March 8, 2000

Jimmy Carter's class
packs 'em in for Sunday School

___By Kristen Campbell
___Religion News Service
___PLAINS, Ga. (RNS)--They come for a president and a picture. They also get a parable.
___A man serves as president of the world's most powerful nation. But at age 56, he finds himself unemployed and uncertain of his future. He could spend retirement reliving his reign. Instead, he goes out to fight poverty and injustice in the poorest of countries.
JIMMY CARTER holds forth on his impressions of the Gospel story of Jesus calling Matthew as a disciple. Whenever he's in town on Sunday, the former president still teaches his Sunday School class at Maranatha Baptist Church of Plains, Ga. (RNS photo)
___He does such things, he says, because the Bible tells him so.
___The first shall be last, and the last, first. The kingdom of God is open to everyone. Christ calls us to lives of adventure. Every Sunday he's home, Jimmy Carter, now 76, shares this message with the hundreds who attend his Sunday School class at Maranatha Baptist Church, a modest, steepled structure on the outskirts of town.
___On a recent Sunday in February, long before Carter's lesson begins, men and women line up by the dozens outside Maranatha's front door. They arrive in tour buses and vans. Their cars bear license plates from Iowa and Illinois, Maine and Minnesota.
___Invited inside at 9 a.m., they cram into the plush, crimson-upholstered pews and settle on folding chairs. They scan the sanctuary, taking in its lime sherbet walls and its 10 geometrically patterned stained glass windows.
___A few minutes after 10, the hour when Carter enters the sanctuary through a side door, the camera flashes explode, but for only a moment. The tittering ceases.
___The few hundred people focus on their teacher and the day's lesson, this Sunday taken from the second chapter of Mark's Gospel.
___In a navy suit and bolo tie, a still-spry Carter paces the pea-green carpet at the front of the sanctuary. He reads Scripture. He stops to explicate, providing a nuanced Greek translation. He asks questions, factual and philosophical. He ponders modern-day applications of the centuries-old text. He prays aloud.
___On this particular Sunday, Carter considers Jesus' interaction with Levi, now better known as Matthew. As a tax collector for the Romans, Levi was ostracized by many in the Jewish community. But Jesus saw him in Capernaum and told him, "Follow me."
___"And," continues Mark's Gospel, "he rose and followed him."
___"What was remarkable about this? What would have been Levi's status if he had tried to go into the temple to worship?" Carter asks.
___"He would have been excluded not only as a sinner, but also a thief and disloyal to the Jewish people themselves because he had formed an alliance with the hated occupying Romans," Carter explains.
___"And so it was a dramatic thing for Christ in all the village--we don't know how big it was then, I've been there, but I don't know how big it was then--to pick out this well-known, maybe the most famous sinner in the whole town."
___The sanctuary is silent, men and women sponging every syllable.
___Carter continues teaching.
___"This is the kind of structural breaking that Jesus utilized to show that a new day has come, and to tell those who were particularly religious and proud of their own faith that 'You are wrong. You are wrong to live in a cocoon. You are wrong to be self-satisfied. You are wrong not to seek how to reach out.' And Christ gave them and gave us an example of what Christianity is.
___"That rubs a little bit, doesn't it?"
___By his own account, Carter's passion is for those on society's fringes. A year after he left the White House in 1981, the nation's 39th president and his wife, Rosalynn, founded the Carter Center in Atlanta. According to the center's mission statement, work there is "guided by a fundamental commitment to human rights and the alleviation of human suffering."
___Carter often talks about such efforts for a few minutes before he begins the Sunday School lessons at Maranatha, according to Dan Ariail, his admiring pastor of 17 years. One Sunday, for example, Carter spoke of the perils of Guinea worm disease and river blindness, devastating illnesses prevalent in parts of Africa.
___Carter's neighbors know he's been around the world and back. But he's still the boy next door, says Sandra Walters, 60. She lives in Plains, population 716, and manages the Vision 2000 Tourism Team of the Georgia Visitors Center.
___Stationed at Plains' cabin-like visitors' center, Walters spends her days handing out maps, directing traffic and telling travelers about the town's most famous son. Even so, she can't work herself into a frenzy over a presidential sighting, casually noting Carter had just been riding his bicycle around the tiny downtown.
___"I've just known him all my life," Walters said. "When I see Jimmy Carter, I really kind of forget he's a president. He's a neighbor."
___At Maranatha, he's also a carpenter and a groundskeeper. The church is filled with bookcases and tables he has built; he crafted the four walnut offering plates used on Sundays. And on various weeks throughout the year--several February days being no exception--Carter is responsible for the lawn's upkeep. This being winter, his latest outdoor duties were limited to collecting trash strewn onto the property by passersby and gathering branches that have fallen from pecan trees.
___"Around here he's just Jimmy," Ariail says. "That really says it all. This is his home. We're his--either family or his church family or community family."

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