By Ruth Garvey-Williams
VOX editor Ruth Garvey-Williams chats with Jennifer Bullock about life and faith, caring for children with autism, and making the church a more accessible place for people with disabilities.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your husband.
We are Jennifer and Simon Bullock and we have three children: David, Mark, and Emma. I work part time as an occupational therapist, and Simon is a beef farmer and a “social farmer.” Together we look after our three children.
David and Mark have autism and a learning disability. A lot of people don’t understand what that means. Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects people in different ways. Some are able to live independently, while others will require a lifetime of special support. All people with autism share difficulties with social communication, interaction, and imagination.
We live in a thatched cottage at the old Aghalane Bridge in Derrylin, Co. Fermanagh. At the bottom of our garden is Woodford River, which is the border with Cavan, so my closest neighbours are in the Republic of Ireland.
You and Simon are involved in “social farming”. What is that?
Social farming, also known as “care” farming, is where people come into an ordinary farm and engage in purposeful and meaningful activities. We have established Annagh Social Farms where we provide opportunities for people with learning disabilities. We strive to show God’s love through caring, respectful, and developing relationships. Activities include planting and harvesting fruit and vegetables, making jam, farm maintenance, and helping to care for the livestock on the farm.
We had a peach tree for about five years that never produced anything. In January, I had the opportunity to travel to South Carolina to visit the Church of the Cross led by Rev. Chuck Owens. I had not travelled since the children were born, so it was a major thing. It was a great experience to see their church growth. While I was there, I got talking to a woman who grew peach trees. She explained what I should have been doing to our tree. So, this year, we had a lovely harvest of peaches for the first time ever! I noticed that ours were a strange shape, but then I discovered they were donut peaches.
As we’re growing fruit, we also feel that we are developing the fruit of the spirit... love, joy, peace... that Paul talks about in Galatians 5:22-23.
What motivates you?
We are very much part of the disability world both professionally and personally. We interact with a lot of people who are anxious and sadly without a hopeful future for their son, daughter, brother, or sister. We believe that God is using our skills and experiences to change things for a better and provide a more hopeful future for parents, carers, and those with disabilities.
We feel we can’t do this on our own. It is according to God’s work in us, and He is able to do more than we ask or even imagine, as it says in Ephesians 3:20.
How should the church react to people with disabilities?
Churches should always strive to be welcoming and supportive of the weak, vulnerable, and marginalised! Everyone is of unique and sacred value, whether you have a disability or not, and every one has the same dignity and the same rights. Since the deepest need of a human being is to love and be loved, each person has the right to friendship, communion, and a spiritual life.
People with learning disabilities often possess qualities like welcome, spontaneity, and directness. They are able to touch hearts and to call others to unity and to simplicity and vulnerability. In this way, they are a living reminder to the wider world of the central values of the heart. Far from being an obstacle to union with God, weakness and vulnerability can foster that spiritual connection.
So how can we support families in this situation?
Paul wrote that those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. If we believe that the Christian Gospel is for everyone, we need to include disabled people in the lives of our churches.
Creating accessible parking, disabled toilets, handrails, and hearing loops and designing seats so someone in a wheelchair doesn’t end up sitting in the aisle sticking out like a sore thumb - these are all important. However, it is also about learning to understand the needs of those with learning disabilities.
Because of changes in the legislation, more people are now living in the community, but is the local church ready for them to attend church? You can’t legislate for people’s attitude! Some adults with learning disabilities have said they had better relationships and community when in hospital, because out in the “community” they feel quite isolated. The church has a big challenge to meet the needs of those who feel isolated or unloved.
The biggest thing you can do is to ask them how we can help. Listen and pray about the answers. Take people’s suggestions seriously and be aware that no two people’s experiences or disabilities will be the same.
Tell us about the Friendship Services you run in Derrylin.
Last year, we felt that we should equip ourselves better to support the spiritual needs of those with learning disabilities, so I took a course called “Learning Disability and the Church” at Belfast Bible College.
After I completed the course, we started a new Sunday-afternoon service designed specially for people with learning disabilities. Initially, this was once every two months, but now we run the services once a month.
We sing simple, repetitive songs that are easy to learn, and we hand out streamers (sticks with ribbons on them) and musical instruments when people arrive. My boys can’t talk, so this means they still can participate even though they can’t sing. We also do some singing with Makaton sign language.
Instead of the sermon, we act out the Gospel message as a drama. Many guests want to participate, so we have lots of people on stage. At the end, we have a craft table on the theme of what we have done, and we serve refreshments. That gives each person something to take home with them, and while they are busy making something, the carer can have some down time. We give opportunity for carers to talk and pray with someone as well.
I’ve also set up a sensory room just off the main hall. It includes bubble tubes and soft lighting. One of my boys is noise sensitive, so he often goes into that room.
What influence does your faith have in all of this?
Matthew 25 says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me…” We consider everyone as a necessary part of the body of Christ, not for what he or she might have been nor what he or she could become, but as he or she is at this moment! Within the community of Christ, people with learning disabilities belong as themselves, valuable and worthy because of and not in spite of their difference.
I find 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 helpful. God comforts us in our troubles so that we can comfort others. Simon and I are very grateful for the prayerful and practical support we receive from those who stand with us.