Following a diving accident at age 17 which left her a quadraplegic, Joni Eareckson Tada has become a passionate advocate for the disabled in the US and around the world. In this interview she was asked via email about what drives that passion, how the church can better advocate for the disabled and her opposition to assisted dying laws in the US...

You’re a passionate advocate for people living with a disability. What is it drives that passion?
"There are one billion people on the planet with disabilities, 80 per cent of them in developing nations. This means 99.99 per cent suffer far worse than me. I know nothing about suffering. I remember a lady polio survivor in Ethiopia, limping home with her children in the rain following a meeting we held there. We pulled over and offered her a ride. I asked where her husband was and she told me 'Oh, Joni, you don’t understand. Here, those of us who are like this have no husbands and are the habitual targets of rape and abuse.' That’s the life of those with disabilities in most of the world, especially the women and children - they are treated as the targets and the refuse of society. That’s what inspires me to keep going and meet the needs of the people in the rest of the world. I want to do everything I can to make a difference in their lives."

You become a quadriplegic in 1967 at the age of 17 after a diving accident - how did that test your faith?
"Before my accident, I had become a very lukewarm Christian [Joni became a Christian at age 14] – I asked God that He would do something in my life to change me. One day I finally understood that my accident was actually a drastic answer to my prayer. Either I was going to choose hope and get busy living, or give up and get busy dying. Through the prayer of friends, I was finally able to cry out to God: 'If I can’t die, show me how to live'.  Now, I realise that I am always in desperate need of Him."

Joni Eareckson Tada

Joni Eareckson Tada. PICTURE: Supplied.

 

   "The first thing Christians ought to do before they even work on compassion is get a Biblical view on suffering. Most Christians would rather escape, avoid it, drug it, medicate it, divorce it, institutionalise it - do anything but live with it. We need to embrace the God who is found in suffering."

You’re known for the art works you painted during your rehabilitation - how important was art to your recovery?
"My diving injury in 1967 changed a great many things. Suddenly, paralysed from the shoulders down, I was forced to make difficult decisions about my future. Whatever I would do - writing, typing or drawing - would have to be done with a mouthstick clenched between my teeth. I resisted the idea.  At first all I could see were the obstacles. My eyes were only inches from the canvas. My neck was weak, hardly able to support my head let alone a brush between my teeth. My therapist, who kept trying to revive my interest in painting, patiently retrieved the brushes I would spit to the floor."
     "Finally, I got tired of self-pity. I gave it a try. Now, more than 45 years later, I consider the limitations an asset. I’ve learned a lot of patience.  Most of all, I am thankful to my art coach, Jim Sewell, who guided me over the years. Scottish Olympian Eric Liddell said, 'When I run, I feel His pleasure'. While I miss the joy of running, I too feel His pleasure when I sit before my easel."

What do you see as the greatest challenge for people living with a disability in nations such as the US and Australia today? And do you think the church advocates enough for them?
"Our economy is so focused on cost-effectiveness and return on investment. We live in an entitlement culture where cost-benefit analysis is pre-eminent. And who suffers in such a society? It’s the elderly. It’s newborns with multiple disabilities. It’s those in comas. It’s people with chronic medical conditions. That’s why I think that this whole issue is so critical right now for the church.
     "The first thing Christians ought to do before they even work on compassion is get a Biblical view on suffering. Most Christians would rather escape, avoid it, drug it, medicate it, divorce it, institutionalise it - do anything but live with it.
     "We need to embrace the God who is found in suffering. He is the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He’s the Lord who was impaled on a cross. We’d rather Jesus be mild-mannered and mild-tempered, and we’d rather listen to Him preach about lilies in a field of flowers. We don’t want to go down that hard path of Calvary. But once we do, I think then we can gain compassion. Because compassion means “with suffering". Christian compassion means suffering with the sufferings of Christ.
     "I know this: Compassion is not three grams of phenobarbital in the veins of someone who feels like ending their life. Compassion is journeying alongside that person who is despairing and ascribing positive meaning to their pain, bringing them up out of social isolation, journeying with them, and helping them resolve their issues."

What can churches do to better include people living with a disability?
"We recently launched a website for churches for that very purpose, called IrresistibleChurch.org. Here is information from that website: 'Luke 14 commands Christ followers to “Go quickly...find the blind, the lame, and the crippled...and compel them to come in!” While this sounds inspiring and daunting, exciting and overwhelming, motivating and frightening, all at the same time, what does it actually mean? How do we live and function within the church in such a way that families affected by disability are compelled to walk through our doors to experience the body of Christ? To be Irresistible is to become an 'authentic community built on the hope of Christ that compels people affected by disability to fully belong.' Becoming irresistible is more than programs and activities - it is about a transformational work in our hearts...first as individuals and then as the body of Christ. Irresistible allows us to see each individual as he or she truly is: created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), designed purposely as a masterpiece (Psalm 139:13-14), instilled with purpose, plans and dreams (Jeremiah 29:11), and a truly indispensable member of the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 12:22). The Irresistible Church is designed to help not only shape and transform the heart of the Church, but also to provide the practical steps and activities to put flesh around the heart of the Church.'
     "As with all good things, it requires patience and perseverance, determination and dedication, and ultimately an underlying trust in the faithfulness of God. Easy first steps are outlined at www.irresistiblechurch.org."

You founded Joni and Friends back in 1979. What sort of work is the organisation involved in today?
"I love doing Joni and Friends, going to family retreats and hanging out with other couples, delivering wheelchairs and Bibles around the world. We want to get the word out that God has not abandoned those with disabilities – He is working through them. God’s power shows up best through weakness. We are called to speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves and defend the rights of the weak. We do that every day at Joni and Friends. Through the Christian Institute on Disability, we are the advocates, the champions of those with disabilities, whether the issue is right to life, end of life, physician-assisted suicide, euthanasia, we speak God’s truth to the disability community and to society. Joni and Friends stands for the spark that started the movement to take the truth of the Gospel where the world is bleeding out of control. And I want to be there – I’ve got a message to share. I would rather be in this wheelchair knowing Him than on my feet without Him, and that is worth living for."

"People who inspire are usually those who are able to push you to reach higher, further, and longer – especially spiritually. One of the best things about Joni and Friends is the "and Friends." Our ministry is a marvelous network of servants and leaders, young and old, able and disabled, from the US and around the world, all of whom share a special love for the Lord Jesus, as well as a deep desire to make Him real to a sceptical world."

What do you think has been the organisation’s greatest achievement?
"There are so many aspects of Joni and Friends that I'm excited about, but if I were to pick one, it would be this:  I believe our ministry has been used of the Lord Jesus to change the ‘culture’ of disability here in the States and around the world. Rather than view people with disabilities as liabilities, we’ve been able to promote a strong Biblical worldview on disability to the church and community, highlighting that God's power always shows up best through human  weakness. We’ve been able to demonstrate that people with special needs are God's best audio-visual aid of II Corinthians 12:9, and that special-needs families are an asset to the church, rather than a liability."

You have also hosted daily inspirational radio spots aired on hundreds of US stations for years - how do you keep finding new things to be inspired about?
"In our journey through life, we all need people to inspire us along the way - and I’m no exception. I thank God for sending me true models of inspiration. People who inspire are usually those who are able to push you to reach higher, further, and longer – especially spiritually. One of the best things about Joni and Friends is the "and Friends." Our ministry is a marvelous network of servants and leaders, young and old, able and disabled, from the US and around the world, all of whom share a special love for the Lord Jesus, as well as a deep desire to make Him real to a sceptical world. As we share our stories, burdens are lifted and joy is multiplied when we open our hearts to each other. I’m so thankful for the many radio listeners writing me and telling me about the Lord's work in their lives."

You have spoken out against assisted suicide laws - mostly recently concerning such a law in the US state of Oregon. Why do you oppose such laws?
"No matter how disabled or elderly one's life might be, people are not 'better off dead than disabled,' and life is worth living until God decides it is time. God is the giver of life, and He is the only one who should have the power to take it. People who feel overwhelmed by their chronic medical conditions do not need assisted-suicide; they need treatment for depression, good pain management, social community, support, help, hope, and a purpose for living. Christians have the message that gives life meaning, and helps people grasp that life is worth living. I pray Christians will do all they can to expose the dangers behind this new and chilling interpretation of a terminal illness."

You’ve recently been in a battle with breast cancer - what got you through that fight?
"I will never forget the night before I took my first round of chemotherapy, I made the mistake of reading all the side effects that were going to happen. When the nurse drove the needle into my chest port, just looking at that full bag of toxic, poisonous drugs hanging on the IV stand, I was absolutely overwhelmed. I remember thinking, 'Lord, I'm already a quadriplegic and I deal with pain. I feel like you've abandoned me here.' Yet, as I watched the IV with its steady drip of poison seeping into my veins, the Bible had an answer for me. From Hebrews, chapter 13: 'God has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you".' I can't begin to tell you how much that verse helped me on that first day in the chemo clinic.
     "With that first day in chemo, I began the prayerful habit of looking to God's Word for emotional balance, and by saying out to the Lord: 'Thank you that I'm not alone. You are here, bearing my burdens and caring for my needs. You have not abandoned or forgotten me. You give me strength for this challenge.' Just rehearsing those truths was so powerful - even sitting slump-shouldered in a big chemo chair.
     "I also discovered that when I employ God's Word in my prayers, His peace keeps me from emotionally throwing in the towel. When feeling near to the point of emotional defeat, I was encouraged again by the book of Hebrews, this time in chapter 10 where it says to anyone who is fainthearted, 'So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what He has promised'."

"The bottom-line? I'm convinced 2018 that thousands of more people with disabilities and their families will come to Christ and enter His kingdom. Wow!"

What are you most grateful to God for at present?
"Recently my husband, Ken, and I were at our Joni and Friends Family Retreat in Alabama. We were lunching in the big, noisy dining hall when a college-aged volunteer approached me, holding a kid with Down syndrome on her hip. She gestured at the crowd and asked, 'Miss Joni, do you ever think how none of this would be happening were it not for your diving accident?'
     "I flashed a smile and said, 'It’s why I thank God every day for my wheelchair'. After she left, I stared for a moment at the dining hall scene. I suddenly had a 35,000-foot view of the moment: 'She’s right...how did I get here?'
     "It has everything to do with God and his grace - not just grace over the long haul, but grace in tiny moments, like breathing in and out, like stepping stones leading you from one experience to the next. The beauty of such grace is that it eclipses the suffering until one July morning, you look back and see five decades of God working in a mighty way."

Are you working on any new books at the moment?
"I recently revised my book When Is It Right to Die? (released 30th January) because I wanted to give Christ-followers a keen understanding of the arguments surrounding physician-assisted suicide, as well as give them language for articulating a Biblical worldview on life, no matter how disabled or elderly one's life might be."

What are you looking forward to in the coming year?
"God has positioned Joni and Friends for an unprecedented era of growth and outreach, so I'm excited about all the new Wheels for the World outreach we will be doing in new countries; I'm thrilled that we will post a record-breaking number of interns not only in our team offices, but in our programs such as family retreats and Wheels for the World.  Also, we are expanding the number of international and domestic family retreats, helping us reach many more families with special needs. The bottom-line? I'm convinced 2018 that thousands of more people with disabilities and their families will come to Christ and enter His kingdom. Wow!"