PLAINS, Ga. – A couple weeks each month, you can drive a few hours into Georgia and hear a former U.S. president speak for nearly an hour. Then Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn will pose for a photo with everyone who attends.
At 93 years old, Carter teaches a Sunday school lesson at his hometown Baptist church about 30 weeks each year. As one of America's elder statesmen, his talks usually touch on current events and history as well as his Christian values.
"If you're living your life and you don't feel like you have real purpose in life ... and something you ought to be doing with your existence ... it's your fault," encouraging his audience to make a constant effort to live a life of purpose.
Carter said he questioned his purpose in life many times, but always turned to his religion for the answer, in a quest to "be a successful person in the eyes of God."
"President Carter has been teaching Sunday school since he was 19," said Jill Stuckey, a close friend of the Carters and a devoted fan of the most celebrated couple in Plains, Georgia. "He knows the Bible and loves to teach."
But the unchurched will not feel intimidated at Maranatha Baptist Church, which reflects the 39th president's inclusive nature.
"He greets everyone," Stuckey said. "One Sunday we had 48 different countries represented. Many times (of) different religion. He loves to see a full house."
A capacity crowd often fills Maranatha Baptist Church when Carter teaches. Crowds line up at daybreak hoping to get one of 325 seats in the sanctuary, rather than in an overflow room where the lesson is shown on a video screen.
The church is in Plains, a town of 800 residents long known for producing peanuts. Rural Sumter County, northwest of Albany and not far from the Alabama border, it is also full of cotton, corn and soybean fields.
Carter left Plains to attend Georgia Tech, then the U.S. Naval Academy and became a lieutenant working in the submarine service. But he returned to take over the family's peanut business when his father died. Despite going on to serve in the Georgia legislature, governor's mansion and the White House, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter's lives have remained centered around this farming community and the values they learned there.
Residents are devoted to the Carters, and their town has become somewhat a tourist destination because of them. In addition to hundreds attending church on Sundays when the former president teaches, Plains's historic school building is now a museum and the visitor's center of the Jimmy Carter Historic Site, run by the National Park Service.
The historic site also includes the town's original train depot, a tribute to Carter's 1976 presidential campaign, and Carter's boyhood home, the family farm where young Jimmy lived from age 4 until he left for college.
After four years in Washington, the Carters returned to their simple ranch-style home in Plains and are active members of the community. But they don't travel unnoticed, as they still have full Secret Service protection. When the time comes, the couple want to be laid to rest in their hometown.
Sundays in Plains
It's almost a pilgrimage for some from around the nation and world to visit this west Georgia town and Maranatha Baptist Church. Carter provides an incentive to stay after his lesson and attend the worship service by posing for a photo with each group only after church.
"As we stood there to take pictures, we had a conversation going," said the Rev. Eddie Martin, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "I told him that I enjoyed his teachings, and he gave me an invitation to come back."
Lynn Chen and David Yu left Atlanta very early one recent Sunday to get to Plains in time for the service.
"It was definitely a challenge going through the country roads in the darkness, but the end result is the bliss, because we met President Carter in such an incredible surrounding and lovely circumstance. The teaching was just very inspiring," Chen said. "His love, his legacy, Habitat for Humanity, all the world peace efforts he's put his energy into. It's really inspiring."
Yu was attracted by Carter helping to build a relationship between the United States and China in the late 1970s.
"When I was in high school in China, I listened to Voice of America radio broadcast. It was through President Carter's China policy that people like me had a chance to come to this country to study," Yu said. "You know, in today's political environment we need someone with his integrity, his honesty and his goodwill to all people. I guess that's a reflection of Christian values. And that's why we wanted to come here: to see him in action and see Plains and see where his Christian values came from."
Maranatha Baptist's new, young pastor, Brandon Patterson, who got the job even before his graduation from seminary at Emory University, sometimes feels like those sitting in the pews: feeling blessed just to be worshiping alongside the Carters.
The reaction Patterson and church members most often hear from visitors is how healthy Jimmy and Roselyn Carter seem and how much energy the former president has. He engages with his audience and speaks for nearly an hour without notes.
“He’s not planning on quitting anytime soon,” Patterson said of Carter.
Jan Williams is a church member who has known the Carters since she taught their youngest daughter, Amy, in elementary school. Williams went on the road with the family to help keep Amy in line while her father was campaigning.
"We have hundreds of people every Sunday who come to hear the only president of the United States to have taught a Sunday school class while he was president and the only former president to teach one today," Williams said. "The Carters walk the walk seven days a week."
Stuckey said that Carter intends to teach as long as he is able. He even kept his Sunday school commitments in 2016 after his diagnosis with melanoma -- sometimes leading the lesson just three days after undergoing radiation treatments in Atlanta.
Fully recovered now, Carter teaches at least twice most months. He is currently scheduled to teach on April 8 and 15. If you're interested in attending one of Carter's Sunday school lessons, check his schedule posted on the church’s website.