“Christian faith is a grand cathedral, with divinely pictured windows. Standing without, you can see no glory, nor can imagine any, but standing within, every ray of light reveals a harmony of unspeakable splendors.”
The year was 1967.
At night it seemed to her–strapped in the strange rotating frame and staring at the dark hospital floor–that she had been abandoned by God. She had awakened from an idyllic childhood dream and found herself alone outside the cathedral, separated from everyone and everything she loved. Her body would not respond to her wishes, her prayers went unanswered and her faith grew dim. “Just give me back my hands, Lord,” she prayed. “That’s all I ask.”
How could this happen to a bright young woman of 17–pretty, popular and athletic–who two years earlier had asked Christ to be her savior? Now it seemed the cold hospital walls stood between her and her trust in God. Would she never again be able to swim or ride horses or run through the pastures of her parent’s farm? How could God allow this?
She had witnessed the deaths of two others with broken necks in ICU. Now she–paralyzed at the C4-5 level due to a diving accident–seemed destined to join them. Her weight had dropped from 125 to 80 pounds and her body was covered with bedsores. When she finally convinced a friend to give her a mirror, what she saw nearly made her vomit. She was little more than a skeleton.
“Why can’t they just let me die?” she pleaded with a friend. “Can’t you help me end the suffering? Please help me.” An overdose, slit wrists, whatever it took–she was ready to end it now, this instant.
June 9, 2001: We sat facing each other in Joni Eareckson Tada’s studio, surrounded by her paintings. A window looked out on a sunny courtyard outside the offices of Joni and Friends Ministries in Agoura Hills, Calif., on the rim of the San Fernando Valley. “Where does your faith begin?” I asked. “What’s at the root of it?”
Joni (pronounced “Johnny”) thought back 34 years into the past. “It comes from need,” she said, “from a desperate need.” Her face, still pretty at 52, seemed anything but desperate. Alert, composed, thoughtful–where had the desperation gone? “Grab that drawing, would you,” she asked, “on the cabinet.”
The face, drawn in pencil, seemed to moan. Dry, disheveled hair exploded from the outline of an expressionless face set with dull eyes–a soul in anguish. It could have been Jesus on the cross, Joni in the Stryker frame, or some nameless face that at one time belonged to any one of us. “That’s where it began,” she said.
At the bottom of the pit. Born of desperate need.
Can faith be measured? In Joni’s case, the answer is yes. After a year in a Stryker frame and another year in rehab, she began to get glimpses of a future. “Slowly, I found solutions,” she said. “I went back to college, began painting and writing, learned to drive a van with a joystick clamped to my arm, began to manage my own health care and find people to help get me up, go to work and so on. But most of all I began taking God at his word, trusting that he hadn’t abandoned me, that he would give me the smile that I lacked, the energy I needed, the hope that I couldn’t muster. I began to lean very hard on him.”
During that time of leaning–which carries through to the present–not only did she make a remarkable turnaround, she created a worldwide ministry that continues to grow.
Beginning with her first art exhibit, arranged by a friend of her father’s in late 1972, she began to attract the attention of local media in Baltimore. Word of her talent and faith spread, and in 1974 she was interviewed by Barbara Walters on NBC’s Today show. In front of 20 million viewers she displayed her mouth paintings and talked of her faith in God. She was all of 24.
Billy Graham took notice. In 1976 his World Wide Publications came out with her autobiography, Joni. To date more than 3 million copies are in print and the book is available in over 40 languages. In 1979 WWP made the book into a movie in which Joni played herself. Wherever she appeared, she proclaimed her message: Whatever she had done was not her own doing–without Christ to lean on, she couldn’t have survived.
Fruits of Faith
Joni moved to the Los Angeles area and started her ministry in 1979. Today, Joni and Friends employs 75 people worldwide. It has one administrative and nine district offices in the United States and two offices abroad–in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Through creative partnering, Joni and Friends maintains a presence in 20 European countries, Africa, India, Latin America and China.
The ministry itself has three major arms: Wheels for the World has distributed more than 12,000 refurbished wheelchairs worldwide; Family Retreats offer rest, recreation and encouragement to families with disabled children across the United States; and Joni’s five-minute radio program, which promotes disability awareness and a biblical faith perspective, is aired on over 800 outlets. She marked her 5,000th broadcast in June. As if that’s not enough, she has continued to write–publishing more than 25 books since her autobiography–about a book per year, and her speaking appearances are scheduled two years in advance.
Add to this an ongoing commitment to train and equip churches worldwide to minister to people with disabilities, and you have one busy Joni. But wait, there’s more. She sits on the board of directors of several prominent Christian organizations as well as writes a monthly column for Moody magazine, has served as a presidential appointee to the National Council on Disability and as an advocate for other disability organizations and has received awards, medals and honorary degrees enough to dwarf a Citizen Kane-sized fireplace mantel.
What does faith have to do with all these accomplishments? A verse from James comes to mind: “Show me your faith without deeds, and I’ll show you my faith by what I do.”
But Joni would never claim that what she does is more important than what others do. She knows, for instance, how important her personal attendants are–all eight of them, scheduled on different days of the week to minimize stress. Two of them, Judy Butler and Francie Lorey, have been with her for more than 20 years, combining personal with administrative and secretarial responsibilities in the ministry.
No one would accuse Joni of putting herself on a pedestal. She still drives the same Ford Econoline van she has driven for the past 22 years, the one that accommodates her old E&J electric wheelchair of the same vintage. She and her husband, Ken Tada, still choose to worship with a few dozen families that meet in two modest modular buildings, the small town of Calabasas’ only church. And she still attends Family Retreats, where she befriends adults and children of all ages and disabilities.
Wrestling with God
Joni’s journey from anguish to faith did not happen in one spiritually charged moment. It took years of fearless questioning, persistent study and prayer.
In those early hospital days her friends read Bible verses to her–for instance, from Romans: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” Embittered, she rejected it. She writes in her autobiography: “‘That’s too pat,’ I told them. “‘Those verses are too glib to have anything but surface meaning. Try to apply those promises to me. You try to tell me how my being here for over a year ‘works together for good.’ What good? Where? When? I don’t want to hear any more!’”
Her friend, Diana White, unwilling to give up on Joni, dropped out of school and became a hospital volunteer to see Joni through her crisis.
Still, Joni’s faith had crashed, so she looked elsewhere for answers. Her intellectual curiosity led her to Jean-Paul Sartre, Hermann Hesse, Karl Marx and other philosophers who dismissed the idea of a sovereign, loving God. “I read it all,” she writes, “and it all pointed me further and further from God and hope–the meaning of life was that it had no meaning.”
Her search drew her back to the Bible. In long talks with White she began to realize that her faith had been self-centered. She had reduced an all-powerful deity to a puppet god who was expected to do her will: Just do what I ask, Lord, and I’ll continue to believe in you. It was fantasy, not faith.
One day when she was home from the hospital, while reading a book at a picnic table, she nudged a page with her wrist–her method of turning pages–and the book fell to the ground. No one was around to pick it up.
“It struck me full force that my life as a quadriplegic was going to be full of these frustrations. It also struck me that I had a choice. Either I was going to fall back into depression and just ‘disappear,’ or I was going to ‘fight the good fight,’ as the Bible puts it. I finally had to come to grips with the fact that God doesn’t say, ‘Into each life a little rain must fall,’ and then aim a hose in earth’s general direction to see who gets the wettest. Rather, he screens the trials that come to each of us–allowing only those that accomplish his plan. Why? Because he takes no joy in human agony. I took a step of faith and began to trust God that there was a plan–a good plan. And that he would give me strength to deal with those frustrations as they came.”
But depression returned, always connected to thoughts of loss–and not only the loss of her hands. She grieved everything she had lost–riding horses, swimming, feeling physically attractive. Her relationship with her high school sweetheart had not survived, and just as soon as she had put that behind her, another love relationship bloomed, then withered. Joni began to slip into trancelike fits, daydreaming, reliving the past and fantasizing. Once again, her friend White intervened, forcing her friend to acknowledge the real world.
Joni and her sister Jay, White, and other friends began a Bible study in the comfort of Joni’s childhood home. Her parents had been more than supportive all along, but now she needed something they could not give her. So she plunged into Bible study in earnest. The leader of the group was Steve Estes, a young man whose knowledge of the Bible and easy, confident manner made an impression on people of all ages. Today, 30 years later, Estes and Joni are still close friends, having co-written the 1997 book, When God Weeps–Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty.
Wheels and Hope
The centerpiece of Joni and Friends is Wheels for the World, which began in 1993. Donated pediatric, sports and institutional wheelchairs are collected at more than 50 points around the nation and shipped to five restoration centers–prisons–where wheelchairs and inmates alike are given a chance to be useful once again.
The chairs are sent to orphanages, residential facilities and individual families in countries all over the world, accompanied by physical and occupational therapists, mechanics and other support team members who work in collaboration with churches, mission groups, social service agencies, government and other organizations. Many of those who receive wheelchairs have never used one before.
In July 2000 a repair and modification center was opened in Ghana, a prototype for centers planned in several other countries. The goal is to reduce costs, offer job opportunities to those with disabilities and raise up local leaders who will continue to serve and advocate for disabled nationals. Wheels for the World is a long-term commitment.
For Joni, the commitment is spiritual as well as rehabilitative. Each wheelchair distributed also includes a copy of her autobiography in the national language, as well as a Bible. The response is often overwhelming, as it was in Ghana when Joni accompanied a load of refurbished wheelchairs. She met in a canvas lean-to with a group of homeless street people with disabilities–Christians too poor to buy their own Bibles–who get around by crawling and dragging themselves through filth and poverty unlike what most Americans have ever experienced. What stuck in Joni’s mind was not their plight, but their unselfish joy as they sang hymns and clapped in rhythm for those who received wheelchairs and Bibles.
“We could learn a lesson,” she writes in When God Weeps. “Their suffering is a pit. Yet as hurting and as harangued as they are, they seem to trust God with absolute abandon.”
In the words of an African airport employee who later talked with Joni, “We have to trust God. Our people have no other hope.”
Heaven Is Home
“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see,” writes the author of Hebrews in the New Testament. For those whose standard of living is unthinkable to most Americans, faith is critical. On the other hand, unparalleled comfort and material well-being have undermined the need for faith in the United States. God has become a luxury rather than a necessity, and heaven seems a pipe dream light years distant.
But Joni sees it differently: “I’m sure there’s a heaven and I’m certain that God has provided a way to know him,” she says. In her book, Heaven–Your Real Home, she states that heaven is closer than we can imagine. “And like an unborn baby,” she writes, “we are being fashioned for the greater world into which we are about to be born.”
That waiting world is both “transcendent” and “immanent” in that we cannot know it in this world, yet–like its omnipresent creator–it envelopes and permeates the cosmos. So how do we get there?
Joni writes, “You must be born again or you cannot, as Jesus warned, ‘see the kingdom of God.’” Of course, the birth is spiritual, not physical, and it is available to anyone. “When the dying thief [who embraced Jesus as the messiah as they were being crucified side-by-side] was born of the spirit,” she writes, “he was given the spiritual ‘genes,’ so to speak, of God himself–Christ who is, was, and ever shall be. And we are too when we are spirit-born.”
But heaven is not a place of misty clouds and ghost-like bodies, she writes. It is as solid as the earth itself, yet ever-so-new and different, a place where abundant love replaces tears and death, and joy is forever upwelling. How can she know this? The Bible tells her so. There are at least 631 direct references to heaven in the Bible, and it seems she has researched most, if not all of them. The upshot of it is that we are made for heaven. “We, like the thief,” she writes, “are fit for eternity.”
Then there’s that sticky business of an eternal hell, but let’s not go there. A subtitle in chapter eight of Heaven–Your Real Home sums it up succinctly: “All That Are in Hell, Choose It.”
As busy as Joni is with her ministry, it’s hard to imagine she could find time to relax. In 1998, though, she and her husband vacationed in Israel. While touring Jerusalem, they stumbled upon the ruins of five colonnades with steps leading down to water. Instantly she recognized the site as the Pool of Bethesda. It was one of those moments which solidify faith. A biblical reference–an archeological site or a geographic landmark –becomes as real as stone, highlighting the humanity of Jesus, a man who walked the streets of Jerusalem, preached in the hills above the Sea of Galilee and healed a paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda.
In Joni’s studio sits an unfinished canvas–a work in progress–of the place where she once envisioned being healed: A friend had read the Bethesda passage from the Gospel of John to her while she lay in a Stryker frame, and when she was alone, she prayed for cure, again and again.
She writes of the moment she found herself beside the actual Pool of Bethesda in her 1999 book, Holiness in Hidden Places, describing how she shared with her husband a profound realization: “‘Jesus didn’t pass me by. He didn’t overlook me. He answered my prayer–he said ‘no.’
“And I’m glad,” she writes. That moment clarified for Joni how having to deal with her disability has, in her words, “stretched my hope, increased my faith, and strengthened my character. Being in this wheelchair has meant knowing Christ better, feeling his strength every day.” It has also prepared her to lighten the load of others who may be going through what she experienced more than three decades ago. If her prayer for physical healing had been granted, there would have been no Joni and Friends.
Even with all her questioning and study, ultimately it was Joni’s faith, rather than her intellect, that led her away from despair and into the interior of what Hawthorne calls the grand cathedral of Christian faith. Only when she was able to leave her bitterness in the past was she ready to receive Jesus’ offer of healing love and salvation. And that is why she will continue to serve others with disabilities and proclaim her faith in God and love for others to anyone who will listen.
“When your life has been changed, even revolutionized by God,” she says, “when you know you are a different person because you believe, when you have laid down at the foot of the cross all the stubborn, mean-spirited, willful ways and ask God’s son to sit on the throne of your heart and make a difference. … Wow! You can’t help but share the news with others. That’s why it’s called ‘the good news.’ And that’s why Jesus is called Savior, Deliverer, Rescuer, Friend.”
True to her commitment to active faith, immediately following the World Trade Center disaster Joni and staff flew to New York City and Washington, D.C., where she met with and comforted family members of victims and others and hosted two call-in radio programs. To learn more about Joni and her ministry, log on to www.joniandfriends.org.