I went to the unbelievable conference on Saturday 13th May at The Brewery in London. It was a fantastic day of inspiring and thought provoking talks from Christian apologists and evangelists. It was hosted by Justin Brierly of the Unbelievable? podcast, and I heard talks by Andy Bannister, John Lennox, and Jeremiah J. Johnston. All the speakers were excellent. Andy Bannister spoke honestly but sensitively about suffering and why God allows it to happen. John Lennox spoke about why Christian faith makes sense of science rather than competes with it. He was refreshingly sensible but also entertaining. Jeremiah Johnston spoke about times when God is silent. I hadn’t heard him before and found his style very engaging and honest. I won’t go into detail of the talks because recordings will be available of them from Premier and I recommend listening to them.
I find going to big events, or any new event to be honest, rather challenging. It’s a normal part of being autistic. The conference was big, crowded, noisy, and hundreds of miles away from home. But it was very well set up and the organisers did a lot to make it accessible. I will describe my experience of the day, and hopefully it will help anyone who might consider going next year:
Before going I (well, actually my mum) arranged for someone to be available to show me around and explain what I needed to do on the day. I arrived at the venue and there was a man in a bowler hat directing people to the door. Inside was a crowded foyer with lots of people and tables. But I ignored all the people and just followed the instructions I had been given, and found the wonderfully kind and attentive lady who was going to help me out. I didn’t ask permission to name her here, so I’ll call her Volunteer Lady.
Having a helper felt a bit weird at first because I’ve never done that before, actually acknowledged how hard it is going to events and asked for help upfront. I normally think “I should be able to do this”, and either struggle through getting exhausted and not able to enjoy myself, or most often just don’t go. I wouldn’t have gone to something that big and that far away without support. It was helpful even before going because I didn’t have to try and figure out schedules or come up with contingency plans for if anything went wrong. It took the stress out of it.
Volunteer Lady was brilliant during the morning. The first part of the day was a blur. I just followed her around and did what I was told. She took me to the hall where all the stalls and refreshments were. She tried to show me around a bit, but it was packed and noisy and overwhelming. Eventually we went to the biggest lecture room for the introductory talks. It was a very big room on two levels, sitting in the back section was comfortable and there was enough space. Then we went to a smaller room for the first session with Andy Bannister. It was a very interesting talk and the speaker was easy to follow. He took email addresses to send out the slides so we didn’t have to take notes and could just listen (I had decided not to try taking notes anyway because I can’t write and listen simultaneously, but still appreciated this).
Then there was a break and I followed Volunteer Lady to the hall again. It seemed even more crowded, there were people everywhere talking loudly. It was quite unpleasant so having a helper was amazing, I just did what she said. Something funny happened while I queued for a cup of tea. Someone appeared with a clipboard and said something I didn’t catch, then Volunteer Lady disappeared with her, came back briefly and said something else I didn’t catch, then disappeared again. By the time I had my tea she was back and was sticking a book in my bag. I figured out later that my mum had pre-payed for a copy of the unbelievable book, and Volunteer Lady had got it signed. I had no idea what was going on, but fortunately she did!
After that we went to the next talk. It was painfully loud and I was getting really stressed so decided to leave. Again Volunteer Lady to the rescue, because walking out with her was far less awkward than walking out on my own (I always worry that it’s rude).
After a couple of minutes in the deserted hall I was beginning to feel better so decided to go to a different talk for the rest of the session. On the way through the foyer we met Justin Brierly, the host. Surprisingly he knew who I was from an article I wrote for the Premier blog. He was friendly and we had a good chat for a few minutes. Then Volunteer Lady and I continued to the biggest lecture hall to hear John Lennox.
After that it was lunchtime and I had figured out where to go and what was happening by then, so I went off by myself for an hour. I had a very pleasant time wandering round the stalls in the hall while it was quiet, it seems everyone had gone out or to an extra seminar. There were a lot of interesting things to look at, and some very interesting people. I had a good look round, spoke to a few people, and bought a couple of things too. I asked the man at the museum of the bible stall about the project, and it sounds really good. It’s not at all displays of dinosaurs and people together, but rather a serious look at what the bible is and what impact it has had throughout history and today. It sounds like it will be worth visiting once the UK site is open.
After lunch I was in the same lecture room for the rest of the day. That combined with knowing where everything was made the rest of the day easy. Volunteer Lady was still around though, and turned up for all the transitions. She made the day easy and pleasant, instead of effortful and stressful as it would have been without her.
The event was very well run; everything was on schedule, lots of staff in bright t-shirts directing people, free tea and coffee provided, jugs of water in every room. The volume of the talks was mostly ok; I went to three of the four lecture rooms and only one was too loud to stay. The video clips were too loud but they were all quite short so were tolerable. I don’t think the staff knew anything specific about communication aspects of autism, but they were kind and friendly and very helpful. The venue was a really cool building with lots of interesting architecture and sculptures. There were a lot of stairs but there were lifts, and there were a couple of wheelchair users attending so I think it was quite accessible. It’s in the same place again next year. If anyone is considering going next year, I highly recommend it.