One of my heroes died last week and I take a moment to remember the churchmanship of Rosalynn Carter who went to services — even when it was not convenient, and to Sunday school — even when it was a circus of tourists, and to prayer meetings — even when Jimmy was out of town putting feet to the prayers prayed by others. Along with her husband, Rosalynn mowed the lawn and cared for the gardens at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, for 30 years.
I met her only three times, and she will not remember me if we meet again at the great potluck in heaven. The first meeting was in the balcony at First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., where her husband taught a Sunday school class in the late 1970s. I took a group of William Jewell College students to Washington to visit with our representative, Tom Coleman, a Jewell graduate and young Republican member of Congress. Rosalynn greeted the dozen students from Liberty for maybe 20 seconds, and mentioned a Habitat for Humanity project in Kansas City led by her friends, John and Mary Pritchard.
The second meeting was at the Maranatha Baptist Church back in the mid-’90s, where a group of about 30 adults gathered for Sunday school even though her husband, the official teacher, was away monitoring an election. Following protocols, I dutifully occupied my chair 30 minutes before the class started. Rosalynn eventually entered and sat in the row in front of me and one seat to the right. During the scheduled time of greeting, we shook hands and I reminded her of the Pritchards and the Habitat project in Kansas City. We chatted about 20 seconds.
The third time I met Rosalynn came in December 2017, when I took a trip to Maranatha, hoping that Kansas City Northlander Ethlyn McCleave, then in her late 90s, could go with me. The weather turned bad on this trip and I am glad Ethlyn did not go. The adult Sunday school was held in the church sanctuary with maybe 125 people in attendance.
As Sunday school was dismissed, it was announced that one could get a picture of Rosalynn and Jimmy, if we stayed for worship. I stayed for the standard Baptist service, at which we sang from hymnals led by a lay worship leader who worked at the local feed store. A volunteer pianist, who was remotely kin to the Sunday school teacher, accompanied our singing. They said prayers, made announcements and checked on so-and-so to see why they were missing — were they sick or out of town?
After the service ended and locals were given an opportunity to fetch their coats and go home, the Carters sat in two unpretentious chairs and we pilgrims came to stand beside them for the photos we desired. We were instructed not to shake hands nor engage the former president and first lady in conversation, but to move up and out quickly. With these limitations in mind, I decided to not bring up the Pritchards and their Habitat for Humanity projects, the only topic of conversation we had ever engaged in.
So, standing there for another 20 seconds at the front of the Maranatha Baptist Church, and in defiance of the Secret Service instructions, I began quoting John 3:16. Rosalynn glanced over at me and joined the recitation while her husband, looking straight ahead at the camera, intoned his tenor voice.
I will always remember quoting scripture with Rosalynn Carter and her husband while violating the Secret Service’s orders. “Precious memories, how they linger.”
Jerry B. Cain served as chaplain and collegiate vice president of William Jewell College in Liberty and president of Judson University in Elgin, Illinois.