I first spoke to former President Jimmy Carter during his Sunday school lesson at his church.
An elder had warned the group of around 50 people that he would ask pastors to stand up and identify themselves at the beginning of the class.
Around five or six of us stood and shared what denomination we were with and what state we were from.
He asked a woman minister to open the proceedings with prayer, held in the sanctuary of Maranatha Baptist Church in his hometown of Plains, Georgia. The congregation is a Cooperative Baptist church and not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, which Carter left decades ago over the right to ordain women to ministry.
The longest-lived American president celebrated his 99th birthday recently.
Carter entered hospice care in his home on Feb. 18 of this year.
I first saw him on Saturday, Oct. 30, 1976, when I was nine years-old. The New Orleans streets were swarming with people and he and Mrs. Carter walked the length of the parade route, while my dad helped supplement local law enforcement. Carter was just a few feet away from me on his way to victory as the 39th president the following week.
Carter spent the next day, Sunday, at home in Plains, as he had every Sunday throughout the campaign.
And it was in Sunday school on July 10, 2011, that I spoke with him, two days after witnessing the final space shuttle launch.
During his lesson, the scripture referenced Mount Sinai, and Carter paused to mention that when he was negotiating the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, Mount Sinai and the Sinai Peninsula were a source of contention. Carter said it was an example that this region of the world had been in conflict from ancient Biblical times through the modern era.
Carter negotiated the end of a clash nearly as old as recorded history.
Despite assassinations and constant regional strife, the treaty negotiated by an American Baptist between Egypt and the Jewish nation remains in effect. The Christian Carter accomplished what no one else could for 5,000 years.
After his lesson, I suspected I might have a chance to speak with him when I went to the restroom.
The Secret Service had already scanned all the visitors and our belongings, so the entire building was considered “secure.” That’s why Carter entered the restroom alone while I was washing my hands.
He walked with a cane and had giving the Sunday School lesson seated on a stool. He blamed his bad knee on too much tennis growing up on the family tennis court, now a museum I visited the day before.
“When I tell people about this later,” I said to him, “I’m going to tell people I didn’t ask to shake your hand.”
He smiled gently as one would when interacting with a fool.
“Where are you from,” he asked.
“Richmond, Virginia,” I said. “On the way to Nashville for the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.).” He nodded and I continued. “You gave a great lesson today. I loved how you personalized it.”
“Thank you,” he said, taking his turn at the sink.
“Have a good morning,” I said, as I made my exit.
We each returned to our seats for the remainder of the service.
After the recessional, the elder in charge of visitors announced that Mr. Jimmy and Miss Rosalynn would pose for photos with visitors. More than half the congregation left, leaving the original Sunday school attendees to stand in line to get our pictures taken. I believe I handed my camera to a man who might have been a Secret Service agent. We got a good picture with the couple and moved on.
Four years later, nearly to the day, I spoke to President Carter again, when he met my daughter.