His grandson, 28-year-old Jeremy Carter, had died just hours earlier.
Sporting his typical bolo tie, the 91-year-old Carter arrived about 25 minutes late for his regular Sunday school class at Maranatha Baptist Church — the first time he’d ever been tardy, he said — and offered a surprising amount of insight into his family’s heartbreak before delivering his previously planned lesson.
But the fact that he appeared at all was the real message, attendees said.
“I’m not surprised,” Maranatha member Jan Williams said. “That’s the kind of Christian he is. Everything that happens in life, good or bad, he uses as a teaching experience. He lives his life as a lesson for other people to see.”
Nebraskans Rose and Jerry Jaspersen visited the church Sunday on their way to see family in Florida.
“You do your ministering every day,” Rose Jaspersen said. “… My heart goes out to him. He lives his faith every day.”
Carter told the crowded church that his grandson hadn’t been feeling well Saturday and laid down to take a nap at his family’s home in Peachtree City. His mother checked on him later and discovered his heart had stopped.
He died early Sunday at the hospital. A cause of death was unclear.
Church member Jill Stuckey described Jeremy Carter, the son of Jeff and Annette Carter, as a “great, fun-loving guy” who came to Plains whenever he could. Pastor Jeremy Shoulta said news of his death hit the congregation hard.
“(Jimmy Carter’s) decision to come teach Sunday school is indicative of his character, how important this church is to him, teaching is to him,” Shoulta said. ” … The past few months have been a very emotional time for this church. There have been moments of great joy, of sadness, of grief. The church has done all it can to life the Carters up during this difficult time.”
Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter was not present Sunday.
In August, Jimmy Carter announced that doctors had found four small melanoma lesions on his brain after removing a similar lesion from his liver. He said he would receive four drug treatments, along with radiation therapy, and that he would cut back significantly on his schedule.
At a Habitat for Humanity build in Memphis last month, Carter said he had completed his round of four treatments and was feeling good. A week later, the Carter Center released a statement saying his doctors at Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute had told the former president recent tests showed no evidence of new malignancy and that he was “responding well to treatment.”
On Dec. 6, Carter told the Maranatha congregation that new scans showed no signs of cancer on his brain or liver. He later clarified that he is continuing treatment.
Sunday, Carter encouraged churchgoers to “be filled with a sense of joy and thanksgiving,” even in the face of sorrow.
“I should be joyful and thankful to God for giving me both life and freedom,” he said.
He stayed through the full church service and took pictures with well-wishers afterward, not wanting to disappoint.