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Monday, August 24, 2015 - 9:45am

A Mighty Fine Teacher: Sunday School With Jimmy Carter

Former President Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church Sunday. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting

The sun was not yet up over this little, red brick church in a South Georgia pecan grove and already the line to get in was wrapped around the sanctuary.

They were here to see the single most famous native son of Plains, GA, do something he’s done for decades.

They were here to study the Gospel with Jimmy Carter.

While always well attended, Carter’s first Sunday School lesson since revealing his cancer diagnosis took on the feeling of a pilgrimage. Hundreds thronged Maranatha Baptist Church for a chance to see him.

Some near the front of the line had slept the night before on the church porch or even in their cars. Jane Gurley came the day before from Hendersonville, NC. She had a huge Bible in hand in which she planned to take notes as on any other Sunday.

“Just regular Sunday School, that’s what this is to me,” she said, “Just happens to be a different teacher. A mighty fine teacher.”

The pre-dawn line to get into Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, GA to hear Jimmy Carter teach Sunday School this past Sunday. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting

Gurley said hearing Carter’s take on the gospel is one of those things she’d always intended to do but had never done. She wasn’t alone.

Once many years ago, Maranatha Baptist tried to seat everyone on one of Carter’s teaching days. The sanctuary swelled to almost 900 people. That pushed the limits of the law, so the church said never again. On this day, space was at a minimum.

Mildred Calhoun of Jacksonville, FL came with her husband and their ten year old grandson. She’s was at peace with the idea they might not get in.

“It’s God’s will, we prayed about it and if we don’t get in, it’s still ok,” she said.

Denice Gamper came to Plains from Brooklyn, NY. For her, this was a chance to see a living President she ranks among the greats.

“He’s like my favorite,” she said. “It goes FDR, Jimmy Carter, Abraham Lincoln.”

The very back of the line to hear President Jimmy Carter teach Sunday School at his home church in Plains, GA Sunday. Many couldn't be seated in the church's main sanctuary. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting

As it got closer to the time for church to start, the staff did their best to fit as many people as possible.

“OK, I have one, two, three,” one woman said as she guided people to the pews.

A visiting worshiper went astray only to be corralled again.

“No no no no, right in here...”

Some of the patient and lucky enter the sanctuary of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains to hear Jimmy Carter teach Sunday School Sunday. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting

Still, about two hundred or so people were left outside. They were taken either to a spot in the Fellowship Hall or to the old school house a mile a way in town.

As the crowd watched Carter’s wife Roslyn enter the church, Carter himself slipped in on the other side of the sanctuary. The lesson started with Carter asking where everyone was from.

Despite prior instructions to the contrary, people shouted their home states. Saying one state more than once was a no no.

“Alabama! Vermont! Indiana!”

Lots of Georgias were heard.

A Secret Service agent shuts the front door of Jimmy Carter's home church, Maranatha Baptist in Plains, GA, as the overflow from the crowd hoping to hear him teach Sunday School walks away from the sanctuary. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting

After talking very briefly about his cancer treatment, Carter got to it, teaching a lesson at the very base of his Christian faith.

“You have heard it was said that you will love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” he read from the Gospel of Matthew.

For much of the remaining time, Carter mused on and expanded the ideas encapsulated in the idea of Love Your Neighbor. By the end of the lesson he had placed the idea firmly in the present day.

Those who heard Jimmy Carter teach Sunday School heard a lesson based on the heart of Christianity: Love Your Neighbor. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting

“How would the world be changed if everyone…Syrians, Iranians, Israelis, Palestinians,” he said, then paused, “….Republicans and Democrats, (laughter here) adopted Christ’s definition of Love.”

After the lesson Carter went to the old schoolhouse in town to meet those who didn’t make it into the church. Even there, a handful of people were locked out. Colby and Larry Sparkman of Hattiesburg, MS were among them.

They said they would be satisfied with just a glimpse of the President Carter.

“Just catching a wave as he walks out. Hopefully the girls can wave at him,” Colby Sparkman said.

“And we’ll come again in a month or so and try again,” Larry Sparkman concluded.

They’re right to plan ahead. Carter has a couple months worth of Sunday School sessions already on the calendar.

Former President Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church Sunday. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting