One of my heroes—both in writing and for her spiritual wisdom— is a woman by the name of Pat Schneider. Recently I wrote a profile about Pat for the online magazine Literary Mama. During this past week of Lent we were looking at what it means to be in community with people on the margins. Pat Schneider knew something about being on the margins. She grew up desperately poor and spent part of her childhood in an orphanage. If it weren’t for a few people who stepped out of their comfort zone to stand with her in the margins, it’s unlikely she ever would have made it out of poverty.
One of those people was her seventh grade teacher who took it upon herself to visit Pat in the tenement building where Pat lived in St. Louis. The only thing this teacher did was to express confidence in Pat, in her good mind and abilities. She didn’t linger or stay. In fact, the young Pat was so astonished and ashamed that her teacher had visited her family’s dirty and roach-infested apartment, that she didn’t want to let her in. But she never forgot how this teacher went out of her way, to perhaps make herself uncomfortable, to express words of faith and encouragement in Pat.
The other person who had a profound impact on Pat’s life was a pastor of a church that Pat attended. He convinced his congregation to pay for Pat to attend college, which was her path out of poverty. He, too, visited the young Pat one day in her tenement building to tell her about the scholarship his congregation had planned. Pat was so far out on the margins, she didn’t even know it cost money to go to college.
Pat went on to graduate school where she met her future husband, a Methodist minister, and together they worked for social justice in and around their community of Amherst, Massachusetts. Pat was a writer. She wrote plays and librettos and poetry, and she wanted to teach writing at a university. But as a mother of four young children and because of her husband’s career, she couldn’t just pick up and move. So she began teaching writing workshops out of her home.
Pat had a gift for teaching writing. She believed passionately that everyone can write. She also believed that when we are able to write our deepest truths, including our deepest suffering, we can begin to heal from those experiences. In response to her own experience of growing up in poverty, Pat began a writing workshop with women who lived in low-income housing in a mill town in western Massachusetts. Many of the women had not had the benefit of much education. They had difficulty spelling. So each week after their workshop, Pat would copy by hand what they had written, with her own words of praise and encouragement in the margins. Next she typed up each woman’s writing with correct spelling and punctuation. This was before computers, so she typed it on her typewriter. Now each woman could see her words and see them in a format that gave them a kind of dignity and legitimacy.
Pat wrote in her book How the Light Gets In that this process took hours. In fact, it took the entire day every Sunday. Each week after doing all this work as she drove to the place where she met with the women in the Chicopee Housing Project, she vowed she was going to quit. It just took too much time, time that could be devoted to other projects or her family. Precious time she did not have. She would fume and ruminate all the way to the workshop.
But then each Sunday night when the workshop was over, after all the women, including herself, had written and taken turns reading aloud their writing, on the return journey home, Pat’s heart felt light. She recognized that feeling. It was joy.
And that was enough to keep her going for another week.
Many of the women who were in Pat’s writing workshop went on to get a college education and rise out of poverty. A number of them became leaders in the writing workshop method that Pat founded called Amherst Writers and Artists.
Pat Schneider died in August of 2020. But the community she cultivated with so many people—including people on the margins—has left an ever-expanding circle of hope that is immeasurable.
Pat’s story makes me think of people in my own life who were willing to be with me during times when I felt on the margins. I have been thinking a lot about my piano teacher, with whom I studied for ten years when I was in grade school and elementary school. She introduced this young farm girl to composers like Bach and Chopin and Dvorak and expressed confidence in me again and again, creating opportunities for me to play on stage for others. I think, too, of my freshman college professor who knew I was the first person in my family to attend college. I had never taken an honors class in high school (none were offered), but he saw in me someone who loved ideas and wanted to learn. He became a mentor, and when I applied for a scholarship to study at Oxford University in England, he believed I could do it, and with his faith and encouragement, I did.
All of which is to say, we never know what God is up to when we open ourselves to letting God use our gifts to strengthen the Body of Christ. Especially for people at the margins. Because here, God does God’s best work. Here, God is ready to make astonishing things happen.