Locals make pilgrimage for presidential preaching

Ashtabula resident Eli Kalil, left, and his girlfriend, Shelby Pechinko, right, pose with the former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn during their visit to Plains, Ga.

Former President Jimmy Carter, now 95, still draws huge crowds to Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., every week for his Sunday School sermons.

It wasn’t a typical road trip, but Kent State University at Ashtabula graduate Eli Kalil of Ashtabula, and his girlfriend, Lakeland Community College student Shelby Pechinko of Harpersfield Township, made the pilgrimage over the weekend.

The couple arrived in Plains around 3 p.m. Saturday. 

“We visited the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, which included his old high school, Plains High School, where he met his wife Rosalynn, his boyhood farm, and the giant Jimmy Carter Smiling Peanut,” Kalil said.

“We arrived at Maranatha Baptist Church around midnight on Sunday as record crowds were expected and the event was a first-come-first-serve basis.”

Maranatha’s website had advised visitors they could get a sanctuary seat if they showed up before 5:30 a.m. Sunday.

But two days before Sunday’s service, the church put out a message advising visitors to arrive before 2 a.m., according to the website.

The couple slept in their car overnight, allowing them to be among the first in line to get sanctuary seats for the service.

“President Carter delivered a powerful message regarding resurrection and life after death as a Christian,” Kalil said.

“He discussed his cancer diagnosis after making a trip out of the country several years ago, where he discovered he had a problem with his liver which ultimately led to the discovery of brain cancer.”

Carter noted he struggled with the concept of death growing up and now is at peace with it, Kalil said.

“President Carter said he wished the United States could be a superpower in world peace and equal rights and made a call-to-action for the congregation to reach out to someone who needs it,” Kalil said.

“Whether it be a homeless person, a neighbor that you haven’t talked to in a great deal of time, or a significant other, we should all strive to do something that will make a positive impact on even one person’s life.”

Kalil said it was an honor and a blessing to meet the Carters.

“Whether we agree with his politics or not, it is impossible to deny his impact on humanity,” he said.

“If every individual in Ashtabula County worked to make at least one other person’s life better, our county and country would be undeniably greater than it already is. The 28-hour round trip to Georgia was an experience that will last a lifetime.”

Kalil, who is working on his master’s degree in public administration at KSU, also has served as a legislative aide in Columbus.

According to the church website, Carter uses his celebrity to bring people to Maranatha to hear the word of God.

Church members said the former president, who actively involves himself in church affairs, considers it his mission. 

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