[I am working on a project that may become a book on the most influential evangelicals leaders of our generation, since 1976, and the impact they’ve had on the church and their times. I will introduce them briefly on this blog from time to time. Who should be on this list?]
#30. Joni Eareckson Tada. Able. b.1949
The last thing in the mind of an attractive young woman finishing high school in the midst of the Age of Aquarius and the Vietnam war was the needs of people with disabilities. But a diving accident in 1967 left Joni Eareckson a quadriplegic, and not only was her mobility and the difficulty of nearly every one of life’s tasks changed forever, but so was her life mission. God used the immeasurable tragedy in Joni’s life to bring help to people with disabilities throughout the world.
Just as White House counsel Chuck Colson never would have imagined a career of prison ministry until he faced a prison term, Joni obviously would have had an entirely different life work if the angle of her dive in the 60s would have been a little different.
In 1979, Joni started a ministry organization called Joni and Friends to provide assistance to the disabled. It became the Joni and Friends International Disability Center in 2006. The most striking program of Joni and Friends is Wheels for the World, which collects wheelchairs, has them refurbished by prison inmates and donated in developing nations. Wheels for the World is now collecting and delivering more than 10,000 wheelchairs a year in developing countries, with a ministry plan that includes evangelism, as well as giving a gift of mobility, to children and adults with disabilities around the world.
Early in her ministry I had a chance to talk briefly with Joni before one of her many speaking engagements. I found a woman not only with drive and force of personality, but also a defender of the image of people with disabilities. When I asked her a question about people who were “handicapped,” I got a sharp rebuke for using a term that she felt demeaned people like her who chose not to see a physical disability as a handicap.
And certainly her life has proven that. Joni is not only an example of faith and perseverance through difficult times, but also a story of spiritual depth and great accomplishment. She wrote of her experiences in her international best-selling autobiography, “Joni,” which has been distributed in many languages and made into a feature film by Billy Graham’s Worldwide Pictures.
During her rehabilitation, Joni spent long months learning how to paint with a brush between her teeth. Her high-detail fine art paintings and prints are sought-after and collected. She has written 48 books and numerous magazine articles. “When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty,” a book written with Steve Estes that examines the mystery of suffering, won the Gold Medallion Award in 1997. Her daily four-minute radio short is heard on more than 1000 broadcast outlets; in 2002 it received the “Radio Program of the Year” award from National Religious Broadcasters.
Joni’s role as a disability advocate led to a presidential appointment to the National Council on Disability for three and a half years, under President Reagan and the first President Bush, during which time the Americans with Disabilities Act became law. She also served on the Disability Advisory Committee to the U.S. State Department under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Joni and her husband, Ken Tada, have been married since 1982. Ken recently retired from 32 years of teaching and joined Joni and Friends to serve as Director of Ministry Development.
Joni wrote in the introduction to her 2009 book “A Lifetime of Wisdom:
“It’s not what I lost. It’s what I’ve found. I was only seventeen, just a girl, when God asked me for everything I had … my health, my hopes, my independence, my dreams, my freedom, and my mobility. He took it all. I was so angry with Him that I tried to push Him away. God relentlessly held me more closely. Looking back, forty years later, I understand that God has changed and healed me—my heart and my mind—in the most unexpected ways, giving me rubies of His wisdom about an unbending faith and an experience of His mercy I can now tell you about. Was it a fair exchange, my freedom and no wheelchair for the rubies of wisdom I’ve been given? Absolutely. In this I have learned at the feet of the Lord Jesus, embracing the way that God heals us, even when we rage at Him in anger, fear, and despair.”
The story of Joni Eareckson Tada cannot help but be inspiring to anyone who knows it, but if it is honestly recounted it is not a story of a strong individual who has overcome great odds and tragedy, but the view of a forceful young woman who put her limitations into the hands of God and found that as she was faithful in trusting Him, her enormous abilities overshadowed any physical disabilities. And yes, it would be illogical to call these disabilities a handicap.
Joni was inducted into the Christian Booksellers’ Association’s Hall of Honor in 1995 and received the Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003 from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. She has received The American Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award; The Courage Award from the Courage Rehabilitation Center; The Award of Excellence from the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center; The Victory Award from the National Rehabilitation Hospital; The Golden Word Award from the International Bible Society. She was inducted into the Christian Booksellers’ Association’s Hall of Honor. In 2002, she received the William Ward Ayer Award for excellence from the National Religious Broadcasters’ Association. She was given the Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003 by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. She was also named “Churchwoman of the Year” in 1993 by the Religious Heritage Foundation and was the first woman to be honored by the National Association of Evangelicals as their “Layperson of the Year.”