Written by By W. Evan Golder
'Here she is, the underdog in our minds, yet she doesn't see it that way.'
Margaret Saunders, 88, uses her computer to clear away patches of a mine field. W. Evan Golder photo.
Suppose you were legally blind, deaf to all but the loudest sounds, and approaching your 87th birthday. How would you choose to celebrate?
For Margaret Saunders, a lifelong member of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland, the decision wasn't difficult. She bought her first computer.
"My typewriter wasn't working any more," she says, laughing at the idea, "and I needed something to write letters. That's what got me started. For example, I recently wrote Sen. Feingold, commending him for standing up against the presidential prerogative to declare war on Iraq without Congress."
"That's just the way she is," says her pastor, the Rev. Laurinda Hafner. "Here she is, the underdog in our minds, yet she doesn't see it that way. I think of all the letters she has written to legislators, corporate executives, the White House, etc., all on behalf of the underdog. And all as part of her life of faith."
Looks at bright side
Saunders grew up in Cleveland, the only child of a pharmacist and a teacher. Born with congenital cataracts, she underwent five operations on her eyes in her first five years, all to no avail. So until high school, she went to special classes for the blind, where she learned Braille.
When she was 7, a friend brought her to Sunday school at Pilgrim, where she was baptized two years later. "At church, I recognized something that I wasn't getting elsewhere in my life," she says.
"I don't know how my faith got started. I was little at the time," she laughs, "and I didn't analyze it that much." That's how she converses, with lots of laughter and delight.
"I do get discouraged at times," she says, "but I make a special effort to try to look at the bright side of things—and my faith helps me to do that. I know that God wants the best for me and that God will work out any problems that come to me. I know that, after all, I'm a child of God like anybody else and if I remain receptive to God's care and guidance, I'll be OK."
Four letters at a time
After high school, Saunders won a scholarship to Oberlin College. Later came a master's degree in social work from the University of Chicago, followed by 25 years as a social worker at a major hospital in Cleveland.
This was possible because of a dramatic change in her life at about age 14.
During a routine visit to the doctor, while he was called to the phone she started fiddling with some test lenses, holding the glasses frame out in front of her and peering through them. Suddenly she found that she could see. The doctor was impressed, but couldn't see that it was at all practical. "He said, 'Do you want me to prescribe something that hangs out in space?'" she says. But he did agree to contact an optical company. The result was a telescopic lens that attached to her glasses—already with very thick lenses—and protruded about an inch in front of her face.
"With that lens, I could see about four letters at a time," she says, "and that's still what I can see, about four letters."
Even so, she scans the daily newspaper and reads newsletters from the church and environmental and peace organizations. Occasionally she tackles a book, for example, one by Marcus Borg for a discussion group at church.
Midway through her 39-year marriage, she began to go deaf, a distressing circumstance for one who depended on her hearing to compensate for her poor sight. For 15 years a hearing aid helped, but no longer.
"There are times when it is very discouraging to try to cope with things when you have several disabilities," she says. "When I get very frustrated, I just have to calm down and pray for patience and the ability to rely on God for a solution."
After her hearing loss, technology helped reconnect her to the world. First came her TTY, a relay system that allows her to phone by typing messages to an operator, who then reads them to her caller.
Then came the computer. Using a software program called ZoomText that enlarges characters from two to 14 times, she has learned to use word processing, e-mail and the Internet.
"Do you know about the website ?" she asks. "Every year 8,000 children are killed or mutilated by land mines. But you can go to this site once a day and click to clear away a little bit of a mine field. The mine clearance is paid for by corporations, because of their advertising when you go to click."
'Garden variety Christian'
"As we get older, most of us seek safety in routine and in what always has been," says Hafner. "But not Margaret. She's not afraid to dive into scary places; she just jumps in and leaves us all in her wake.
"Her computer is just one example," she says. "She's been out in front doing peace and justice work for years, she was a leader in our church's Open and Affirming process, she writes poetry in our creative writing class and she still plays the piano for our Christmas caroling. And she probably has more contact with our members than anyone else, since she's constantly writing cards and notes to those in need of a comforting word."
Through all this, Saunders sees nothing special about her life.
"I am just another garden variety Christian and church member," she says.
Not so fast, says the Rev. Robert Winegarner, Pilgrim's pastor during the '70s.
"Nothing ever stopped her," he says. "She always took on what others with full abilities wouldn't do."
"Yes, I have had challenges, but so has everyone else," says Saunders. "I have partially met some of them, but so has everyone else. I'm grateful for what I do have and for the life that I've lived. I don't care if I die tomorrow or in the next decade." She laughs. "It doesn't matter."
Profiles in Faith is about models of faith in the United Church of Christ. The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor of the national edition of United Church News.