For the first time ever, the former president taught a second class to accommodate the faithful

By Sara Hammel
Updated August 23, 2015 03:20 PM
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Credit: David Goldman/AP Photo

More than 800 people lined up in the wee hours outside the tiny Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga. on Sunday to hear Jimmy Carter teach his 689th Sunday School lesson, with the crowds eventually filling the sanctuary and an overflow room, before the former president volunteered to do double-duty and teach an unprecedented second class.

Days after he shared the grim news that the cancer found in his liver is melanoma and has spread to four “very small” spots in his brain, the much-loved humanitarian seemed in high spirits.

He was energetic enough, in fact, that when he learned hundreds of people would have to be turned away, he volunteered to teach another class at the local Plains high school for the first time ever.

“He wanted to accommodate as many people as possible,” the church’s pastor, Rev. Jeremy Shoulta, tells PEOPLE. “He voluntarily chose to do that, and ended up being able to teach just about everyone who showed up.”

During his lesson – whose theme was love – Carter, 90, did “what he does best,” adds Shoulta. “That’s sharing his faith and encouraging others to love one another. He did not miss a beat. It’s hard to believe that he went through a treatment just a few days ago, and comes to church today and does a marvelous job.”

The former president opened with an enthusiastic “morning everybody!” Explaining “I like to know whom I’m teaching,” he asked churchgoers where they were from and received responses from people from as far away as Guatemala.

He briefly referenced his diagnosis and went on to promise the congregation he’ll continue his teaching at church “as long as I am able.” But the unflagging Carter admitted he’d finally have to start pulling back on his rigorous schedule, which includes work for The Carter Center, Emory University and Habitat for Humanity.

When he turned to scripture, his teaching included the Sermon on the Mount in the Book of Matthew, from which he read, “I say to you love your enemies and pay for those who persecute you.”

Says Shoulta, “President Carter taught on a subject that exemplifies who he is – loving your neighbor as yourself. People were tuned in and focused, and were receptive to his entire lesson. It was inspiring and it motivated everyone to continue on in their call, whatever challenge they may face themselves.”

Looking on with pride was Rosalynn, his wife of 69 years, who was feted at her 88th birthday party the night before.

“She was beaming,” says Shoulta. “She was glad to see him teaching again and additionally, several members of his family were present. So all the more reason for her to be smiling and to enjoy the morning.”

Close friends have said the Nobel Peace Prize winner is handling the challenge well, and the pastor concurs.

“To see his faith and his hope in the midst of this challenge is an inspiration to people everywhere who may face life’s greatest challenges,” Shoulta says. “He shows us what it means to be thankful for a life well-lived.”