The morning is hot, even by 8 o'clock, and the air is drenched with thick, warm fog found only in the southern reaches of Georgia. As it burns off, the sky becomes brindled with high clouds striated with the red and gold of sunrise. At that early hour, the orchestra of cicadas that usually serenades the countryside has yet to produce even a single note. But no matter. The raucous echoes of a couple of blue jays scrapping in a nearby pecan tree punctuate the quietness of the morning.
Threaded through the parking lot of Maranatha Baptist Church, a small, simple church of red brick cocooned by the pecan orchard from where the blue jays clash, are those hoping to snag a seat to hear former President Jimmy Carter teach Sunday School. The throng, hundreds strong, are wearing everything from rumpled shorts and jeans to their Sunday finest suits and dresses, all complemented with footwear from tennis shoes to high heels to flip-flops.
The curious and the faithful and the flip-flopped congregate in Plains, Carter's hometown in Georgia's Sumter County, in the southwest quadrant of the Peach State, to hear the former leader of the free world and Nobel Peace Prize laureate teach Sunday School. It's something Carter does frequently, and the pews always runneth over with visitors.
"People flock here from all over the world," says a Secret Service agent whose name shall remain, um, secret. "Record numbers came after he was diagnosed with cancer."
While Carter's diagnosis of metastatic melanoma was in 2015, almost three years later he announced that he is cancer-free. While those "record numbers" may have waned a bit, the crowds still come, some as early as Saturday afternoon, to ensure a spot in the church.
"People even tailgate," said Jill Stuckey, superintendent of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site who also helps out at the church. "They began lining up at 2 o'clock yesterday afternoon. They spend the night in the parking lot to get a number to get in line."
Carter's church is small, with only 24 members. As we wait for the service to begin, I read the church bulletin. The previous Sunday, Carter didn't teach and the total number of visitors was 14. Today, that number blossomed to more than 500. Jan Williams, a friend of the Carters and longtime church member, tells me later that 75 to 100 were turned away.
Williams, Stuckey and Jana Carter, daughter of the late first brother Billy Carter and his wife, Sybil, are the gatekeepers of the church, so to speak. As we wait for the former president to come into the sanctuary, they tell us he handcrafted the offering plates and the massive wooden cross perched over the congregation.
Miss Jan and Miss Jana, as the ladies are called, give the crowd instructions as to what to say and do and how to get your photo made with the Carters after the service. That takes a few minutes, as there are a lot of rules. Oh. Secret Service agents are everywhere, but really, if you misbehave in any fashion, if Miss Jan, Miss Jana, Miss Jill or one of the other highly protective church members doesn't get you, they surely will.
Tony Lowden stands to speak. He's Maranatha's preacher. Originally from North Philadelphia but in Plains by way of Macon and Warner Robins, the charismatic pastor is not yet used to the South Georgia air force: gnats.