Magazine article The Christian Century

At Small Georgia Church, Ex-President Still a Draw

Magazine article The Christian Century

At Small Georgia Church, Ex-President Still a Draw

Article excerpt

With its aging storefronts and small train depot, its graceful pecan trees and clipped fields of peanuts, cotton and hay, peace still seems possible in the tiny town of Plains, Georgia.

And nowhere is that peace protected more fiercely than at Maranatha Baptist Church, where former President Jimmy Carter teaches adult Sunday school class two or three Sundays every month.

Jan Williams, who taught Amy Carter when she was in fourth grade, is the head peacekeeper at the simple country church set in a grove of pecan trees. At 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, Williams--known universally as "Miss Jan"--steps out of the church's front doors and encounters a line of visitors.

"Are you a member of the Secret Service?" a woman in the line asked, noting the men wearing earpieces who stepped out behind her. "No, I'm Jan Williams. I'm in charge," Williams said. "They say I'm too dangerous to carry a loaded gun."

Even though Carter left office 30 years ago, security remains tight at the church, which is open to anyone who wants to come to Sunday school. But first they have to get past Miss Jan and the Secret Service.

A civilian Marine and a bomb-sniffing dog check each vehicle. Secret Service agents comb the church, sometimes checking each hymnal in the pews. Everyone who comes in, including regular members and Williams herself, is stopped as pockets and purses are checked with a metal-detecting wand.

Williams was one of the Maranatha members to realize early on that if they were going to continue to enjoy Carter's Bible-based teaching, and also keep their church open to visitors, the church would have to have some rules.

"It was a circus," Williams said. "People were standing up to take pictures. They were talking. It was not worship; it was entertainment. We had members going home because there was not room to sit."

That's when Williams took charge. "My church maybe will have the one-time witness to someone who has never had the opportunity to hear the gospel," Williams said. "For many, it is the first time they have ever been to church or to a Christian service."


The line moves inside, guided by other members, including Williams's husband, George, who hands out bulletins. Six visitors are seated on each row in the center section of pews; portions of the side pews are reserved for members.

Williams describes for visitors how Carter will ask where they were from, and she orchestrates as people call out places from around the world: China, Korea, Denmark, Brazil, and every state, it seems, from Alabama to Wyoming. …

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