ABILENE—Through her teens and early 20s, Sarah Turner believed her cerebral palsy barred her way to happiness, doomed her future and ignited anger toward her Creator.
“I thought God hated me because he wouldn’t heal me,” said Turner, 25, a lifelong Baptist who lives in Abilene. Today, Turner insists it was the pack of lies she believed about herself that kept her isolated and often suicidal.
What lies? “That I was ugly; that God doesn’t have a plan for me; that I was a mistake; that I was a failure; that I was going to die because everything is such a fight,” she said.
But intense spiritual counseling—which tapped her longtime Christian beliefs—turned everything around for Turner, her family and friends said. Turner still lives with cerebral palsy, but her thinking, attitude and—as a result—her life have been healed by God, she said.
A tangible proof came recently when Turner graduated from Hardin-Simmons University with a bachelor’s degree in English, a job and plans to begin graduate school in January. Her Christian faith makes it all possible, she said.
“It’s the only way I can still be doing what I am doing and walking across the stage for graduation,” she said.
But the road to faith took time and a lot of pain. The onset of negativity began in her early teens when the family moved, and she transferred from a private Christian school in Lubbock to a public school in Abilene.
“She left that security and came to a public school as a seventh-grader and as a teenage girl with a disability,” said Bobbie Turner, Sarah’s mother. “She had a rough time, a very hard time, and she began to feel a little discouraged about herself.”
Her difficulties deepened at Hardin-Simmons, where the cerebral palsy and the resulting severe limp accentuated her differences from other college students. During her freshman and early sophomore years, Turner’s text messages became increasingly darker with themes of self-loathing and even death, her mother said. Frightened, the family sent her to Mercy Ministries in Nashville, Tenn., for six months of residential treatment.
“It was a hard six months on us, and we could talk to her only once a week,” she said.
At Mercy Ministries, however, Turner’s attitude and her faith began to shift, and she saw the healing she needed was spiritual more than physical. She also learned she had been asking God the wrong question all along about her cerebral palsy.
“The question isn’t ‘Why?’ The question is ‘What now?’” she said. “Obviously he has a plan for me.”
Courtney Browning met that spiritually healed version of Turner at Hardin-Simmons.
“She is kind of unforgettable and outgoing,” said Browning, a fellow Baptist and one of Turner’s best friends. “Everyone is drawn to Sarah, and I was drawn to her, too. Her smile is infectious.”
The two discovered a range of mutual interests—women’s ministry, missions, creative writing and the work of C.S. Lewis among them.
Only later, Browning said, she learned her friend had come through such a dark period in her life.
“It floored me to hear about her struggles,” Browning said. “When I met her there was no semblance of darkness within her—she was just this radiant light (with) a bubbly laugh and super-positive attitude.”
Turner’s tendency to fall down while walking used to generate embarrassment and self-hatred. After returning from Nashville, it became something that only made her more determined, Browning said.
“There’s just so many things she does that inspire me,” Browning said. “Her story has taught me that redeeming part of God’s love is never going to give up on us.”
Turner had a similar impact even on those who know her less well, like the faculty, tutors and students she encountered while coaching students at HSU’s writing center.
Turner clearly could be seen struggling sometimes, especially trying to negotiate her way around class, said Jana Wesson-Martin, associate professor of composition at HSU and director of its writing center. Yet she consistently projected an energy and enthusiasm motivating to all around her.
“It’s an inspiration for other tutors who work for us and for the students to see her and think, ‘I have some obstacles but … she’s not sitting around complaining and bemoaning her circumstances,’” Wesson-Martin said, adding she’s also a talented teacher.
That likely stems from her experience as an English-as-a-Second-Language teacher at Beltway Park Baptist Church in Abilene. There, she teaches language skills to refugees on Sunday mornings. Turner will continue that service and plans to get master’s and doctorate degrees in order to teach college English.
And she’s not stopping there. She also plans another mission trip to Mozambique, following a 2011 trip during which she was able to befriend a local girl with cerebral palsy.
It was a far cry from locking herself up and being angry at God, she said. “I totally believe God called me over there.”