Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling
So far this year we have investigated world changers of the recent and distant past. For this month, however, I am presenting a world changer of our present times, Joni Eareckson Tada, an extraordinary woman who has overcome the mental and emotional wounds of quadriplegia resulting from a freak accident.
Athletic and outgoing, Joni loved the outdoors and enjoyed swimming in the lakes and rivers near her home town of Baltimore during the summer season. It was on such a day (July 31, 1967) that her life would radically change. Seventeen-year-old Joni and friends decided to go swimming at an unfamiliar area of the Chesapeake Bay. Unwisely, she dove into the water without knowing what was below the surface. Colliding with a submerged boulder, Joni fractured her C4 and C5, leaving her paralyzed from the shoulders down. As would be expected, the coming days and weeks were wrought with depression and suicidal thoughts. Eventually, however, her faith and hope in God would prevail with the aid of family and friends who vigilantly served Joni through their prayers, words of encouragement, and practical support.
The path to her emotional and spiritual healing included a creative outlet with her vocal cords and her mouth. Joni could still speak and sing and was determined to learn how to sketch with a pen secured between her teeth. As her artwork circulated across the country garnering the attention of those in the entertainment industry, in 1974, Joni received national exposure with an appearance on the Today Show. Two years later, Joni released her autobiography, which has since been translated into 45 language and has over 5,000,000 copies in print. In 1979, her story made it to the “big screen” with the release of a motion picture that has subsequently influenced over 250,000 viewers to put their hope in Christ. That same year, her team founded Joni & Friends, a Christ-centered mission to aid families affected by disabilities. Their charity now reaches out worldwide to underserved families in need of the love of Christ as well as the practical considerations of financial aid, counseling, and, of course, wheelchairs (with the founding of Wheels for the World in 1994).
Just eleven years after her accident, God expanded Joni’s sphere of influence to the halls of our nations’s Excecutive and Legislative branches. In 1988, she accepted an appointment from President Reagan to the National Council on Disability. Joni leveraged her position to advocate the ratification of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 under the Bush administration. The very next year, Joni & Friends launched a branch ministry, Family Retreat, to provide respite for families caring for disabled children (which has since expanded to an international level). Finally, in 2007, her team founded the Christian Institute on Disability to provide higher education and training for disability-related issues from a biblical perspective.
So what makes Joni a world-changer? She has traveled more miles across the globe to bring the hope of the Gospel to families with disabilities than most of us will ever accomplish in our life travels. She has overcome the disappointment of a life reduced to a wheelchair with with the loss of independence and chronic pain. Yet, she has learned to be a conduit of Christ’s love and care in serving other who have suffered in similar ways (2 Corinthians 1:3-6). In a recent article published last month (July 17th) in the Gospel Coalition, Joni remarks that:
I really would rather be in this wheelchair knowing Jesus as I do than be on my feet without him. — The Gospel Coalition
Her words echo Jesus’ exhortation to remove any obstacle that would hinder following him. Still, these are not glib words that gloss over her suffering. It’s just that through the grace of God, Joni has learned to see and rely on the redemption in her suffering:
For the last 50 years in my wheelchair, I’ve been daily dying to self and rising with Jesus, dying to self and rising with Jesus, dying to self and rising with Jesus. — The Gospel Coalition
This too is our Christian journey—whether or not we suffer from disability, disease, or persecution. And when we share in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings (Philippians 3:10), “dying to self and rising with Jesus,” our suffering is redeemed for us and for those we serve. I am grateful for world changers like Joni Eareckson Tada who have persevered by God’s grace and glory and have become vessels of Christ’s love and mercy to a hurting world.