Father whose daughter died in holiday car crash says faith gives him the strength to forgive
When his daughter Michelle died in a car crash on holiday in Northern Ireland, David Hulford responded not with anger but by forgiving the driver involved in the accident. He talks to William Scholes about faith and reconciliation - and why he's not shaking his fist at God
WHY me? Why do bad things happen to good people? What sort of God would allow this depth of suffering? If you were really there, God, would this have happened?
These are the sort of big questions - and you can probably think of others - that it seems only natural to ask in the face of tragedy and loss of life.
It could be a natural disaster, like an earthquake. Or a plane crash, or the plight of the innocent left homeless and starving and dead because of war. Or the acts of commission and omission during our own Troubles, and the long shadow their legacy continues to still cast. Or a cancer diagnosis for a loved one; we don't have to think too hard to come up with a list of disasters, global and personal, which can make us question God and his motives - if he exists at all, that is...
Losing a daughter in a car crash at the age of 21, her life stretching out in front of her full of promise, would certainly seem to fall into the category of a tragedy which would have any parent shaking their fist at God and shouting, "Why did you allow this to happen? Where were you, God?".
All of which makes David Hulford's story all the more remarkable, though this quietly-spoken 59-year-old from Luton would firmly resist any idea that he is anything other than an 'ordinary' Christian. Yet the way he has responded to the death of his daughter Michelle in a car crash is inspirational.
It is also a reminder of how faith and forgiveness should go hand-in-hand - a challenge, perhaps, that is particularly apt to Northern Ireland where allusions to faith are abundant but forgiveness can be elusive.
Michelle Hulford was 21 years old when the fatal accident happened on the Ballymena Road in Doagh, Co Antrim on July 9 2012. The driver of a Land Rover towing a trailer lost control of his vehicle and veered into the opposite lane of oncoming traffic, striking the car in which Michelle was a passenger.
Hours earlier, Mr Hulford had left Michelle to Luton Airport for the flight to Belfast and a holiday with university friends.
"Michelle was a very spiritual girl and really loved people," says Mr Hulford.
"She was looking forward to sharing her faith with the friends and talking about God with them on her holiday.
"As I left her at the airport, she said, 'Please pray for me'.
"I told her of course I would pray for her, and she said, 'I love you, Dad', and I said "I love you, Michelle' - and those were our last words with each other.
"The next thing, I get a phone call to tell me she had been in a terrible accident and died as a result. It turned our world upside down."
The Hulford family have had a long connection with the evangelical inter-denominational mission organisation Youth With A Mission, or YWAM.
Michelle was born in Bolivia, where the family served for many years, and had herself been to Africa with the group. She had spoken of setting up pre-schools in Africa.
When I meet with Mr Hulford, he is at An Cuan, YWAM's base in Rostrevor, Co Down, where he was helping train a group of students drawn from all over the world.
We discuss how his strong faith might to many people seem surprising after he had experienced such personal loss.
"What happened to Michelle wasn't a challenge to my faith. Sometimes people assume that when something disastrous or very sad happens that you question God, but I found on the contrary," he says.
"I never stopped to think why did God not prevent that accident," he says, adding that "faith lends resilience".
Mr Hulford points to two previous life experiences that have shaped his faith and relationship with God.
When he was 21, he was involved in a motorcycle crash in which he nearly lost a leg - "I was in hospital for four months and I read the whole Bible - well, what else are you going to do..?" - and then, just over 10 years ago, his wife of 26 years and mother of their five children, left him.
"We came back to England in 1995 with a view to helping South Americans who wanted to be missionaries to get equipped to go to other places," he says.
"There wasn't really the notion of Bolivians going anywhere as missionaries. We started a school in Harpenden, near London.
"South American, Koreans, Africans and so on come and learn English and how to live in the context of another culture as preparation for going out to the field
"There have now been a couple of hundred through the school, and we have had Bolivians planting churches in Africa - and there's two Argentineans and a Brazilian here in Rostrevor this week.
"My wife and I were continuing to do that work. She was passionate about helping people with problems - she was a very loving wife and mum, a very giving person - but became involved in a complicated pastoral situation."
It meant that just 18 months after celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary - including renewing their wedding vows - "she was gone", followed by "divorce as she moved on to a new relationship".
"I still have a responsibility to love my ex-wife - not as a wife, that would be entirely inappropriate - but to love her as a Christian and for the sake of the children and grandchildren," explains Mr Hulford.
"I really became a single parent at that time. I'm not faulting her, she just took a decision that really hurt all of us."
Michelle was a particular support during this time, taking on a maternal role to her sister, who was five years younger.
The days before the accident had been packed for Michelle and the family. Mr Hulford's parents had celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary and he, in what he refers to as coming "into a place of happiness again", had re-married on June 30 2012.
"Then Michelle died in the accident nine days after the wedding," he says.
"Liz, my wife, is a teacher and we were meant to go on honeymoon a couple of weeks after the wedding - but instead of that, my ex-wife and her partner is at our house to decide what we were going to do.
"The next day I get on a plane to Belfast with my ex-wife so we can go to the morgue, rather than going on honeymoon... it was totally wrong.
"It pushed us together in a way that we hadn't been together in a very long time. We were forced to deal with something that only we could - we were the only people who could grief for Michelle as her parents."
Mr Hulford remembers Michelle as "special", reciting examples in which she helped people or showed them love, often without anyone else knowing.
"You couldn't talk about Michelle for more than five minutes, even through tears, without smiling," he says, the tears in his eyes and smile on his face proving the point.
"Everything about her was different. She was one of those teenagers who never had the need to overthrow all the values you tried to instil," says Mr Hulford.
"She naturally came into a relationship with God in a way that seemed seamless. We could finish each other's sentences. The loss was devastating.
"I was very fortunate that the last words we said to each other were 'I love you'. I didn't feel like there was an unsaid torrent of things that I wish I had said."
The assurance that Michelle had a strong faith and "was running a race that finishes with Christ" has helped Mr Hulford: "She had the view that when she crossed the line she was going to be where she wanted to be all her life, ultimately with Christ, whether she was 21 or 91."
"Even in the midst of our grief, I never waved my fist wildly at God and said how could you have possibly let this happen? It just didn't occur to me. It was the grace of God," he explains.
"I'd had my crash and my marriage had broken up, but I never found myself blaming God.
"Rather, my faith kicked in - it made the difference between someone who says 'life sucks' and someone who says, 'God, I do not understand you, but I trust you'."
Holding his finger and thumb millimetres apart, Mr Hulford says: "I may know only this much about God, but it's enough for me to say that even when things happen that I can't understand, I trust that God has the bigger picture in mind.
"It's like having one piece of a thousand piece jigsaw. If I'm trying to make sense of the whole picture from a small piece of the sky, I'm stuffed.
"You trust somebody based on what you know of their character, even though you can't see where this is going, even if you can't see the whole picture.
"That's where I felt the everlasting arms of God around me, sustaining me, giving me reassurance.
"God understands. He has absolutely been there, he has lost a son, saw him crucified and felt the pain - this is real - and therefore he is able to comfort."
Michelle had spoken of how she wanted to be cremated and her ashes poured down a waterfall.
So, a little over a year after her death, the family went to a waterfall in Wales. Mr Hulford carried the urn holding Michelle's ashes up the mountain, and vividly describes how it weighed "about the same as a new born baby".
A cherry tree now marks the spot "telling people about who Michelle was" and another memorial is found in the unconventional form of a large, round and "indestructible" picnic table at the YWAM centre in Harpenden. It bears a poem explaining who Michelle was.
"People have to face each other at a round table," Mr Hulford explains. "It's between the chapel and the cafe - Michelle loved God and hospitality, bringing people together, so she is still inspiring people. It seemed better than a gravestone in some remote churchyard somewhere."
Another family member became a Christian through Michelle's witness and the celebration of her life and faith at her funeral.
"What more honouring way is there of thinking about Michelle? It celebrates her memory in the greatest way - her death has caused life in others," says her father.
The family get together every year in the summer and go to the waterfall.
"We camp over the weekend. Only Michelle would have got us all together - that's the kind of person she was."
A striking feature of how Mr Hulford believes he should live out his Christian faith is the forgiveness he has shown towards the driver of the Land Rover which collided with the car in which Michelle was killed.
"It was just an awful accident. I understand the world doesn't 'do' accidents, that someone always has to be responsible.
"But Stephen Hamilton, the driver, was a human being, just 17 years old and inexperienced. Most of us make mistakes in cars, unfortunately his was fatal."
A troubling detail that emerged from last October's inquest into Michelle's death was the fact that she was not wearing a seatbelt.
"That's inexplicable to me. She would have put on a seatbelt as naturally as breathing," says Mr Hulford.
"But I will never know - and the 'what ifs?' don't take you anywhere - and as the coroner said, seatbelts save lives. If even one person hears that message and puts on a seatbelt, then something good will have come out of it."
The coroner asked Mr Hulford if he wanted to say anything at the conclusion of the inquest.
"It felt like the Holy Spirit was moving me," he says, before repeating the powerful exhortation of forgiveness: "Stephen, you were 17, and Michelle would have been the first person in the queue to say, 'Don't beat yourself up about this'.
"Don't go to bed feeling like you've destroyed our lives. Devastating as it is, she was gracious and she would have been the first to forgive.
"I'm the next in line, and I don't want you to live your life dogged by guilt."
Mr Hulford later says: "I hope in my heart of hearts that he's OK. He's as much a victim of that day."
I point out that this is an almost counter-intuitive approach in the world of the blame culture.
"But I do take the opposite view," he says. "My life is a gift. Everything I have is a gift - my children are a gift, my health is a gift, I don't have a right to have it forever.
"Then I can see Michelle as someone whose life I celebrate, even though it was 21 years and not 91.
"I celebrate the fact that she changed my life irrevocably. I didn't do anything to deserve my daughter."
Mr Hulford says he has been taken by surprise at the interest in his affirmation of forgiveness towards Stephen Hamilton.
He plainly regards it as a natural impulse of his Christian faith, which is not to minimise how difficult and challenging that forgiving can be.
I suggest that in Northern Ireland there can seem to be a disconnect between expressions of faith and a willingness forgive, especially in relation to the Troubles; doctrine and practice do not always go hand-in-hand.
"But forgiveness is so central to the Bible. It's the whole point of the cross, and reconciliation is so powerful," says Mr Hulford.
"I don't pretend to know the story completely here in Northern Ireland but clearly there has been deep offence from all communities and all feel deeply offended by members of the other communities because of things that have happened.
"People been killed - that's real, that really happened.
"But someone somewhere has to be big enough to forgive. Forgiveness isn't excusing or justifying it or sweeping it under the carpet.
"It's looking at the facts, as they are and saying, 'I am not going to carry on judging this, I am going to leave this to a higher authority to sort out'.
"In my case that higher authority is God. Our commission is to love, judging is his job.
"The only person really qualified to judge is someone who knows everything. A courtroom is imperfect because no-one in a courtroom really, really knows what happens - you're taking evidence and making a best guess.
"But God really does know - he's qualified to judge because he does know the hearts of all people, so it's best left to him to judge.
"I may have my own personal feelings about all sorts of things but it is best not to go with my feelings.
"What's the most loving thing I can do in this situation, what's the kindest, most generous thing?
"To forgive is always going to be better than being bitter. You're better off letting go of bitterness, you set yourself free."
Michelle would surely have agreed.