Jimmy Carter is my favorite president. I know. I can hear some of you out there groaning. Not everyone agrees with my opinion. Presidential historians will debate for eons whether or not his presidency was successful. I’m far from a historian, but I have read quite a bit about my favorite President and I think his days in the White House have been completely underrated. And no one will ever change my mind:).
One thing that everyone does agree on though is the success of his work after leaving the White House. He has created a brilliant legacy as a champion of peace and human rights worldwide. He is a man of integrity and great faith. He is one of my heroes.
I’ve wanted to visit his hometown of Plains for years, but its location – waaaaaay off the beaten path – was never conducive for a quick stop on any of our travels. My 50th birthday trip was the perfect occasion to make a point of traveling to this little tiny town. And – whether you’re a PRESIDENT Carter fan or not – I highly recommend anyone interested in American presidential history to do the same.
Our first stop was his boyhood home/farm. The National Park Service has done a fabulous job of preserving and presenting a true piece of American history. The farm is a rich picture of the rural south in the 1930’s – open to all – free and unencumbered – you can wander around and see what an agricultural life in the old south was like. We met the Park Ranger – at the blacksmith shop – making fire irons – way too cool. He told us many stories – one of which I loved – was how the family was part of a Cattle Club – basically – each family in the area raised 2 cows each year – when the cows were ready for becoming food on the table (a much better way of saying ready for slaughter) – the families would rotate and contribute 1 cow per month to share – since there was no way to keep meat fresh for any length of time back in the day – this was a great way to make sure every family had fresh meat each month. I’m sure a lot of people already know these things – but – I found it to be quite interesting.
The town of Plains is VERY small – but unbelievably interesting. The original main street is still in tact. No longer the mercantile businesses that supported the community years ago, but now converted into a collection of antique shops, Carter Family museums and a FABULOUS Historic Inn – where we were lucky enough to stay – in the Presidential Suite! I can’t say enough about the Plains Historic Inn. The Carters were involved in getting it going to help economic development for the town and it is just beautiful! Inn Keeper Jan is one of the most hospitable, funny and heart warming people we’ve ever met. Staying at the Inn is a heavenly slice of southern life. And – Jan told me that the Carters were the first guests to stay in the Presidential suite – so I’ve actually slept in the same room as my very favorite President – how many people can say that???
When we booked our room – for my actual 50th birthday day – Inn Keeper Jan told us that President Carter would be teaching Sunday school on that very day and we were more than welcome to attend. I was shocked! A former President of the United States was speaking in church and ordinary people like us could go??? As it turns out, President Carter has a long history of teaching Sunday School – before and after his Presidency – and has been welcoming visitors to Marantha Baptist Church in Plains for decades. As I said earlier – he is a man of great faith – and shares that in a way that is beyond inspiring.
Our experience at church that morning is something that I will never forget. It is also something that will always stay with me as a lesson in life.
The interesting part is that the Secret Service is very much involved in the process. As you enter the Church parking lot a Secret Service Agent has a dog sniff your car – searching for explosives I assume – before you can park your car. Then you must go through a search before entering the building. All items must be removed from your pockets and purse and you have a wand search around your body. Then the Secret Service Agents take a picture with your camera – to make sure it’s really a camera. It’s a really thorough process – and oddly enough – kind of cool.
Before the Sunday School lesson begins instructions are given as to the protocol expected. In other words – this is CHURCH – don’t be a ninny – don’t be disrespectful – photo opportunities are at specific intervals – but be present for the lesson. It was done really well. We all knew what to expect, how to act, and were excited to hear what Mr. Jimmy would say.
When he came out – I was in awe. He stood at ground level in front of the pews and wasn’t any more than 10 feet away from me. President Carter was right there! The very first president I ever voted for! Fortunately he began with a very welcoming introduction asking visitors where they were from. This gave me time to settle into the reality of it all.
Then he began his lesson. A lesson for life. It was a parable – I’m not a theologian – so don’t critique me on this – but the basic message was about the seeds you sow – sometimes they take – sometimes they don’t – but you sow them anyway – doing the right thing – just as Jesus did. Mr. Jimmy spoke in such a down to earth way – including personal anecdotes – and every day references – that he became a person – just like you and I. His fame, his power, his Presidency didn’t matter. All of that faded away. He was speaking about Gods’ love in a way that was non-denominational and all encompassing. He made me want to be a better me.
And so – weeks later – I am still trying. And will continue to do so. I think about how he – as a President, as a Statesman, as a man – has lived his life – trying to do the right thing – always. He is a lesson for my life.