WALTERBORO, S.C. (BP) -– Sweat trickled down the small of Mary Saunders’ back. Her lips were dry and cracked. She was thirsty but the line at this Somali bush medical clinic was long. She was tired but there was still a lot of work to get done. The people had no food or water. Malnutrition was severe in 1992 during Somalia’s civil war.
A loud crooning noise interrupted the nurse’s thoughts. Two little girls with burnt orange hair and distended stomachs toddled toward Mary as fast as their stick-like legs would go, squealing with excitement. They remembered Mama John — Mary’s African name, stemming from her oldest son’s name. She helped them when they were near death. She brought food for their entire village.
The girls wrapped their arms around Mary’s legs and she stooped down to give a hug. In that moment, she forgot the heat, hunger, war and rampant disease. She remembered only that it was for “such as these” that she had come to the mission field in 1951.
Mary, who died on April 23 at 90 in Walterboro, S.C., lived an adventurous and spirit-filled life that took her from a childhood home in Charleston to serving a world in need. She began working as a nurse during World War II and then as a Foreign Mission Board (now the International Mission Board) missionary in various African countries.
Mary and her late husband Davis pioneered Southern Baptist missions work in East Africa in 1956. They were among three families that left the Nigeria mission to start new work in East and Central Africa. In Kenya, they started the first Baptist churches organized in the country. They also served as the mission board’s first field representatives for the Eastern and Southern Africa administrative region. During their tenure, Southern Baptist work grew from three African countries to 33.
Friends and colleagues said Mary touched the Father with one hand while touching a needy world with the other. The 40-year veteran missionary couldn’t help but give reassuring touches and hugs. It’s how she showed love — her own and God’s.
Retired missionary Nancy Jones and her husband Tom served with the Saunderses in Kenya. Jones said Mary taught her about being a missionary nurse in Africa and the basics all began with touching people in God’s love.
“Mary really loved people and you could see that in everything she did,” Nancy remembered about her mentor and friend. “Any time there was a need or a call for help, she was there. Sometimes, the lines at our clinics would get long and it would be time to close down for the night but Mary didn’t want to turn people away.”
Nancy worked with Mary to start a clinic and women’s ministry in Mathare Valley. At the time, in 1971, it was a growing slum with most coming in from the country (or bush) in search of jobs. This clinic was the only one for miles. They tried to teach mothers how to give their babies a healthy start to life in their new “city dwellings.”
The nurses noticed that many babies did not return to the clinic. Malnutrition was rampant in the new slum. Mary advised the others to feed their babies crushed peanuts but the mothers had no idea where to find food in the city. They had left their families and village farms to seek work but found themselves stranded in a metropolitan desert. The clinic was an oasis — a place where they found a helping hand and companionship. Many women heard the Gospel for the first time at this clinic and came to know Christ’s sacrifice.
Retired missionary Evelyn Moss said Mary had a unique way of combining all of her gifts into a channel for sharing Christ and discipling others. Evelyn explained that Mary came alive when she was with a group of African women and sharing His Word.
Mary taught a class for East African pastors’ wives and the favorite activity was going out and sharing testimonies at the village market. Mary packed up a portable pump organ and the women set up in a quiet corner. As soon as the missionary started pumping and singing, a crowd gathered and the wives went to work.
“She loved teaching the Scriptures to young women,” Evelyn said. “She also used her nursing skills among the poorest of the poor. And she did it with such poise and grace in spite of the unsanitary conditions.”
In 1973, the Saunderses moved off the field and became area directors for the board’s Eastern and Southern Africa region based out of Richmond, Va. This move didn’t stop Mary from returning to her beloved Africa. She helped with relief work and clinics in 1979 when Ugandan leader Idi Amin swept his ravaging hand across the country. Ugandan missionaries dropped her and a box of medicine at a church in the morning and returned to collect her in the evening.
Mary’s combination of nursing and evangelism skills were called upon again in 1985 when famine struck Ethiopia. She was part of a team that administered nearly $4 million from world hunger offerings. At the time, it was the largest human needs ministry sponsored by Southern Baptists.
For five straight months, Mary went to sleep to the cries of hungry babies. She’d walk beyond the gates of the feeding center among hundreds of bone-thin, blank-faced Ethiopians. Daily she found at least one adult or child who had died a few hours or minutes before her arrival.
The veteran missionary and a team stationed in five different locations gave out food, provisions and medical care. “You really could not talk about God’s love to a mother whose baby is dying,” Mary said at the time. “You have to minister in love to the baby, and that gives you a wide open heart from the mothers.”
Her ministry in Ethiopia extended far beyond the walls of her feeding station and into the surrounding villages, even up into the cliffs and mountains. One day, a helicopter pilot found some starving Ethiopian Orthodox priests in a remote cave and brought Mary to help them.
The priests climbed up to this cave and fasted four days a week so they could seek God with all of their hearts. When the missionary nurse told them that she had sought God and knew in her heart that she had found Him, the priests’ eyes lit up and encouraged her to tell them more.
Mary told about the God of Creation, His Son and a book called the Bible. The eldest priest said they had heard of such a book but it was in a language they could not understand … a language used by “priests of old.” Mary gave them a Bible in their language to study. Weeks later, the priests came to the bush clinic carrying gifts of handmade water pots, teapots and goblets. They came to thank this woman who had given them the key to the mystery in their search for the true God.
It was this exact spirit of evangelism and service that friends, family and colleagues said will be missed the most … but, through the years, the legacy missionary nurse mentored many Africans and missionaries to carry on in her absence.
Mary is survived by six children: Mary Lee Thomas, Woodbridge, Va.; Danner S. Neal, Williamsburg, Va.; John A.L. Saunders II, Charleston, S.C.; Nina S. Ellison, Columbia, S.C.; Cathy Henson, Panama Beach, Fla. And Jeff L. Saunders, Walterboro, S.C. She is also survived by nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Susie Rain is an IMB writer/editor living in Asia. Art Toalston, Nina Ellison and Joy Shoop contributed to this article. To read more about “Mama John — The Lifelong Missionary Service of Mary Saunders,” go to http://www.amazon.com/Mama-John-Lifelong-Missionary-Saunders/dp/1563091712.