A conversation with Joni Eareckson
Eareckson Tada directs Joni and Friends, an organization in Agoura
Hills, Calif., that accelerates ministry to persons with disabilities
and educates the church to serve with them. Injured in a diving
accident in 1967, Joni has used a wheelchair for 32 years. She is
an artist and author and travels throughout the world. She recently
spoke with Ann Floyd, associate editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.
Evangel: Whats the biggest challenge in trying to educate
churches about ministry to persons with disabilities?
Joni: The challenge is to change the landscape of the American
church. First Corinthians 12:22 (NIV) says, "Those parts of
the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable."
Most Christians tend to think, Of course, we must include these
poor invalids who have no one else to turn to. Well be nice
to them. We will follow the Luke 14 mandate. We will have a banquet
for these dear people, these precious people, and we will be such
a blessing to them.
Jesus lands kind of a knockout blow to that perspective in Luke
14, when He says, "Go
and bring in the poor, the crippled,
the blind and the lame" (v.21). He says, "Although they
cannot repay you, you will be blessed" (v.14). The church will
So the challenge is to help the church see why she will be blessed.
Why are the weaker indispensable? We learn in the Word that Gods
power shows up best in weakness. The weaker members are indispensable
because God showcases His power through people with disabilities
in a church.
We often try to reach the professional athletes, businessmen, young
those we perceive as assets. We think, If we get these
people saved, what an asset they will be to our church. Jesus says,
"You find the kid with cerebral palsy, make him come in, and
you will be blessed because his wheelchair will then be the platform
from which My power will infuse the other members of the congregation."
The challenge is helping the church to see the important link between
Gods power and the ingredient of weakness in a church.
Evangel: Some people want to help persons with disabilities,
but dont know how. What do you tell them?
Joni: Follow the example of Jesus. In the Gospels, Hes connecting
with the blind, the deaf, the lame. It irks His disciples.
In Mark 10 Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, is creating a ruckus and
everybody is telling him to shut up. Jesus instructs His disciples
to call Bartimaeus. To the crowds consternation, He does not
deal with Bartimaeus; He deals with the disciples. He knows they
can be a part of the solution in this situation. When the disciples
see the high-life priority Jesus places on a blind beggar, suddenly
theyre not saying, "Shut up"; theyre saying,
Hes calling you" (v.49).
Dont focus on the drool of a person with cerebral palsy or
the deafness or the white cane or the walker. Focus on the Lord
Jesus. When you get to know Him; when you have a passion for Christ,
you will be passionate about the people He loves. You will not feel
squeamish; you will not think any duty distasteful, because you
will have become compassionate about Christ.
Evangel: What do you say to the person who has recently become
impaired or is suffering loss to encourage him or her to live life
to the fullest. Your life shows it can be done.
Joni: People look at me in my wheelchair after 32 years. I smile;
I appear to be successful. But when I am with a person who has recently
gone through trauma or grief a spouse has left, she has given
birth to a baby with multiple handicaps or has lost a loved one
in an accident I tell that person quite frankly about the
way I wake up every morning.
Just because Ive been in a wheelchair for 32 years doesnt
make me a professional. I wake up in the morning and hear my girlfriend
come to the door. My husband has already left for work. I hear water
running for coffee in the kitchen. And usually 95 percent
of the time this is what I pray: "Lord, I cannot do
this. I have no resources for this. I am tired of living in a wheelchair.
Thirty-two years is a long time. For me to live is Christ, but to
die would be gain. I have no smile for this woman when she comes
to my bedroom door in a few minutes. I need You, Lord Jesus. I need
You desperately. I need You urgently. Would You please give me power
and strength and perspective? Would You please give me a smile for
this woman who is about to walk through this bedroom door? Would
You please let me borrow Your smile?"
Then when my girlfriend comes through the bedroom door, I turn
my head on the pillow and my mouth cracks into a smile thats
sent straight from heaven.
God resists the proud; that is, the self-reliant or the self-resourceful.
The people who, when the alarm clock rings, throw back the covers,
hop out of bed, take a quick shower, give God a tip of the hat with
a quick quiet time and race out the door on automatic. God resists
people like that. And its little wonder that the church today
lacks power. We are supposed to be boasting in our weaknesses; we
are supposed to be delighting in our limitations and infirmities;
we are to be glorying in them. Because, as the apostle Paul says,
then we know Christs power rests on us.
Our weaknesses force us to go to God out of desperate need. Then
God delights to pour out His grace.
Evangel: How do you keep yourself refreshed in the Lord?
Joni: My hobby is to memorize hymns all the stanzas. Theres
good theology in some of the ancient hymns. The lines are so full
of wonderful hooks and barbs for my thought life.
I carry a hymnbook in my van. When Im at a doctors appointment
or at the drugstore in a long line, I often sing. Thats usually
a conversation opener. People will say, "My, youre a
happy person." And Ill use it as a springboard to say,
"Its only because I have a reason for living." And
invariably they ask, "Whats that?"
Evangel: Tell us about your Wheels for the World program.
Joni: We collect used wheelchairs, by working with churches and/or
Christian radio stations and ship them to one of three prisons where
inmates fix them like new. We partner with corporations that ship
cargo containers overseas. Occupational and physical therapists
fit these wheelchairs to people with disabilities. The individual
receives a Bible and is connected with a church in the community.
We do disability ministry training.
Evangel: When God Weeps is your latest book. What has
been the response?
Joni: I have gotten an unusually large amount of response from
people who have been devastated by suffering and are in an absolute
quandary to understand the goodness of God in it all. They feel
like their lives are spinning out of control, but they read that
book and realize that God is good in the midst of suffering.
We need to be reminded often that were stronger when we recognize
our weaknesses; were richer when we recognize our poverty.
Thats what Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.