Dave Kotinsky/Getty
August 15, 2015 02:00 PM

Jimmy Carter‘s hometown of Plains, Georgia – population around 700 – is reeling after the beloved former president’s announcement on Wednesday that he’s been diagnosed with advanced cancer.

Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, are fixtures in the sleepy Southern town. They regularly attend services at the local church, where Carter still teaches Sunday school; they’ll often visit Main Street, where a giant sign proudly proclaims his status as Plains’ most famous resident; or they’ll wander in for a bite at local favorite Mimmie’s Diner.

Willie Raven, who cooks for and helps run the family-owned Mimmie’s on Church Street, tells PEOPLE the community is heartbroken by the news that doctors found cancer in Carter’s liver that has spread to other parts of his body.

“I’m really sad,” she says, her voice cracking. “I hope he can pull through it.”

Such is the Carters’ relationship with the community, that stories abound about their personal touch and genuine displays of concern.

“My husband died on March 31. He had leukemia and didn’t know it for a [long time],” Raven says. Carter, who wrote the foreword for her late husband Milton’s book Archery: A Historic African American Community Southwest of Plains, Georgia, brought Milton some solace with a one-on-one visit. “He came and talked to my husband,” Raven recalls.

While close friends have said the former Nobel Peace Prize-winner is handling the challenge well, Jeremy Shoulta, pastor at Maranatha Baptist Church – where Carter was looking well and teaching Sunday school on Aug. 2 – says the congregation felt the blow of the announcement.

“It is hard to hear,” Shoulta says. “It comes as a shock; your heart skips a beat, and not in the right way. So when we heard the news, we were caught off guard because he had an operation to remove a mass on his liver, and the prognosis afterwards was very good.”

The couple will lean heavily on their faith, he adds, in the same way he would counsel his own congregation to cope.

“I would tell people this is a community of faith, and we operate under the notion that there is hope because of our faith,” he says. “Sometimes that hope might seem difficult to grasp, but I encourage people to continue to pray and support President Carter in this circumstance, and to have faith that God will be with him, no matter what kind of road the next few weeks will take.”

Adds Shoulta, “We can take a cue from [Carter] and stay positive.”

The church, in fact, is still expecting Carter to teach his scheduled Sunday school class on Aug. 23, though Shoulta adds that when more is revealed about the status of the president’s condition in the coming days or weeks, that could change.

One thing is certain: Carter will be missed should he have to stop his church work.

“It’s a sucker punch to the stomach,” says close friend Jill Stuckey, who frequently dines with the Carters and also helps shepherd some 300 churchgoers on days the former president is in the house, when the congregation swells from its usual 35 people. “We’re just trying to catch our breath. The community of Plains dearly loves President Jimmy Carter and he makes us a priority and we make him a priority. We’re trying to do everything possible to support him in his time of need.”

Statewide, his political friends and allies are rooting for him. Says Carter’s longtime friend DuBose Porter, chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, “He’s in Plains a lot, and he loves going home, and he loves being engaged there. He’s just so personable.”

He adds, “The reaction is concern, because you love him so much. The work at The Carter Center in Atlanta is global, but what it’s meant here is very personal. It’s like someone you’ve grown up with and know and love, has had some bad news and you want to help them through it.”

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