PLAINS, Georgia — They arrived at this sleepy Georgia town in droves, from places as far away as Africa. Some spent the night in line just to ensure a seat.
Ordinary fare, if it were a rock concert or major sporting event — but not for a Sunday school Bible talk.
But this is no ordinary Sunday school: Its teacher has a Secret Service detail.
For decades, former President Jimmy Carter has been teaching Sunday school here at Maranatha Baptist Church in his hometown of Plains, Georgia.
But this Sunday’s lesson — Carter’s 689th, according to his grandson Jason — commanded attention far beyond the worshippers who packed the pews and overflow rooms in the wake of the revelation that the 90-year-old Carter is battling cancer.
Three days after Carter began receiving treatment for brain cancer, the world listened in on what the former leader of the free world had to say.
The indefatigable Carter was as enthusiastic as ever.
“Morning everybody!” he said twice, repeating himself after his first try drew too demure a response.
“I like to know whom I’m teaching,” he said before asking the congregation to shout where they’d come from.
With each state — or even country, as was the case for Guatemala and Ghana — Carter had a quick retort or anecdote. When one person, for example, called out “Washington,” Carter responded, “I’ve lived there.”
“Well, I always explain to the class where I’ve been the past couple of weeks,” he said as he opened his notes at the lectern. This was, after all, class. “I missed two lessons because toward the end of May (and) first of June it was found that I had cancer, so they removed part of my liver,” he said with sober frankness. “But then we had another MRI and it showed I have four places in my brain.”
Carter said he was done with radiation treatments, at least for now, but that he was receiving “supplemental medication” intravenously.
“That’s enough of that subject,” he said. “I’m back now and I intend to keep on teaching here at Maranatha as long as I am able.”
However, Carter did say that he plans to cut back a bit from his tireless schedule that also includes his work at the Carter Center, Emory University and Habitat for Humanity, among others.
“(Cancer) gives me an excuse to finally do so,” he said, but promised he wasn’t going away. Not by a long shot. “I will continue within the bounds of my physical and mental capabilities.”
Two hours before Carter’s lesson, Maranatha Baptist Church was at its full capacity, 325, with an another 150 in an overflow room. An additional 300 people packed an adjacent auditorium that didn’t even have a view or live feed.
Among the visitors were Ron and Helene Lipe. The Columbia, South Carolina, couple arrived Saturday night to make sure they got a front row pew to see the first man each of them voted for in a presidential election.
Ron Lipe said he appreciates Carter not just for being a Democrat, but for his humanitarianism .
“He goes out and picks up a hammer, where other ex-presidents just go and give speeches.”
But next Sunday, the Maranatha Baptist faithful — and the world — hope Carter will be able to do just that: He is scheduled to deliver his 690th Bible talk at 10:00 a.m.