By Michael P. Murphy
It’s called the Saguaro Club, an active Christian fellowship of seniors at Chaparral Christian Church in Scottsdale, Arizona. Make that very active.
When this group was formed in 1983, five married couples had the youth and vision to lead it. Neil and Marilyn Litzenberger were invited to participate as sponsors, but Neil’s parents were in the group and he preferred to give them their space. That didn’t last. Neil’s parents were having so much fun that, after a year, he and Marilyn decided, Why not? They signed up as sponsors.
Back then Marilyn was 42 years old and Neil was 41. Now at ages 75 and 74, they continue to have the time of their lives sponsoring the Saguaro Club with the same youthful enthusiasm as when they started, and the group is all the better for it.
No Cliques Here
The saguaro cactus is the elder, upstanding statesman of the desert—its longevity inspired the name of the Saguaro Club, which has such a strong, faithful core of seniors. The original members were proof positive of that.
“These were people who welcomed anybody who came through the door,” Marilyn said. “It was probably because of them that it became as successful as it did because they were always there and always inviting new people. They became the core group of the senior citizens that made it attractive. They were a group that didn’t reject anybody. Anybody that came in the door could be a part of that group—there was no cliquey feeling among the seniors. They were just wonderful people.”
Wonderful people who loved Christ and wanted everyone to share in the fellowship of other Christians. It was a generation that had lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, and they knew how to be satisfied with what they had. Mary Cartwright, a staff minister at Chaparral, humorously noted the generational difference between the Saguaro Club and the young married couples she leads.
“Potluck dinners with the Saguaro Club are a lot different than the group I lead,” she said. “They bring their home-cooked meals. At my potluck dinners everyone goes to Costco and brings stuff already made!”
But it’s not only potluck dinners. Neil and Marilyn have organized at least 100 Saguaro Club trips in town, out of town, and out of state. Marilyn knows a thing or two about putting together a reasonably priced day trip or an extended group vacation, and she and Neil are a very capable team working out the details for trips, dinners, and other events.
Marilyn likes to tell the story of a visitor who joined them on a Saguaro Club trip. Before boarding the bus the visitor told Marilyn that she was a nurse and she didn’t want anybody to know. Too many people like to pester nurses about their ailments and she did not wish to deal with that. Or so she said.
“We probably hadn’t been out of Phoenix for 30 minutes and she was telling people she was a nurse,” Marilyn recalled. “I said something to her about it and she said, ‘I can’t believe these people! They aren’t asking me what to do about a sore shoulder, they just want to know about me!’ It’s that kind of love for each other and love for God that everyone always demonstrated.”
So Much Fun
Success grows quickly. The first Saguaro Club journey out of Phoenix was to San Diego, traveling in two vans. The next year the destination was Catalina Island, and by then the Saguaro Club was popular enough to charter a bus. Neil considers Branson as the most ambitious trip because it required more than the usual planning.
“They had so much fun that no matter where we went or what we did, I don’t know how to describe it, the fellowship was there,” Marilyn says. “It was a true fellowship.”
Neil and Marilyn scout potential vacation sites themselves to determine if they would be workable for the Saguaro Club. However, even the best laid plans . . . . “We went to New England and had perfect weather the second week of October,” Neil said. “So we planned the second week of October the following year to go with the Saguaro Club, and it rained every day. We couldn’t see the colors either, it was so rainy. We spent all the time wiping the windows of the bus with paper towels!”
Some trips have a funny punch line, such as the one to northern Arizona, which Marilyn remembers very, very well. “One couple went on a trip with us and their daughter was with them,” she said. “We got back on the bus after we’d been to the Painted Desert. I said ‘OK, I think I’ve counted everybody. Does anybody know if anybody is missing? Are you missing a roommate?’ Nobody said a word, so I told the bus driver, ‘We’re good!’ We didn’t even get out of the driveway when the daughter came up to me and said, ‘I think my dad’s in the bathroom at the rest stop.’ The wife didn’t even say a word!”
Every morning of a Saguaro Club trip begins with a devotional, and communion is served on Sundays. There have been some incredible backdrops—Yosemite is a particular favorite—but the most memorable communion was held overlooking the Pacific Ocean at San Simeon Beach in California after a morning visit to Hearst Castle.
“We’ve had communion in some really wonderful places,” Marilyn said. “Some days we’ve had to have it on the bus because it was raining.”
“We’ve had communion out in the mountains in Colorado a couple of times, and we’ve had it in bars when we’ve been on a cruise,” Neil added, laughing. “They couldn’t find anyplace else for us, so we said OK.”
A Real Ride
“The fellowship has been what has made this group,” Marilyn says. “You put them on a bus, give them some snacks, and they just have a ball! They have that much fun together. It has just been unreal. It’s been a real ride for us. When it’s that enjoyable, you don’t mind the work.”
Yes, it has been an enjoyable ride, even after 30 years sponsoring this special group of Christian seniors. But the Saguaro Club has gradually grown smaller over time. Some members have moved away, others gone to different churches, and many have passed away. No one’s health is what it used to be, yet they are still a strong, vibrant presence at Chaparral Christian.
When the time comes the Saguaro Club will end and a new group will take its place at the church. It’s the right thing to do. Until then, Neil and Marilyn continue to serve this ministry. They find it humorous to think that, now in their 70s, they’re not just sponsors, they’re part of the group.
“It’s just precious memories,” Marilyn said. “So many people have affected our lives through the years. It was just a connection of people, and the connection with the Saguaro Club is because they all know Christ.”
In the end, the Saguaro Club really is all about the fellowship—a fellowship in Christ.
Michael P. Murphy is a freelance writer living in Scottsdale, Arizona.