Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School, Here We Come!

“Honey, I have a strange proposal that I promise is not as weird as it initially sounds, just hear me out.”

I find that’s always a great way to start a conversation with my husband and really grab his attention. My proposal? That we load our four kids into the car over Thanksgiving break and drive from Chicago to Plains, Georgia to hear Jimmy Carter teach Sunday School.

My husband’s response was somewhere between disbelieving laughter and then holding his head in his hands when he saw that I was determined, like a dog with a bone. (I guess that makes me a hungry dog and Jimmy Carter a juicy bone? That’s an odd thought.)

Why, no, we aren’t Southern Baptists, why do you ask? I think Jimmy Carter talking about faith surpasses any religious denominations. He is as close to a living saint as any person I can think of. Plus, he does my favorite thing in the whole world when it comes to faith: he talks about what to do, instead of what not to do. He doesn’t wag a finger at anyone, preaching. Instead, he speaks about peace, lives by example and dedicates his life to the service of others. You know, kinda like that Jewish carpenter guy?

“What? But…why? 14 hours each way! In a minivan! With kids! For a church service? Whyyy?” moaned my husband. This went on for several weeks, but I perservered. You see, I’ve been on a Jimmy Carter mission ever since my Mom died three years ago. My Mom was a Letter Writer. She practiced the art of sitting down with a pen and paper and writing to people. Short little notes, long letters and everything in between, sending them to people she knew all around the world. She also sent them to people she didn’t know, but wanted to wish well, or say thank you, job well done.

One letter my Mom always talked about writing was to Jimmy Carter. She wanted to thank him for the kindness he shows in his everyday life, post-Presidency. He works tirelessly on behalf of Habitat For Humanity and continues to live a life of service, long after his official service as President ended.

When my Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, all thoughts of letter writing were pushed to the back burner. I was 30 and just starting my family. With each baby I had, my Mom’s illness took a turn for the worse. By the time my fourth baby was born, my Mom only had 18 months to live. It was both an awful and wonderful time, like Real Life so often is. My Mom was the kindest person I have ever known, the very embodiment of loving-kindness. Losing her was like turning off the tap to one of the biggest sources of pure love in my life.

Which brings me to Jimmy Carter. Who knew that my Mom has so much in common with a former farmer from Georgia turned President of the United States? But she does. They are cut from the same cloth of human kindness. And dammit, I was going to get a message to Jimmy on behalf of my Mom even if my husband had to spend 28 hours round trip in a minivan full of bickering children.

My kids need to be in the presence of a person like Jimmy Carter since they can’t be in the presence of their Gran, which pains me to no end. I think kindness is easier to absorb by example than to be learned through words. Jimmy Carter is living kindness. I want my kids to stand in his presence and absorb every ounce of his wisdom coming their way.

I want my kids to be kind. We teach our kids about kindness every day, but it’s a complicated concept to teach because I do not want them to confuse being kind with being nice. We all know people who are very nice, but not very kind. Niceness and Kindness are on two different continents, requiring a passport to travel between them.

Nice is a junior high kid running for class president who wants your vote; kind is a grandparent loving you fully with no judgement.

Nice is someone saying, “I’ll pray for you” while kindness is picking up a hammer and building a house for the homeless.

I say to them a million times a day, “Be kind! Use kind words!” but I don’t ever tell them to be nice, since that doesn’t carry as much weight in my eyes. Plus, it can be a dangerous thing to teach kids (especially girls) to be ‘nice,’ as it has a connotation of sitting quietly, smiling in the face of injustice, not making waves.

Kindness makes waves. I want my kids to make waves in their lives and in the larger world. Jimmy Carter makes waves. As he stated,

“If you fear making anyone mad, then you ultimately probe for the lowest common denominator of human achievement.”

Being nice means not making anyone mad, while being kind means you do the right thing regardless if it makes anyone mad.

Apparently my husband got tired of coming up with reasons we shouldn’t drive to visit Jimmy Carter, because suddenly, overnight, he surrendered and got on board. I called and booked our hotel room that minute, fearful he’d come to his very practical senses. Plains, Georgia is a tiny town, less than 700 people and there aren’t many places to stay; I got us the last room available in the next town over.

I figured I’d wait a while to tell my husband that there aren’t any guaranteed seats at Jimmy Carter’s church: seating is strictly on a first-come, first-serve basis. With the recent announcement of his advanced cancer diagnosis, more people are making the pilgrimage to Plains than ever before.

The overflow crowd watches Jimmy Carter teach on a TV monitor from another room. That would be…disappointing, to say the least, if we drove all that way only to watch him on TV from afar. I would never, ever hear the end of it and I’m pretty sure the story of us driving to Georgia to watch TV would be the eulogy at my funeral.

So I thought I’d wait a little longer (like maybe until we were actually in Plains, having a relaxing glass of wine with dinner) to tell my husband the teeny, tiny detail that people actually sleep in their cars overnight in the church parking lot to secure their place in line. (Listen, even I know a man can only take so much.)

While I was poking around online looking for Jimmy Carter-centered activities to do with the children, I stumbled on the website of a small, historic Inn right in downtown Plains. They said if you stayed overnight with them, you’d get reserved seating at church to hear Jimmy Carter talk. (It also said, by way of giving directions to the church, “At our only caution light, turn right…travel for about 1 mile and you will pass a large smiling peanut and the Maranatha Baptist Church will be on your right.” I am already officially in love with this place.) I grabbed a phone and called.

The woman who answered was lovely, friendly and kind. “Oh no, we’re all booked for the next six months, ma’am. No ma’am, absolutely nothing available.”

I asked to be put on a wait list, however improbable that may be. That’s when she told me that if we stayed with them on Sunday night, after church services were over, that would get us reserved seating.

Yes, please, I’ll take it! But there’s a catch, I told her. We’re bringing our four children to hear Mr. Carter speak, so there are six of us that need a room.

“No problem, ma’am, I have roll-away beds I can put into your room for the children,” said no hotel that I’ve ever spoken to anywhere else, ever— other than in Plains, GA.

Since I was on a lucky streak, I thought I’d go for broke. I explained to her that I was coming to Plains for my children and also for my Mom, who didn’t get to write her letter to Jimmy. I explained that my Mom was the music director, pianist and organist at our church and that I grew up playing with her at Mass. And now, because of her, I’m a professional musician in Chicago. Is there any way, perhaps she knows someone I can talk to, it’s just that I’d be so honored if I could possibly, maybe, somehow, play my violin at Jimmy Carter’s church that day?

“Well,” she said, “it just so happens that I’m the pianist for the church. How about you bring your violin and you and I will play some good old Southern Baptist hymns together? I’ll talk to the minister and the music director- I’ll get it all squared away.”

By this point, I was yelling and laughing. “Are you kidding me? You play the piano and organ? Just like my Mom did!”

“Yes ma’am,” she kept saying.

“Isn’t God hilarious?? Don’t you just love how life works? What are the chances? My Mom must be laughing her off head up in heaven right now!”

This lovely lady was catching my enthusiasm and started laughing, too: “God is Great! God is Great!” We were both shouting now. Well, as much as a Southern lady shouts, anyway. As a Chicagoan, I was full-on shouting. The Universe is a magical place.

I am ecstatic: my kids will get to be in the presence of the embodiment of human kindness and I get to play my violin for this great man in his church, the way my Mom taught me. I just know my Mom is loving this and has been busy pulling strings up in heaven to make this all happen.

Yesterday, I got a reservation confirmation from my new friend, the pianist at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. And at the bottom of the email she wrote: “Don’t forget your violin!”

Not a chance.


I look forward to hearing from you!


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