THE BLOG
08/31/2015 05:36 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2016

Jimmy Carter, Oliver Sacks and Me

Two people I've long admired announced this year that they had terminal illnesses: Dr. Oliver Sacks and former President Jimmy Carter. Both have lived consequential lives and are role models for me on how to behave during my last months of life (many years from now, I hope).

Oliver Sacks, a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, died on August 30 at age 82. He was the author of many books, including "Awakenings" and "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat." In a February 2015 New York Times op-ed piece, Sacks announced that widespread metastases meant that he probably had only months to live and he intended to live them in the richest, deepest, most productive way he could. And he did.

In August 2015 Jimmy Carter, age 91, announced that cancer has spread to his brain. He also expects to carry on good works and live the rest of his probably short life to its fullest.

Carter and Sacks both expressed gratitude for having lived long, productive, and healthy lives and described them in their autobiographies. Carter takes solace in his faith, while Sacks, in a moving NY Times piece, said, "I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life -- achieving a sense of peace within oneself." Though their theologies differ, Sacks and Carter had much in common about how to act on important and practical things that matter.

My background and beliefs are a lot more like those of Sacks than Carter. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, Sacks became a Jewish atheist. I'm sorry I never met Oliver Sacks, but I know from reading his books that he was a great and inspiring humanist.

Jimmy Carter is the only United States president I've known on a first-name basis, if only for a week--an experience I wrote about in my book, Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt.

In the summer of 1988, I saw a notice appealing for volunteers at a Habitat for Humanity project in Atlanta, where Carter would participate. Fortunately, it said no experience was necessary, because I knew nothing about building houses, but I was enthusiastic about working alongside Jimmy Carter.

Each of the 200 volunteers in the project worked on one of twenty houses. I was pleased to see that Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter were there to work, not for photo ops, and they were excellent workers. Some had worked with Jimmy on other Habitat projects and treated him like any other volunteer. I eventually stopped gawking and tried to pretend that Jimmy Carter was just one of the guys.

I knew that Habitat for Humanity was a Christian organization that did good works, and I was happy to engage with such Christians, but I didn't know how Christian it was. There were prayers to Jesus before breakfast, lunch, and dinner, along with inspirational sermons. Habitat founder Millard Fuller was a tremendous and forceful speaker. After one of his sermons, he asked Jimmy Carter to say a few words. Carter said that Millard was a tough act to follow, and he was right. Had Carter been as inspiring and skilled a communicator as Fuller, he might have been reelected president.

I told Millard Fuller that he could attract more volunteers if his inspirational messages were more inclusive. I had talked to other Jews (all atheists) working on the project and they too were uncomfortable with the Christian religiosity expressed.

"After all," I said, "we're all here to build houses for poor people." I was shocked by Fuller's response: "Not me. I'm here to build houses for Jesus." He even told me he would stop building houses if he believed Jesus didn't care.

I preferred Jimmy Carter's brand of Christianity to Millard Fuller's. Whatever his views on Jesus, Jimmy made it clear that he was there to help give poor people the opportunity to help themselves. When Jimmy asked where I was from, and I said "Philadelphia," he told me he had worked in poverty-stricken communities around the world, but the worst one was in Philadelphia. The community he described was a few blocks from Temple University, my alma mater.

During one of our workdays, a reporter from a Jewish newspaper in Atlanta interviewed me about what it was like for a Jew to work with a Christian organization. As she was asking me a question, Jimmy Carter passed and said, "Hi Herb." The reporter stopped mid-question and said, "Wasn't that Jimmy Carter?" She then lost interest in interviewing me, though she dutifully continued.

Workers for Habitat ate lunches and dinners at different black churches in the region. Once I walked with Jimmy into a church auditorium for dinner, and all the church members stood and applauded enthusiastically. I whispered to Jimmy, "I hope you don't mind. This happens to me wherever I go." My comment did not elicit a smile from him. I still think Jimmy Carter is a wonderful person, even though he didn't laugh at my little joke.