Yesterday, the 39th President of the United States announced he has brain cancer. Jimmy Carter, arguably the most active former president in U.S. history, shared the news with the world with amazing dignity and grace. Nearing his 91st birthday, Carter credited his faith and marriage for his happiness and longevity. He maintained a remarkable calm and humor as he answered several questions from the media.
I have only met one President in my life, and it was Jimmy Carter. It happened in a most unexpected way. As a student at Houston Baptist University, I had run for lunch at a trendy café between classes. Coming out, I noticed a black limousine across the street. I walked over to see what was going on. There, I learned that former President Carter was doing a book signing at a local bookstore. All I had to do to meet him was spend $20 for the book on hunting and fishing in South Georgia, stand in line, and be willing to skip my afternoon classes, hardly a sacrifice for a 21-year-old student.
I bought the book and stood in line. When I approached the small room where Mr. Carter was signing books, security told me I would enter the room, hand my book to the Secret Service men standing beside the chair where Carter sat, and was not to reach out to Carter or try to shake his hand, for security reasons. He would sign my book, then I would be escorted quickly out.
When I entered the little room, there were now four of us there: Mr. Carter, two Secret Service agents, and me. Lost in the moment, I reached my hand out to the former President, and as the agents moved toward me, Carter told them, “It’s okay.” Then he stood, shook my hand, and greeted me with great warmth, as though meeting me was his lone assignment for the day.
This is not the time or place to debate the merits of Carter’s presidency. As I watched his humble description of the fight he now faces, I remembered that day so vividly. The President of the United States stood to honor me, meet me, and shake my hand. He could not have been more kind or generous. It’s called servanthood. It’s called Christian love. It’s called being the presence of Christ in someone else’s life.
Of course, we don’t know what the days ahead will bring for President Carter and his family. Historians will forever debate his place in history. The great humanitarian made a difference for millions of people who needed a house for their family and food for their stomachs. And one day, 34 years ago, he blessed a 21-year-old college student. I have not seen him again, but one day I will. I have not had the chance to thank him, but one day I will. For now, I will pray for him and thank God for a man who understood the value of a handshake and a kind word. Thank you, Mr. President, for touching my life and millions of others. You have not met most of us. But one day, you will.