PLAINS, Ga. — At 10 a.m., a side door in the front of the red-bricked, one-floor church's sanctuary opens, and a former leader of the free world enters.
”Do we have any visitors this Sunday morning?“ asks former President Jimmy Carter, wearing slacks and a coat with a string tie and flashing his famous smile.
The 300 or so people who fill the rural church's sanctuary laugh in the pews.
They have been forewarned in about 30 minutes of instructions from church member Jan Williams, who is part schoolmarm and part drill sergeant, that Carter's first question as their Sunday school teacher will be to inquire about visitors.
The class is prepared for 45 memorable minutes with the former president who grew up on a farm about 21/2 miles from Plains in rural southwest Georgia and who lives in a ranch-style house in Plains with his wife, Rosalynn, that they have owned since 1961.
The Carters plan to be buried on that site some day, but for now, they keep busy in various efforts to better the world and serving in their home church.
The Carters have been members of Maranatha Baptist Church since 1981, when his Democratic four-year term as president ended after a disappointing 1980 loss to Ronald Reagan.
They are active members of the church, often seen mowing its lawn or sweeping its sidewalk and driveway. Secret Service agents and bomb-sniffing dogs hover when the Carters are on the grounds.
Carter, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for decades of trying to advance democracy and human rights, is a church deacon. He teaches Sunday school about 35 times a year.
Teaching from the Bible is a volunteer role that Carter has performed in Baptist churches since he was 18. He turns 84 on Oct. 1.
He fills the pews
When Carter teaches at Maranatha, the church's attendance swells from its 130 or so regular members to several hundred. Nearly 900 visitors showed up one Sunday for a free lesson from America's 39th president.
Established in the late 1970s when the congregation of the nearby Plains Baptist Church split, Maranatha hosts about 10,000 visitors a year.
The bigger crowds are in the spring and fall.
”People in the summer can't stand the heat and gnats here,“ says church member George Williams, who chats with the visitors.
The church, says Pastor Jeff Summers, is ”a Bible-believing, Christ-centered fellowship dedicated to the worship of Almighty God and the taking of the gospel message to the ends of the earth.“
Maranatha, he says, is an Aramaic phrase occurring only once in the New Testament — 1 Corinthians 16:22 — that means ”Come, O Lord.“ It seems to have been used as a greeting by early Christians or as a prayer for the return of Christ.
”While we admire and respect President Carter, our focus is on Jesus Christ, the crucified Son of God who came to reveal to all humankind the love and grace of God,“ says the church's Web site, www.mbcplains.com. It contains the schedule of the Sundays that Carter teaches.
Although the church's emphasis is on Christ, Carter certainly is a draw.
His class begins punctually at 10 a.m.
The church building opens at 8:30 a.m., but it's best to get there at least by 8 a.m. to get a seat up front in the sanctuary.
Any overflow is seated in the adjacent Fellowship Hall and can watch the class on a 36-inch TV after Carter makes a brief appearance.
There is no dress code or charge, although the Sunday school takes up an offering in mahogany collection plates that Carter made. The money goes to the church's general fund.
Everyone entering the church is subject to search by the U.S. Secret Service. Visitors may bring in cameras, video recorders and purses, but not scissors, pocketknives or other metal objects.
The church makes no reservations and provides care for young children.
Visitors may take a picture of Carter at the first part of the class but not after he starts teaching.
The church has recorded his lessons since the early 1990s. Tapes of them are available for a fee through order forms: $15 for an audio CD and $35 for a video DVD.
For those who stay for the 11 a.m. worship service, the Carters, depending on their schedule, might remain after the service for each visitor or group to have a photo taken with them, either outside, if the weather permits, or inside the church.
Church members gladly use visitors' cameras to take a picture.
The wait goes quickly.
Visitors may not ask for autographs from the Carters and are urged to express only a quick ”thanks“ to them and don't stand between them or try to hold or shake their hands.
Carter does not like classes to applaud him.
”The applause you give him is how you live out the lesson he teaches,“ Williams says.
Walking and talking
During a lesson, Carter likes to ”walk and talk,“ often asking questions. He rarely looks at his notes on a wooden lectern.
At the beginning of the class, he will ask a visiting minister or missionary to pray.
On the last Sunday in June, after his question about visitors, Carter talked about his work with the Carter Center in Atlanta. It has programs to alleviate human suffering and to promote human rights and peace, and several of its interns were present.
When Carter mentioned the center's work in Liberia, a voice in the audience made a comment.
”Yes, darling,“ he said to his wife.
The lesson that Sunday came from Hebrews 13. It was about levels of Christian love.
Carter summarized the lesson by saying, ”The core of our existence is to love others through Jesus Christ.“
In his book, Living Faith, Carter urges everyone ”to love God and the person in front of you,“ a philosophy that he says is difficult to implement but that he has tried to live.
To end the class, Carter prays.
In the quietness of Maranatha Baptist Church, visitors can hear, seeking God's blessings on their lives, the man from Plains who does not waver in his belief in the promises of Christian faith and America.