Finding Community on the Road

A trip can leave a lasting impression on you. Back in June, I had one of those trips. I attended the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability for the first time. I knew:

I would lead a workshop on Wednesday afternoon.
The list of speakers and topics intrigued me.
I hoped to connect with people during the free time.

Other than that, I didn’t know what to expect. This is the short version + snippets of the story.

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I created a corner “office” in our hotel room. They had a “Laura table.” That meant it was low enough to be my desk. I stood in that space, writing on the silver round table. Journals, Bible, pens, and books were all around me. I instantly had a sacred spot of solitude, yet my parents were present. They sat on one side of the room while I rested, read, reflected, or did final speech prep.

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The Accessibility Coordinator introduced me to a college student, Abby. She was available to assist me. I said, “yes, let’s plan for Abby to hang out with me Tuesday afternoon.

So my parents had the afternoon off. I needed the space to go to a workshop on my own. The one on navigating disability in relationships.

Two couples shared their experiences. They spoke of their dating days to being engaged and married + how they conquered the dynamics related to disability. I listened hard, taking notes and feeling lots of emotions. I could have cried. I sat on the edge of spilling tears several times. (I didn’t give in to crying. Who would wipe my eyes or help me blow my nose?)

Zach said that his mom had prayed for him to find someone. I thought, wow, my family and I never really talked about this. I’m not sure why. For a long time, I know I wasn’t ready or comfortable with the topic. I had fears and feelings of impossibility. I let the words I heard wash away my insecurities. Their stories were affirming to my heart. Love is not impossible.

After the workshop, I jumped on the chance to speak to them. I asked if we could talk further. Justin and Lisa were leaving the next day. I said, “It doesn’t have to be very long.

We agreed on that night upstairs in the hotel’s restaurant. Kirsty came down to get me. My heart was nervous about chatting with these two couples I had just met, but my need to connect and learn from them was much greater.

I let them share more as I searched for the courage to confess the fears I had carried for so long. One of them said something about being attractive and it’s not out of pity. They wanted me to be confident and fully believe in my dream. This night was a highlight. I gained four instant friends who completely understood me. I left profoundly encouraged and wishing we all lived closer.

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I found the room of couches in the church. The height of the armrest was identical to mine at home. This meant I could also stand there and do my work. My parents put my ear piece in my phone. Then they explored the sanctuary and gave me a few minutes alone. I blasted music as I prepared mentally to speak, reviewing my notes and silently praying. Mom and dad returned to check on me and hold up my water or coffee mug. Another guy and his mom soon joined us. We talked some. By this point, I didn’t mind. I had rested away from the crowd long enough. I later realized how helpful it was to answer their questions about my talk. I was ready to lead this workshop and share my story of thriving at church with a disability.

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On the last day, mom asked, “Do you need us? What time should we come back?

I said, “If you bring my food from the van, we’re good till 4:30ish.

We had a plan. My parents left to do something fun in Raleigh. I spent the whole day with Abby and my other new friends.

The Conference Chairman stopped us in the hall, “I’ve been hearing lots of comments about your workshop, Laura. Good job. It’s always harder to share in front of people you know (meaning my parents, aunt, and cousin who were present).” We agreed that it was great they could come support me.

In another session, a lady mentioned me, “Yesterday Laura made a great point about extending inclusion beyond the weekly service and I think it’s good to think of ways to do that.” It was really cool to hear my work being discussed.

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When the conference ended, I did not want to leave. I repeated to Kirsty, “I don’t want to go!

I know. We’ll keep in touch. Come back next year and come to our wedding!

Can I have a plus one?” I asked, knowing someone would have to travel with me.

Another man overheard us, “Oh is there a person?

“Eventually!

I delayed leaving and talked a little longer. We all said how freeing it was to be there and be completely ourselves. Nothing felt awkward.

As I said goodbye to Kirsty, she squatted down to my level. I thought she was going to embrace me and whisper something just to me. She took my arm and put it around her. She leaned in and I gave her a hug. We didn’t need any words. She was showing me, this is how you can hug your person one day.

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The Saturday after Raleigh I was in major conference withdrawals. I missed the people and feeling so alive. How could I return to real life after such an experience?