In recognition of President’s Day, I’m sharing this story about the time I attended Sunday School with Former President Jimmy Carter and how he set me straight about Noah. This visit took place in the early 2000s.
Anxious for the Bible study lesson to begin, I sat in a pew fidgeting at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., sitting between a friend and a stranger. Having grown up Catholic near Buffalo, N.Y., the Southern Baptist Church was new to me. After waiting for an hour, the church’s then pastor, Rev. Daniel G. Ariail (pronounced like “Ariel” from the movie “The Little Mermaid”), welcomed the group of about 300. He announced, “We want you to know you are not a burden and we are happy to have you join us.” Continuing with a smile, “Please remember, we’re here to worship God and not Jimmy Carter.”
Anticipation of Sunday School with a Former President
Following his presidency, Carter returned to his hometown of Plains with a current population less than 800. He and wife Rosalynn have been, and still are, active in the community, including teaching Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church. As Ariail told us of the Carters, “they’re plain people here. Jimmy takes his turn cutting the church’s grass and Mrs. Carter takes her turn cleaning up the building.”
The pastor fielded questions as we awaited the start of the 10 a.m. lesson. Carter emerged from a back door five minutes ahead of schedule, almost startling Ariail. Knowing the routine, the President posed momentarily as camera flashes lit the room. He smiled that famous toothy smile and said hello to familiar faces.
Wait. How Many of Each Animal Did Noah Bring Aboard the Ark?
After briefly polling visitors where they were from, he launched into Genesis, Adam and Eve and then Noah. “How many of you think that Noah brought two of each species of animals aboard his ark? Please raise your hand.” I knew this must be a trick question, but I raised my hand anyway, as did the majority of the congregation.
“Noah brought aboard seven of each species of clean animals and birds and only two each of the dirty animals, like snakes and gnats.” Hearing his answer, I gasped and questioned my Catholic upbringing. What else had the nuns kept secret from me? After an awkward pause, he broke the silence with, “If you take anything away with you, take this.” We laughed.
Loosely following the Sunday School booklets, the lesson progressed quickly,. The last ten minutes were spent reading Bible verses where audience participation was vital. The President called out bible verses and the first one to locate it would raise their hand and be called on to stand and read aloud. I’m embarrassed to say, I got lost between the Old and New Testaments.
Singing Along With Jimmy
A fifteen-minute break followed the 45-minute lesson and the pastor invited us to stay for worship. Interestingly, most of the visitors left.
The service promptly began at 11 a.m., complete with Secret Service shadows, sitting alongside the rest of the congregation. We sang with Jimmy (duly noted, as compared to us Catholics, Baptists sure do a lot of singing) and gave our offerings in wooden plates he hand-crafted.
Following service, the Secret Service escorted Carter through the backdoor. Like sheep, we followed the crowd out of the church, said thank you to Ariail and stood in a short line to meet the former President.
Meet and Greet then Smile
As Ariail earlier told us, Carter will pose for photographs following the service because he’s, “a long suffering man.”
Having it down to a science, the church volunteers quickly organized the line and expedited the photos in less than an hour. There was never a feeling of being rushed and the local folks were extremely kind and shared their favorite stories of Jimmy.
When it was our turn for a photo, Mr. Carter flashed that famous grin and in his kind, Southern voice, granted us a “good morning.” The 80-something-year-old quickly stood in the Kodak posing position and click, click, the experience was over. .
Secret Service agents whisked the famous Sunday School teacher away while others stripped off their Sunday jackets and hopped in non-Secret Service looking cars. Maybe they had Sunday football to catch or perhaps a nap.
My Biggest Takeaway?
Driving back to Florida, I realized that something happened that particular Sunday. I contemplated whether it was the fact of connecting with my spirituality or being the student of a person I highly respect. No, it was the piece of trivia I was left to ponder: there were seven of each (clean) animal species, not two, aboard Noah’s ark.