The end of BUild
To everything a season - and that of BUild draws to an end. By Faith Bowers
The Baptist Union initiative with people with learning disabilities (BUild) began in 1983, as Community Care began to replace subnormality hospitals, and several Baptists foresaw a need to prepare churches to minister to new neighbours with severe disabilities. Largely unseen in society at large, many had enjoyed worship in hospital chapels; they would find local churches rather different.
And while churches mostly try to respond pastorally, most had never considered Christian nurture geared to special needs. The secular world was making great developments in special education: should churches lag behind? The first question: How can we help these people grasp that Jesus loves them?
A group formed, at first largely of lay Christians, drawn widely from across the country thanks to the good offices of The Baptist Times, both in advertising meetings and taking articles.
To introduce our concerns, we were given a page on each of four weeks in summer 1984. The editor, Geoffrey Locks, kindly guided us in the appropriate style. Our group included health and education professionals, parents and church workers, all contributing from their various perspectives.
This was invaluable for a ‘bottom up’ movement, coming from the denomination’s grassroots rather than the usual leaders. We took full advantage of the freedom Baptists had for that: we realized we could move faster than most other church bodies, provided we could make our case heard. The BU Mission Department was quick to support this endeavour. We seized opportunities in ways that would be harder with today’s tighter charity regulation.
Then only the Roman Catholics were doing much about special church education, and they generously shared their insights. We soon found that other denominations were ready to learn from BUild’s efforts. A few Anglican dioceses had some special work but were mostly unaware of the others: as we gathered information, I sometimes put one diocese in touch with another!
BUild only ever had modest financial resources so often adopted a homespun approach, especially over publications. We asked churches to take requests for believer’s baptism seriously - often hearing how these had been ignored, assuming such people could not understand. Challenged to reconsider, ministers were amazed to discover real depth of faith. Help was clearly needed over baptismal preparation so we produced teaching booklets with minimal text supporting line drawings. We coaxed artists in our churches to provide their services for free. We regretted that we could not rise to colour and gloss, yet many have been helped by this basic resource.
We pleaded our case at ministers’ retreats, Assembly exhibitions, in the colleges and local churches, as well as at our own conferences and theological consultations (disability raises its own difficult questions). Some of our ablest Baptist leaders were moved to give time to this work. I was the original Convener of BUild’s working group, when first ‘selling’ our concerns, but was succeeded by the late Roger Hayden, giving nine years to this while a busy Superintendent, followed by college principal Richard Kidd, and finally a local pastor, Jerry Newson. Happily they are much better than me at communicating directly with those with disabilities.
As more churches welcomed people with learning disabilities at worship and often formed special groups to help them rejoice in God’s love, more took part in BUild celebrations. Many with disabilities are all too aware that they learn slowly and often fail. It has been great to see confidence gained and lives transformed as they grasp that God loves them just as they are. A series of contacts, so serendipitous that one could feel the Holy Spirit at work, led to BUild helping Polish Baptists begin their on-going work of similar nature. Communism had little time for the ‘non-productive’: post-glasnost, other Eastern Baptists expressed interest in the prophetic ministry of valuing those with disabilities.
BUild was essentially a pioneering movement and that is no longer needed. Churches will continue to want encouragement and advice when dealing with the unfamiliar - with learning disabilities no one answer fits all. But this needs to be done in new ways, by younger people.
We pray this will happen. Many churches are linked with Prospects, which is now merging with Liveability, which in turn amalgamated the Shaftesbury Society and John Grooms - all of them Christian bodies concerned for those with disabilities. Other churches work with Faith and Light. Social Services may also help: in our early days they were often suspicious of Christians but many have come to respect and value churches’ supportive friendship for those in local group homes.
Faith Bowers is a co-founder of BUild and a member of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church