed 475 people. We were told even early arrivers can get turned away.

We drove through the pre-dawn darkness, winding for 10 miles along Highway 280 in west-central Georgia. As we entered Plains, population 735, we stopped at the town's main stop sign, turned right and drove a half mile north, passing the Big Peanut convenience store on our right before turning right into the Maranatha Baptist Church parking lot on the north edge of Plains.

At 5:40 a.m. we suddenly found ourselves behind a long string of cars. After inching along for a few minutes, we were greeted by a man near the entrance of the parking lot — "Morning y'all." He handed me a yellow note card with the number 110 written in black marker.

A full white beard covered the man's face. His cap said, "I dig peanuts." "You are car 110," he said. "Looks like we might be turning people away this morning. We sure hate that. Hope we can fit 'em all in. Y'all are about the 370th person. Now just follow the car in front of you and fetch yourself a place to park."

After visitors get their assigned number and park, they can sleep in their car, walk around and talk with people or "go down yonder and fetch yourself a cup of coffee at the Big Peanut," which is what we did. There are two portable toilets outside the church. The church building didn't open until 8:15 a.m. With 475 people waiting for Sunday school for several hours, there were long lines at the portable toilets.

Have you figured me out yet? We were in Plains, Ga., at Maranatha Baptist Church to hear President Jimmy Carter, the 39th president, teach Sunday school in his hometown, where he and his wife, Rosalynn, still live. Since leaving the White House in January of 1981, Jimmy and Rosalynn have lived in the ranch-style home they built in Plains in 1961. Soon to be married 72 years, it's the only home the Carters have ever owned.

Jimmy Carter has been teaching Sunday school class regularly at Maranatha Baptist since 1981. In total he has taught Sunday school for nearly 60 years. Rumor is that Carter will teach only a few more months. Many people want to hear him teach before he lays down his Sunday school book for the last time. Therefore, people are arriving from all over the country, particularly the Southeast, to see President and Mrs. Carter and to hear the president teach.

However, the woman in charge of the orientation prior to class told us in no uncertain terms that President Carter has not announced his retirement from teaching. "We church members would be the first to know, and we haven't heard a word. Y'all can drop the notion that President Carter is done teaching Sunday school class. OK? It's just a crazy rumor running around the internet." Still, who could blame the 93-year-old well-known Sunday school teacher for turning over his teaching responsibilities. That morning I called President Carter "The Little Engine that could."

For 45 minutes President Carter stood and lectured. He stood straight, holding only his Bible and notes as he paced back and forth in front of his 475 students. He didn't use a cane or a walker, and he didn't lean on the lectern. His voice was clear and strong, his biblical knowledge impressive. The man is 93 years young!

President Carter took the first five minutes to comment on the news of the day. He said he prays for President Trump and his people but said he is genuinely worried and puzzled by Trump's ways and his decisions. But then President Carter quickly moved into his 40-minute Sunday school lesson. He is doing a series on how God speaks through little-known minor prophets in the Old Testament.

That morning President Carter centered his remarks on Nathan, the prophet who confronted David about his adultery with Bathsheba. Frequently engaging the large class, Carter asked questions, played off comments and thanked people for their thoughts. Finally, he asked each of us to consider how we feel about the idea that God wants us to speak for him. Saying many people feel like they have nothing to offer God, Carter said, "God wants you available to speak for Him no matter how small or inadequate you feel. Isn't that just great? Imagine it. God wants you to speak on his behalf."

In the church service following Sunday school, we listened to the church's young pastor give his morning message. He is 65 years younger than President Carter. Pretty heady for a young man not yet 30 to preach each week to the former president of the United States.

Following the church service, we got our picture taken with Jimmy and Rosalynn. "Thank y'all for comin'," Jimmy said, smiling his signature President Carter smile. The sun was high in the sky as we pulled out of the Maranatha Baptist Church parking lot, passed the Big Peanut convenience store and headed north, meandering our way along the fields of red Georgia clay.

Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via Contact him at, and you can follow him on Twitter (@donfollis).

Sections (1):Living
Topics (2):People, Religion