Originally created 06/05/99

Visitors found Carter Sunday school worth the wait



Serendipity linked the apostle St. Thomas, some Augustans traveling to Plains, Ga., and former President Carter.

The members of St. Mary's Syrian Orthodox Church in Augusta planned for three years to visit Mr. Carter's Sunday school class at his hometown church, Maranatha Baptist. Their day finally came at the end of April.

The president's topic was "Faith and Resurrection, based on Jesus' appearance before St. Thomas (John 20)," said the Rev. Mathews Edathara Thomas, vicar of the Augusta church.

The Augustans were thrilled. It was the apostle Thomas who founded the first Christian communities in India along the Malabar coast, the country's Californialike southern tip, which juts into the Indian Ocean. During the latter half of the 19th century, people began to emigrate from the southernmost Indian state of Kerala in search of better jobs. Today, members of the Syrian Christian community of Kerala are settled in almost all parts of the world, he said.

While at Maranatha, the Augustans learned that Mr. Carter cuts the church lawn and that Rosalynn Carter takes turns vacuuming. "The members of (St. Mary) felt good about participating in the chores of our church since President and Mrs. Carter are doing similar chores," said the Rev. Thomas.

Maranatha, the second-largest Baptist church in Plains, has about 128 members. They work hard to make people feel welcome, from directing cars to greeting visitors, said the Rev. Dan Ariail, pastor. More than 10,000 visitors came to Plains for the classes last year.

Plains, with a population of only 716, "is a very busy small town," the Rev. Ariail said. "I could use a little boredom once in a while, but I usually don't get any."

The church is on North Bond Street/Georgia Highway 45N, on the edge of town. But it is not hard to find. When people see "the smiling peanut," they are about 300 yards away, he said.

The 12- to 15-foot fiberglass structure flashing a Carteresque grin was a gift from supporters in 1976. "If you are standing by it, you can see the church," he said.

Visitors line up as early as 8:30 a.m. for the 10 a.m. class. Most stay for worship at 11. Overflow crowds -- the sanctuary seats about 450 -- can watch services on a large-screen television in the fellowship hall. Mr. Carter always drops by the hall to greet people.

The Sunday after Easter, close to 700 attended Maranatha. "If it wasn't a record, it was close," said the Rev. Ariail. On April 21, 1996, 28 foreign countries were represented.

Mr. Carter bases his teachings on Formations, published by Macon-based Smyth & Helwys. Mrs. Carter has also taught, but lately attends her husband's class.

The church lists the dates when he will be teaching on its Web site and on a telephone recording, but would-be visitors are cautioned to check a few days ahead to confirm the schedule.

The Rev. Ariail also advises groups of 30 or more to call. The church does not take reservations, but it does try to coordinate visits. Four touring buses pulled up one recent Sunday -- three were expected. Everybody got in, but they weren't comfortable, the Rev. Ariail said.

Tapes are also available: $7 for audio and $20 for video. Volunteers run the equipment.

Mr. Carter taught 33 Sundays out of 52 last year, said the Rev. Ariail, who wrote a book in 1996 about his relationship with the flock's most famous member. The Carpenter's Apprentice was published by Zondervan of Grand Rapids, Mich., and sells for $15.95.

"No congregation on Earth has what we have," said the Rev. Ariail. "Everybody who comes has to sit through a Bible study to get what they came for."

For more information, call (912) 824-7896 or visit http://sowega.net/(tilde)alcrump/maranatha/.

Virginia Norton covers religion for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (706) 823-3336 or vanorton@augustachronicle.com.