About 45 minutes from my house lies a town even smaller than mine. And actually not much sets Plains, Georgia apart from all of the neighboring small towns except one thing: it’s home to the 39th President of the United States, Jimmy Carter.
I hate to admit that, even after I became engrossed in History about six years ago, I had never visited Plains to see President Carter’s boyhood farm, his high school, or his current home. My family and I had been talking about it for a while and we finally went to visit some friends there this weekend. That’s when we found out the Carters were in town for the weekend. In fact, he was going to be teaching Sunday school at his hometown church just outside of downtown Plains. Cue the adrenaline and excitement!
So, we all woke up early this morning, and I have to admit that I had a moment where I had to stop and think, “What do you wear when you go to see a US President?” We arrived at Maranatha Baptist Church ( www.mbcplains.org) early, went through the Secret Service security, and finally got our seats: second row. As someone told us what we could and could not do when President Carter arrived, I wondered to myself: What would Mr. Jimmy, the winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, and the president who founded both the Departments of Energy and Education, teach about? I couldn’t picture him being a fire-and-brimstone type. Would it be more of a biblical history lesson? Defining morals?
The door opened and two secret service agents walked in, escorting the 86 year-old (though not so feeble as one might think) “Jimmuh” Carter. He walked directly to the middle, explained away his cane (he just had knee surgery) and then asked where we were all from. A good 20-25 states were represented, and there were also guests from Poland, Spain, Mexico, South Korea, Bosnia, the Netherlands, and France. And then he started his Sunday school lesson.
The words he used were eloquent and his Southern accent dignified and sweet. He opened by addressing a topic that I myself have both wondered and written about: the vast difference between the Old and New Testaments of the Bible (my particular interest is the difference between the god of the Old Testament, God, and the god of the New Testament, Jesus). He began by asking if it were possible to find missionaries in the Old Testament when it seemed that the Old Testament seemed to focus overwhelmingly on anger and violence, the destruction of entire towns, the assassination of women and children after war, and other such gruesome scenes. He went on to admit that most Christians preferred the New Testament over the Old, mainly because the Old Testament focused on minutia, tiny and unimportant details of daily life. “It lays out how many times we should wash our hands before eating, how many steps we’re allowed to take on the Sabbath, things that just aren’t important,” Mr. Carter told us. “It paints a picture of God up there diligently taking account of every single thing that we do all day long.” I half expected him to add, “And that’s not a very pleasant God, is it?”
But instead, he went on to tell us that Jesus came on the scene in the New Testament and changed everything. He provided a new understanding, one which holds that God is love. Actually, I’m sure that you can find the God of love periodically throughout the Old Testament, but it wasn’t until Jesus came along did the everlasting love and forgiveness aspects take the foreground.
And then, Jimmy asked a peculiar question: Who are the chosen people? Someone answered, the Israelites, and a woman behind me yelled out, Christians. Jimmy nodded his head and repeated the answers slowly like any good teacher does (so you don’t feel foolish), and then said, “I don’t think so. But let’s take a look in the Bible and see…”
That actually brings up another topic – namely that the Bible can be interpreted in many different ways. And how a man interprets the Bible says a lot about him. (But I’ll leave that alone for now…)
Mr. Jimmy read about a prayer that King Solomon offered up to God, and from that he came to the conclusion that “everybody on this earth belongs to the chosen people if they live their lives by Christ’s principles. But now I guess we’ve got to define Christ’s principles, don’t we?”
And this is where I got a little nervous. Was he going to go with the same old routine that I had heard before, the “No one is saved or good enough unless they say a particular prayer and go to a church”? Or was he going to choose a more humanitarian path? The answer came in the form of a question:
“Jesus. He was the Prince of what?” There was a mumbled answer from the congregation, but “peace” could be discerned. “Exactly right: Peace. He was the prince of peace,” said teacher Jimmy, flashing a wide and genuine smile. I breathed a sigh of relief and looked forward to hearing more from the old man with twinkling eyes up front.
“Can you imagine a world,” he asked “in which everyone followed Christ’s central message – that is, loving your neighbors and your enemies as yourself…treat others how you want to be treated.” If I’m not mistaken, this was what Jesus called the second greatest commandment, only behind loving the lord with all your heart.
Mr. Jimmy (he just didn’t seem like “President Carter” sitting there in front of us, talking so sincerely about love and peace) went on to spur us to imagine a world in which even governments followed Christ’s principle of peace. And then he paused for a moment and said, “I don’t want to offend my own country – and I served in the Navy for 11 years – but it seems that the American government is all too willing, maybe even eager to use its military might to solve problems. I’ve seen lately too often that our leaders use our military force instead of negotiation or diplomacy or other peaceful means to get things done. Just go somewhere else in the world and ask someone if America is a peaceful country. They’ll just laugh at you.”
Mr. Jimmy’s message (I guess I could compromise and call him Mr. Carter) reminded me of a night in class back in college. The professor was – is – one of my favorite people in the whole world, and most certainly is one of the most brilliant and wisest human beings I have yet to run across (several of us still believe that his mind is so powerful he can turn troublesome students into a quarter to help buy himself a Diet Coke). He is a professor of philosophy and during a “Philosophy of Christianity” course I was surprised to find out that he was also a minister. When someone asked, “You’re a Christian?!” the professor explained, “Yes, a lot of people don’t consider me a Christian because I don’t believe the Bible literally. I don’t think Jesus actually rose from the dead three days after his crucifixion. But, I do consider myself a Christian in that I have dedicated my life to the message of Christ: recognizing the humanity in everyone, showing love and compassion, even to those I don’t feel deserve it.”
I had never thought of it that way before, but I loved that definition of “being Christian.” In fact, it was one I could get behind. That definition of “Christian” wasn’t exclusive; it didn’t exclude other peoples – people who were loving and compassionate people – just because they didn’t pray a certain way.
It actually makes me think of a quote by Mahatma Gandhi: “I don’t reject your Christ, I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate that Mr. Jimmy would agree when I say that we in this “Christian nation” better start acting like true Christians and following the message of Compassion and Peace.
I thought about finishing up there, but I do have a few other things I would like to make available. First, I’ll add that after the church service (where the Carters sat a few pews back, just sitting among the other church members), both Mr. President and Mrs. Rosalynn stuck around for about half an hour to take pictures with anyone who wanted to. So, our family – affectionately known as Mama’ernem, which will have to be explained in a later post! – got our picture taken with the Carters before we headed for Sunday dinner.
Now I’m going to do a little PR for Plains. Because of the horrible economic times, the small town of Plains is suffering the fate of many other small towns around America – it’s slowly shrinking, and it may look a little bleak at first. However, for anyone interested in politics, history, or Smalltown, USA, a day trip to Plains is well worth it!
Main Street has a number of antique shops to browse through, and you can even stay at the gorgeous historic inn (www.plainsinn.net).
Just call “Miss Jan” at (229) 824-4517, or email her at email@example.com for information. Besides being a wonderful host, Jan has been friends with the Carters for her whole life, so she’s got plenty of stories to tell that you won’t hear on TV!
The US Department of the Interior has taken over Jimmy Carter’s boyhood farm and has turned it into a national park. You can visit Jimmy’s bedroom, see the backyard that he played in, and sit in his front porch swing. Check out www.nps.gov/jica for more information on the farm.
There is also only one place to eat in Plains, and that’s Mom’s Kitchen. I’ve eaten there twice in the last two days and let me tell you, the food is awesome, fresh and homemade. You won’t be disappointed if you’re looking for genuine Southern cooking. However, if you’re one of those types that count their calories, you better skimp on your meals for about a week in advance, because as any good Southerner will tell you, we’ll eat most anything deep-fried. Another advantage to Mom’s Kitchen: the Carter’s have been known to drop in for supper when they’re in town.
So, if you live in the area, take the time to go explore Plains. Even if you’re not from here and are just making a tour of the South, Plains is an excellent spot to stop for the night. It’s humbling to see the house where Jimmy grew up without electricity, knowing that he went on to spend four years in the White House, help make peace between Israel and Egypt, and then later win a Nobel Peace Prize for affecting the entire world in a positive manner through his efforts at the Carter Center.
And if you’d like a chance to meet President Carter, he teaches Sunday school most of the time when he is home. You can check out his Sunday School schedule HERE. Take the time to go hear his message; I’m sure it’ll be an inspiring one.
Don’t know where Plains, Georgia (31780) is? MapQuest it; or if GoogleMaps is more of your thing, use it. You can also visit the town’s website at www.plainsgeorgia.com. Or if talking to a person suits you best, then give Jan a call (number above) – she’ll be able to tell you anything and everything about Plains.
I think I will end with a quote from another wise man, Albert Einstein:
“Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.”