I made a very Baptist version of a pilgrimage this weekend, visiting Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School class in Plains, Georgia. I had been saying for a while that I wanted to go, and then he made the announcement about his cancer and I realized that I needed to quit messing around and actually make it happen. Jimmy Carter is a particular hero of mine for the same reasons that you would probably expect: his integrity and his faith and his work for women. I felt that I needed to go and see him for myself, to pay tribute in some small way.
Actually making the trip happen, though, was quite a lot of work, with a long drive and not much sleep on Friday night just to be sure I got a ticket. They called them tickets but they were really more like vouchers. Okay, they were scraps of paper. I was number 48 (out of a possible 400).
Ticket secured, I explored Plains, texting pictures and stories to my friends, calling it a southern version of Stars Hollow. The guy at the Trading Post (which sells political memorabilia) who couldn’t stop rattling off political jokes. He was sure to offend you one way or another in two minutes or less. The woman at the antique shop who lent a stranger her car – I swear this happened – to drive a couple of blocks away and get tickets to see Mr. Jimmy in Sunday School. The lady at the visitor center who said I was “bold” to travel alone. (The woman at the antique store echoed her and said, “I like a lady who will travel by herself.”)
But I’ve had a change of heart about the kind of story I want to tell about this experience. After worshipping with them at church on Sunday, I find that I don’t want to reduce them to characters in my humorous story about visiting a small town. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed their eccentricities and I will probably never get over watching someone hand a stranger her car keys (she said, “My husband is going to think I am crazy,” and I could not disagree), but I was struck by the humanity and hard work that everyone in that town puts in to make sure that the visitors have the best possible experience.
There’s a certain authenticity to life in a small town that I am hesitant to romanticize, but I do recognize it in a place like Plains. You can’t hide who you really are when you live and work and worship together, and your sins and your shortcomings and your flaws will find you out in a different way than they would in a larger community. The flip side of that is that your warmth and kindness and welcome is less hidden as well. Bumping up against other people can clarify who you really are in a lot of ways, and I saw kindness and quick apologies and grace this weekend.
I think that is the lesson of Jimmy Carter’s church and of Plains, GA, that I will carry with me: authenticity. It is surely the message of Jimmy Carter’s life and his work as well. The main event was meant to be the Sunday School class, and it was an honor to attend and to hear a former president talk so openly and honestly about his faith and to see his gentle spirit and glowing smile. It is amazing to see him and I am unbelievably grateful I did it while I had the chance. But he and his church know a secret: the point is not just to hear the teachings of Jimmy Carter, the point is also to see him in his community with the people he loves and lives with and who share pot luck dinners with him. This is the fruit of their lives, and I had just a taste, and it was good.
When I went up for my picture with the Carters, he turned his smile on me and said, “How are you today, sweetheart?” in his smooth Georgia accent. I did not have to be reminded to smile at the camera.
I will treasure the memory of this trip for a long time and I trust that, like any good pilgrim, I did not return unchanged.
This is a news story about the class I attended (possibly the only time I will ever link to Fox News, don’t read the comments).