For Cancer-Stricken Jimmy Carter, Faith Is a Verb

Former President Jimmy Carter poses for photographs at a July event in Philadelphia for his new book “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety.” (The Associated Press)
Former President Jimmy Carter poses for photographs at a July event in Philadelphia for his new book “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety.” (The Associated Press)

Jimmy Carter was president of the United States. Jimmy Carter helps build houses with Habitat for Humanity. Jimmy Carter led the Carter Center in eradicating much of the Guinea worm plague in West Africa.

Jimmy Carter is a (mostly) unashamed Baptist. Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday school at the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga.

Jimmy Carter has cancer.

Yet in announcing that he had contracted that dire emblem of mortality, and that it had spread throughout his body, the 90-year-old insisted that he would only “adjust” his schedule accordingly. An adjusted schedule is the most accommodation cancer is going to get from Jimmy Carter, as he made clear Thursday in a graceful and courageous press conference.

I first spoke with the former president in 1996 in a phone interview arranged by the Christian Century as part of a review the editors asked me to write for his book, Living Faith. Through that volume and the conversation, I learned something of what “centers” him then and now. We talked about the book’s focus, tracing the impact of Southernness and Baptistness on his life from the de facto integration of his Georgia-farm boyhood, through his naval and political careers, to his post-presidential “volunteer” service with the Carter Center. We met face to face two years later when I joined a group of moderate, left-of-center former Southern Baptists for a discussion of ways to engage with more conservative, right-of-center Baptists still affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. The divisions among us were so great that even meeting together was problematic. So Carter held separate “summits” for each group, trying valiantly to hammer out a statement of cooperation for shared commitments to ministry, all to little or no avail. He had used similar methods in negotiating with Israelis and Palestinians to produce the Camp David Accords, an endeavor somewhat more successful than with the Baptists.

Undaunted by Baptist obstinacy, Carter again invited some us to partner with him in forming the New Baptist Covenant, a loose interracial coalition of Baptists aimed at “action, reconciliation, and transformation” through “fellowship and cooperation.” The organization’s first convocation in Atlanta in 2008 drew some 15,000 persons, probably the largest multi-racial Baptist gathering ever held in the U.S. In 2009, a regional New Baptist Covenant assembly was held in Wait Chapel of Wake Forest University, with Carter as one of the speakers along with Charlotte pastors Clifford Jones and Amy Jacks Dean, Maya Angelou and WFU Divinity student Matthew Johnson. The movement continues to this day.

Over the years, as a historian of the Baptists, I have become convinced that one cannot fully understand Jimmy Carter’s life, work and present response to cancer apart from the centrality of his faith, and the fact that he has taught Sunday school consistently for over 70 years.

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SOURCE: Winston-Salem Journal
Bill Leonard

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