#SITD2016-A personal story about the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability


I arrived at the Grand Rapids airport at 10:30 pm on Sunday evening somewhat anxious and already quite exhausted. I still needed to connect with someone I didn’t know, rent a car and drive us to Holland, MI, a 40 minute ride to the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability at Hope College. A few days before the trip, my daughter needed unexpected minor surgery. This meant an overnight stay in the hospital amidst much worrying and prayers, not to mention a quick rearranging of schedules. Let’s just say, I was not in a good mental or physical state upon my late arrival in Michigan.
That all began to change, however, the moment I spotted my friend, Shelly Christensen1039at the airport. Shelly, who is from Minnesota and is a personal friend, FaceBook friend and National Adviser for the FIN Board of Directors, gave me a big hug, exclaimed “Karen!” and then immediately asked, “How is Samantha?” I don’t know which made me feel better; seeing a friendly face after a long day or her concern over my daughter (she knew about hospitalization from FB) and how I was handling it all.  Well, yes I do. The support from a fellow special needs mom and disability advocate was an incredible encouragement. Shelly decided to come with me so we found our new friend Janine and headed to Holland.
The fun continued when once at the college, Shelly couldn’t get into her room. We decided it would be easiest for her to bunk with me for the night and at 2:00 am we turned out the lights and said good night.
By 7:30 am I was headed to breakfast, but not before I discovered that another good friend, this one a wonderful author and speaker, Jolene Philo was my suite partner. “Hi Jolene!” Shelly and I exclaimed at the bathroom door. More hugs and smiles.
We all headed down to breakfast and enjoyed reunions with more friends. David Morstad and Erik Carter were also attending SITD. The chance to talk with all three of these national FIN board advisors at the same time would come a little later in the day, but for now, hugs and a chance to catch up on personal lives was so much more important and meaningful.

Erik Carter, Shelly Christensen and David Morstad, FIN Board Advisers, with Karen Jackson, FIN Executive Director

Erik Carter, Shelly Christensen and David Morstad, FIN Board Advisers, with Karen Jackson, FIN Executive Director

Monday and Tuesday’s presentation were just amazing. How often does one get to hear from people like Erik Carter, Bill Gaventa, Hans Reinders, Tom Reynolds, Darla Schumm, John Swinton, Todd Billings, Tom Boogaart, Ben Conner and Randy Smit all in the course of a few days? “Yes, yes, yes”, I thought, over and over again. These people were here in Holland to share their knowledge and their passion and I felt so grateful for the chance to be a part of the whole conference.
By Monday night I had no business going out after dinner in my overly tired state, but who could resist the chance to hang out with the girls? New friends and old, the pub called and we stayed out late, just like college students (and we are all past college age, I assure you!) So much fun after a full day.
As we meandered back to our dorm, Shelly and I spotted a new arrival. “Jeff!!!!!! We screamed, greeting our friend Jeff McNair who had just arrived from California. Jeff accepted this overly zealous greeting with his usual humble attitude. “The girls always greet me like this!” he bragged with a smile. Another few minutes and I finally gave in and headed to my room. Time to prepare for the next day.
Tuesday was my opportunity to share by leading the opening worship time and then later presenting about FIN in a break out session. Although I felt both went well, the experience of leading the Morning Prayer and Meditation time was extremely meaningful for me. 20160524_084112_001Performing music at the Institute provided a chance to fuse my passions for music and disability work as well as experience another wonderful chance to bring others together, this time in song.
At one point, when leading the singing of the song “Let’s Share a Journey”, a song that intends to capture the importance of faith and community, I was almost started crying. To hear the 100 or so members of the audience singing “Let’s share a journey, the way it should be, let’s share a journey, you and me…” together was incredibly moving. I knew those lyrics and melody were given to me by our great and wonderful God-not my words at all but a gift to share. This will always be a treasured memory.

More amazing presentations and opportunities for fellowship filled the rest of the day. After the Tuesday afternoon prayer service, Anne Masters, another FIN friend who is from New Jersey, invited me out for a stout. 20160524_175852By the time we made our way to the Holland Brewery, we had a nice little group together. The night continued in much the same way, meeting up with people and making connections and starting friendships that will continue, I hope, for years to come. 20160524_175841

5:00 am came quite early on Wednesday. I was fortunate to have Jolene along on the ride to the airport. We chatted like old friends and parted quickly at the airport, both of us in a hurry to catch our flights. My trip back to Norfolk was fairly short and uneventful. I was glad to head back home and see my family.

Conferences are always fun; the combination of learning and engaging with others is an important part of many people’s development in their chosen fields. I went to the Institute expecting to hear from some great teachers and speakers, to see friends and meet new people who are also passionate as I am about faith and disabilities inclusion. What I didn’t expect was to experience an unparalleled camaraderie, moment upon moment of meaningful discussions, hilarious stories and the love and encouragement of friends that are doing incredible work across the country. Thank you to Bill Gaventa, Ben Connor and others who put together the year’s Institute. And a special blessing to all who attended #SITD2016-may your work in faith communities around the country and the world be fruitful and filled with joy. Hope to see you again soon!

See our FIN FB page for a full album of photos at https://www.facebook.com/FINhamptonroads/