Most of my life, living in the Deep South, I have felt like a fish out of water. Holding progressive views on race, immigration, sexual orientation, and women has made me truly weary. These views and the people who hold them are so often condemned in Southern churches. And because I have a weakness for wanting to be loved, I grieve greatly every time I am excluded for standing up for what I believe Jesus taught. Most of my life, I have felt like an outcast and most of my life I have been. However, I do find myself grieving less and less when I am rejected now. I have learned spiritual disciplines, which enable me to open my heart to the Holy Spirit’s comfort and guidance and truly love those who condemn me.
However, yesterday, as we stood in line for Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church where President Carter was teaching, I experienced something deep in my spirit that I had never experienced before. We got there about 7am and cars were already lining the road outside the church even though Sunday school wouldn’t start for another 3 hours. It was such a friendly crowd, most were southern to the core, but others had come from all over the country. One family near us was Jewish and from New York. They had been vacationing at Disney World, when they learned that President Carter had cancer. They decided to take a break from Disney World, rent a car, and drive to Plains to hear him teach Sunday School. They were headed back to Disney World immediately after worship.
As we stood in line, a member of the church, driving an old beat-up truck that said, “I dig peanuts” came around – partly to entertain us while we waited, but partly to direct traffic. His wife, who we also met, lived in the White House with the President while “home schooling” Amy. He had even marched in the “peanut brigade” during the inaugural walk to the White House.
“Tell me about your church?” I asked.
He had been a member since the church was started in 1977. It was started, because the big Baptist Church in town wouldn’t allow African-Americans to attend. He told us over and over, “Everyone is welcome here!”
It suddenly struck me how President Carter had his beginnings in a town that did not share his view of Jesus’s teachings. This stirs my soul – encourages me – gives me a connection that I never had before. President Carter got his start and lived his entire life in a part of the country where he was in the minority – where racism, sexism, and homophobia were not only part of the religion then, but are still practiced proudly there today!
And yet, President Carter, against all odds, somehow made it to the White House. And even yesterday, after finding out he had brain cancer, continued to teach others how to follow Jesus with a message that is the heart of the gospel: “Love your enemies!”
For the first time in my life, being progressive and a believer in Jesus didn’t feel lonely and burdensome. It felt good to be a member of this tiny minority and so very grateful for this little band of Jesus followers in Plains, Georgia.