Jerry and Kathy Merritt got presidential treatment while attending church last weekend.
The local couple made a 385-mile trip to Plains, Ga., to attend a Sunday school class taught by former President Jimmy Carter. The couple then stayed for regular services at Maranatha Baptist Church and had their picture made with the former president and first lady afterwards.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Kathy.
Added Jerry, “I haven’t been a lot of places and had access to a lot of famous people so this was really unbelievable for me.”
Jerry said he learned on the Internet the former president has been teaching a Sunday school class for more than 20 years. President Carter joined Maranatha Baptist shortly after leaving the White House in 1981 and lives about one mile from the church.
“I figured it would be a small Sunday school class and they wouldn’t let just anybody walk in, but they do,” said Jerry. “He taught it in the main sanctuary to 300 people.”
However, getting to hear Carter’s lesson wasn’t as easy as putting on your Sunday finest and strolling through the church doors.
The Merritts arrived at the church Saturday morning at 8 a.m. and waited in line five hours to be issued two tickets.
They returned to the church Sunday morning at 8:30 a.m. and had to pass through Secret Service security. Jerry said this was much like going through airport security where you must empty your pockets and pass through a handheld body scanner. No handbags or purses are allowed in church, only Bibles and cameras.
At 9 a.m., a church representative gave an hour-long orientation speech. This included a history of the church, some facts about President Carter, and rules that must be followed. Jerry said church visitors were told not to make any sudden movements and not to ask Carter any questions. If Carter asked a question to the class, they were free to re-spond.
Carter entered the auditorium at 10 a.m. and called upon someone in class to open in prayer. Then he began his les-son.
“It was on Timothy and it was about loving people and being someone who spreads love yourself,” said Carter. “It’s not just up to leadership to spread love. It’s up to everybody.”
Everyone who attended class and then stayed for the regular church service was eligible to have their picture made with the Carters. Jerry said the line moved quickly as visitors were told it was picture time only and not conversation time. Because President Carter is battling cancer, he was not allowed to shake hands.
“One of the things that sticks with me is he is a very educated person who handles himself well, yet he is still a plain person,” said Jerry.