PLAINS, Ga. (CNN) — They came to see Jimmy.
Not James Earl Carter Jr. Not “Mr. President.” Not Georgia’s ex-governor. Not the Nobel Peace Prize winner and accomplished humanitarian.
Three days after receiving his first radiation treatment targeting four spots of melanoma on his brain, the 39th president was at Maranatha Baptist Church in his sleepy hometown of Plains to deliver a Bible lesson.
People flocked from all over the country — and to a lesser degree, the world — to see this spectacle, to see this former leader of the free world teaching Sunday school as if he were an average Jim.
But to folks from Plains and the surrounding area, it’s no spectacle at all. He’s done this a few times a month for decades, they say. He’s a fixture around town.
Sure, that fixture comes with a Secret Service entourage, but visit Plains for any length of time and you’re likely to catch a glimpse of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, perhaps at church or a local event or perhaps taking their Trikkes for a spin.
“Me and Jimmy talk about everything but politics. We talk about fishing, hunting,” said Randy Hathaway, a 10-year member of Maranatha and its engineer.
He holds out his hand to demonstrate the size of the bream you can catch in “Jimmy’s pond” — the one down past Carter’s boyhood home, over the railroads tracks, “down in a little valley.”
The bream are great for a fish fry, Hathaway said, and where some ponds in the area aren’t stocked so well, at Jimmy’s pond “you’re pretty guaranteed to catch fish out there.”
Hundreds of lessons over the decades
Though Carter has been teaching Sunday school lessons since he was 18 — at Plains Baptist, in the Navy, at First Baptist in the nation’s capital — this was his 689th lesson at Maranatha, where he and Rosalynn have been members since shortly after they departed the White House.
Ron Lipe, 59, of Columbia, South Carolina, told CNN he brought his son and mother to see one of Carter’s lessons 11 years ago.
He decided he’d bring his wife of 35 years, Helene, to Sunday’s service. But Lipe didn’t want to be in the back with the media parade and its bank of cameras.
“I’m going to spend the night right outside the door,” he told a journalist setting up Saturday at 10 p.m. for the next morning’s events. “I want her to have the best seat in the house.”
To be clear, this was 12 hours before Carter was slated to speak, but Lipe came prepared with water, granola bars and an extension cord to charge his phone.
As it turned out, church spokeswoman Jill Stuckey didn’t think it was Christian to let Lipe sleep on folding chairs outside the church. She sent him home Saturday night with a promise that he and Helene would have a front-and-center seat when they arrived in the morning.
(Stuckey later explained she wasn’t looking forward to the throngs converging on the quaint sanctuary: “I cannot tell you how sick I feel about the thought of turning people away from our church. … We could possibly have someone flying in from Spain for this.”)
Sure enough, in the morning as the media filed in, there was Lipe on the front row in a gray-and-white striped tie and matching slacks, feeling fresher for the few hours of bed sleep he’d enjoyed.
Helene Lipe was delighted to be front row for the lesson. Carter was the first president she and Ron voted for, and they’ve always admired his everyman demeanor.
“He’s a real person. He just seems real,” Helene Lipe said. “There’s a sense of falseness to politicians. It’s just his down-to-earth honesty.”
Added her husband, “He goes out and picks up a hammer where other ex-presidents just go and give speeches.”
Ron Lipe said he wasn’t at all surprised that Carter was keeping his commitments when, considering his health, anyone would give the former president a pass.
“That’s just Jimmy Carter. That’s just his dedication to people,” he said.
An example of a humble life
Presidents tend to “live bigger lives” after the Oval Office, said Ken Mariano, who traveled from Manchester, New Jersey, and was in line outside the sanctuary at 5:30 a.m.
“President Carter is humble,” the 34-year-old political science teacher said. “He went home.”
Carter’s life and lessons seem to resonate with even political persuasions that he didn’t count among his allies while in office.
Tyler Knierim, 19, of Terre Haute, Indiana, had been planning to make the 650-mile pilgrimage for two months. He was particularly impressed with Carter’s assertion that one’s love for his fellow man “shows your love toward God,” he said.
“I’m a conservative, but his values from the day he was born until now make him a wonderful person. He really defines the ex-presidency,” he said.
Six hundred and fifty miles may sound like a haul, but it certainly wasn’t the farthest folks traveled to see Carter’s lesson.
Cricket Keating, 44, a former middle-school classmate of the Carters’ daughter, Amy, and Lilian Beck, 34, traveled more than 700 miles from Columbus, Ohio, to take Ron Lipe’s place at the front of the line. The church and its parking lot were vacant when they arrived at midnight.
Keating attended church in Plains when she was a kid, and though she’s lost touch with Amy, Keating wanted to celebrate her Saturday birthday there. Jimmy Carter was always “very dear and welcoming to me” as a child, she said.
“I wanted to be among the people supporting him. I needed to be among the crowd that is behind him in his fight — in his latest fight,” she said.
When Carter entered the mint-green sanctuary, his own handmade persimmon cross serving as his backdrop, he began his lesson by asking congregants from where they’d traveled.
“Georgia!” one parishioner volunteered, followed by Alabama, Tennessee, both Carolinas, Nebraska, Ohio, Kentucky, Ghana, Iowa, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Texas, Illinois, Mississippi, California and Guatemala.
One congregant said, “D.C.!”
“I used to live there!” Carter quipped.
‘At ease’ with what’s to come
In his Thursday news conference, Carter seemed fearless about what may come as he told reporters he’s “at ease” and OK with whatever happens. In fact, he seemed to regret that the cancer might put a damper on his volunteerism, namely a Habitat for Humanity trip to Nepal in November that conflicts with one of his treatments.
He kept with the theme Sunday, telling the crowd of about 300 packing Maranatha’s main sanctuary — along with another 150 watching a television feed in the church’s Fellowship Hall — that he intends to continue leading Sunday school, teaching at Emory and working with the Carter Center to the best of his ability.
“That’s enough of that subject,” he said, cutting off the cancer talk to begin his lesson on agape love, or “love for someone who is not lovable” — a key tenet of Christianity.
Leaning on the books of Acts and 1 Samuel, Carter smiled, his eyes twinkling, as he retold the tales of Paul and Barnabas parting ways and of David sparing Saul’s life to impart a lesson on forgiveness and conflict resolution.
That was the best part for Mildred and Wayne Calhoun’s 10-year-old grandson, Joshua, who traveled from Jacksonville, Florida, on Saturday. They weren’t disappointed when they were relegated to the overflow room to watch on TV.
“I thought it was a good sermon. He told you what you need to know in life and about love,” the youngster said. “It was wonderful to meet the president of the United States.”
Before the 45-minute lesson began, Jan Williams — who locals know as Ms. Jan — made it clear that Maranatha members were quite protective of Carter, especially now that he is battling cancer.
Secret Service would screen everyone, she said. There were no pocketbooks or backpacks allowed in the sanctuary — only keys, cameras and “money for the offering plates.” (Carter made those, too, of Philippine mahogany.)
Whatever you do, “Don’t say, ‘I’m so sorry you have cancer,’ ” she said, reminding everyone of the power of positive reinforcement.
Handshakes spread germs and were prohibited, as was applause both before and after Carter’s lesson. There’d also be no lollygagging during the post-service photographs that the Carters afford to those who attend the Sunday service.
When getting your photo taken, keep your hands out of your pockets where the Secret Service can see him, she warned, and groups and families should not attempt to take photos with the Carters individually.
“If you come up by yourself, I won’t say anything,” Carter said later. “I’ll wonder why you don’t have any friends.”
Jokes aside, concern for the hometown hero’s well-being extended beyond the brick walls of Maranatha.
At a birthday concert for Rosalynn on Saturday night, the Carters’ neighbor, Stephanie Wynn, an 11-year member of Maranatha, worried that the large crowd could get out of hand.
“You want to be welcoming but not a spectacle,” she said in the parking lot of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site. “To everybody else he’s a world figure, and to us, he’s part of our family. … We put leaders on a pedestal. He takes the pedestal and uses it.”
Asked her thoughts on the news of his illness, she grows quiet, thinking about her words.
“I feel pretty good about his ability to overcome,” she said.
That’s a popular sentiment around town. You can’t turn down a street in Plains that doesn’t have a “Jimmy Carter for Cancer Survivor” campaign sign in someone’s yard.
Pressed on why she grew quiet before answering, she seems pensive at first, then sad — as if she didn’t want to consider the worst-case scenario.
“He’s honest when he says he’s OK with what happens,” she said, explaining that the reason he’s such a successful fighter for peace is because “his peace comes from within.”
Betty Pope, 81, of Americus — who served on the Peanut Brigade, the grassroots organization that helped usher Carter into the White House in 1977 — noted how “spry and active” the Carters remain.
Pope was sitting in front of the Carters during the birthday concert and reveled in the couple of 69 years holding hands during the show and “I felt Jimmy’s feet tapping behind me.”
News of Carter’s health did not alarm her, she said. For one, Carter had already told his fellow Maranatha members of his diagnosis the Sunday before he told the world. But more important to Pope was Carter’s belief in God, she said.
“He’s not afraid at all. His faith is going to see him through,” she said.