Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com. In the photo above, Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter posed with Katie Evans and her parents, Sue and Randy Evans, outside Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, in 2011.
Back where I came from, you do not expect to have a bomb-sniffing dog circle your car when you pull into the parking lot for Sunday church services.
But that is what occurred. After the dog’s sensitive nose checked our car, a man on the front step gave us a quick once-over with his hand-held metal detector. Then an usher directed my wife, our youngest daughter and me into a pew in the second row of the sanctuary of the simple brick building with a thin spire.
Of course, until that day in April 2011 I had never been to church when a former president of the United States was teaching the Sunday School lesson. It is easy to become flummoxed—even for an editor who has conversed with presidents and quizzed many wannabe’s—when Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter slide into the pew beside you.
Memories of that morning at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, the Carters’ hometown, were refreshed recently. On October 1, the oldest former president in United States history turned 99. Three months earlier, on July 7, the Carters celebrated their 77th wedding anniversary, a distinction that surpasses any other presidential couple.
Too many of us judge our leaders simply by their political affiliations, instead of their character. We expect those who lead to solve every problem that comes along. But even people who considered Jimmy Carter’s presidency to be mediocre, at best, surely would agree his post-presidency has been outstanding.
Plenty of Republicans live in and around Plains, a farming community of 600 people, and they would verify that conclusion. The Democrat known for his toothy smile is beloved in Plains, despite his politics.
After losing to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Carter returned to Plains, promising never to trade on his fame to enrich himself by joining corporate boards or giving speeches for fat fees. Instead, he was determined to make the world healthier, safer and a better place for the downtrodden and the needy among us.
That was why the Evanses were in Plains in 2011.
After leaving the White House, the Carters began volunteering for what was then a little-known Georgia nonprofit group called Habitat for Humanity. It helps build and renovate affordable housing. The initiative was founded the same year Carter was elected president.
Habitat now stretches around the world, thanks in no small part to the Carters. For 35 years, they devoted at least one week a year to building houses with teams of volunteers they inspired. By the time advancing age forced them to put down their hammers and take off their nail aprons in 2019, the couple had become the face of Habitat’s volunteer force.
Their week-long housing construction effort each year was called the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project. They and a combined total of 100,000 other volunteers have built 4,300 homes across the U.S. and in a dozen countries overseas, too.
That was how Katie Evans, fresh from receiving her degree from Iowa State University, became acquainted with their legacy in 2008.
She was part of AmeriCorps, the federal government’s initiative that encourages community service and volunteerism. After Hurricane Katrina, she and other AmeriCorps team members were sent to the Gulf Coast. Habitat for Humanity’s Carter Work Project was held there in 2008, and it attracted thousands of volunteers who came to build much-needed houses in communities devastated by the storm.
Katie and her crew kept the volunteer builders supplied with construction materials. She marveled at the stamina of the Carters, then in their early 80s. She was impressed with their determination to make a difference for people whose lives were torn asunder by Katrina.
Three years after first seeing the Carters in action, this kind-hearted Evans offspring moved to Americus, Georgia, ten miles from Plains, and joined Habitat for Humanity’s headquarters staff.
When she was packing for Americus, I was aware the Carters sometimes dropped by the Habitat offices. I sent a note to Jimmy, telling him how impressed Katie had been with the couple’s work along the Gulf Coast. I suggested he might welcome her to Georgia if their paths happened to cross at Habitat headquarters.
Surprisingly, Carter sent a note asking Katie to call his secretary. That led to a telephone conversation with Jimmy and Rosalynn and then their invitation for Katie and parents to join the couple some Sunday for church.
Now you know why we came to be seated next to the Carters in their pew at Maranatha Baptist Church on that pleasant spring morning twelve years ago. As he had for many years, Jimmy taught the Sunday School lesson that morning, too.
He concluded it as he always did by asking everyone there to do one good thing for one other person during the week ahead. It might be calling a friend who is lonely, mowing the lawn for an elderly person, or taking a cake or cookies to a neighbor. Through one simple gesture like that, he said, people can help can change the world.
Whether you are a Democrat, a Republican, or an in-betweener, one of Jimmy Carter’s fundamental principles should guide each of us, too:
“I have one life and one chance to make it count for something,” he said some years ago. “My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can, with whatever I have, to try to make a difference.”
Happy birthday, Mr. President.