Hundreds make pilgrimage to President's rural church

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There are not many places in the United States where the line to get into church wraps around the building.

Then again, there aren’t many places where the Sunday school teacher is the 39th President of the United States.

“I honestly still can’t believe it’s happening,” said 18-year-old Kingsley Owusu Otoo, who brought along his entire family from Gainesville to hear President Jimmy Carter teach his class at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains.

Since joining Maranatha Baptist Church back in 1981, President Carter has regularly taught Sunday school and attended services with his family. His hour-long classes draw visitors from around the world, and people begin lining up early.  On this particular weekend…nearly 20 hours early.

“We actually got here at one o’clock in the afternoon [Saturday],” said Jeanie Miglis of Melbourne, Florida.  “But we had a vehicle we could sleep in.”

Not that she nor her husband Mitch got much rest.  “We’re like a kid at Christmas Eve,” said Mitch.  “We’re up all night, then people were coming in, we’re chatting with folks…so it was quite a lot of fun, a very social event.”  

Generally around eight o’clock Sunday morning, worshippers begin entering the church, filling the small sanctuary and an overflow room.  When President Carter arrives, he requests no standing nor applause from the congregation, insisting that he is just another member of the church.  

“Thank you for standing up this morning,” he told those lined up along the back wall of the packed church.  “I’m sorry about that.”  Then, he smiled:  “I’m not really sorry about it.”

Kingsley Owusu Otoo and his family sat close to the back of the sanctuary.  The recent Gainesville High School graduate had given an interview to the Faces of Hall County website in which he said of anyone in the world, he’d like to have lunch with President Carter.  

“It’s his humility, and his regality, in all aspects of his service.  [His] servant heart, and leadership in that regard.”

For those who remain through Sunday school class and the following service (led by Pastor Tony Lowden), President Carter and his wife Rosalynn remain to take pictures with visitors.  It’s a quick, orderly process, but no doubt an unforgettable one for those who make the pilgrimage to the small rural church.

“God loves His creation,” President Carter told the crowd. “We have to remember that.  Whatever our status in life might be, whether we’ve been fortunate or not, God loves us.”