When I was young I read the book Joni and saw the movie. That this young woman’s life could be turned around in a second, all from a simple dive, was scary to hear. But to see her faith, regardless of her circumstances, was amazing and inspiring.
Years later, at the age of 24 I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. I looked for the chronic illness Christian organization for those with illness. I was familiar with Joni and Friends, her ministry for the disabled, but I didn’t feel like it “fit” what I was going through at the time. I wasn’t in a wheelchair, after all. I just would never be able to wear high heels ever again.
But after searching Christian bookstores for a resource and scouring the Christian ministries I was aware of I couldn’t find anything. I was surprised! Where did Christians turn when they were told “You have diabetes” or “You have rheumatoid arthritis”? Yes, of course, God could heal me. But what if He chose not to? And what if it was ten years from now? I needed people who understood what I was going through- now!. And the secular support groups were just making me more depressed (too much venting and negativity and no hope at all…)
I started a little newsletter called …And He Will Give You Rest. It was 1997 and I was just beginning to become familiar with the Internet. I built a little web site. People started to connect.
My husband and I went to hear Joni speak and I stood in line to have her sign my book but really just to talk to her. I told her about my ministry and asked if anyone else was doing illness ministry. She said “Not that I know of” and basically told me to “go for it!” Well… I did. I never looked back and always hoped I could somehow fulfill the vision God gave me.
Years later I was honored to be on Joni’s radio program. She has her ministry send out our brochures when people call her ministry who have an illness. I served on the board of directors for an organization she had begun called the Christian Persons with Disabilities. A couple times a year I flew around the country and our board met to talk about disability and illness ministry in churches today and how we could make leaders more aware of the opportunities and joy people with disabilities can bring to a congregration. But Joni wasn’t there… Sometimes she had planned to be and her own health issues prevented her from coming.
At a christian book expo I found a copy of one of her paintings: Heaven. It is on the wall in my office. Her book When God Weeps is one of the best I’ve ever read.
One time I was exhibiting at a church conference where she was the keynote speaker. She zoomed by in her chair and said, “Hey, Lisa! How are you? I’m going to eat lunch over there. Come on over and join me!”
I don’t remember what I said. Nothing eloquent. My sister was standing beside me and said “She knows your name! She knows your name!”
I wandered over and had the joy of sharing a meal with her in a cafeteria setting behind the exhibit room, just her and I and her assistant.
And then one day someone from their office called me. (Me?) He had a chronic illness and had talked to Joni and thought Rest Ministries would be a good fit for an affiliate organization of Joni and Friends. I had assumed since we were more of an illness ministry and not so much a disability ministry, we wouldn’t be eligible. I attended my first meeting and the compassion of all of the staff was amazing.
A couple years ago I was to speak and exhibit at a conference organized by Joni and Friends. Days before we had to evacuate for about 5 days due to fires coming through our neighborhood. We packed 2 cars. One with our stuff. One with our exhibit stuff. I wrote my presentation sitting at a picnic table on La Jolla shores–the only place where one could breath a bit in all of San Diego county. I tried to concentrate on what I was to be doing in a few days and yet both my husband and I felt a sense that God really could take our home to make us have a spiritual lightening bolt moment in our lives. (Thankfully we weren’t right. God gave us grace and saved our home.)
But I remember my husband asking me… “What if we lose our home? Will we still go up to LA and go to Joni’s conference?” (Thinking, surely not, right?)
And without missing a beat I said, “There are no people I would rather be around after those at Joni and Friends those first few days.”
I don’t even know a lot of J&F staff or volunteers, but that’s how loved you feel. It would have been like being with my closest family during the most difficult time of our lives.
I hope you will celebrate with me this special time for Joni. Below is the press release I received today and wanted to share it with you. I wish I could say Joni and I just hang out, but that’s not true. Despite my involvement with her ministry I still stand in awe of her. When I am at a conference or her office building, she always is so busy and I know she is tired and don’t want to bother her. But her ministry and her message (through speaking, books, and sense of humor through anything) has been one of the joys in my life.
When I started Rest Ministries I had no idea what I was doing. Sometimes I think nothing has changed. I still feel in over my head, especially when my health issues mess with my schedule (I had to cancel participating last year in J&F’s conference due to having that bummer flesh eating bacteria). I will never measure up to Joni’s ministry, but is my hope that, by using it as my blueprint, I can bring glory to God.
A couple years ago I had the opportunity to go up and visit her new building (see right). It’s beautiful. You can stand in one place and sing and it echoes all over the building. The chapel is amazing. If you are ever in Agoura Hills, CA (north of LA) you can take a tour.
The whole building was designed for ministry (cute little places to sit and pray), comfort (it feels so light and refreshing) and to make anyone in a wheelchair feel normal (a building that makes the wheelchair ramps appear to be nothing but design inspired to add to the visual pleasure). A waterfall in the reception area immediately calms you and makes you feel like –for a moment– all is right with our world.
And then I got to see Joni’s desks – one was spotless but the other one, the real working desk…? Let’s just say for a moment was thrilled because it looked as full as mine! It stands as a reminder to get back to work because when it comes to illness or disability ministry “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” Matthew 9:37
If Joni has blessed you (as I know she has – many of you) remember to drop her a note or a birthday card in the next couple of months.
As Joni Eareckson Tada observes her 60th birthday in October, this year also marks the 30th anniversary of the ministry she founded to provide support and outreach to individuals with disabilities and their families — inspired from her own experience as a quadriplegic trying to adapt and survive in an inaccessible world.
Tada became a quadriplegic at the age of 17 as the result of a diving accident. As part of her rehabilitation, she learned to paint beautiful pictures with her mouth, which she showed at local art fairs. She was featured on a local television program, after which NBC’s “The Today Show” booked her for an interview with Barbara Walters.
“After that interview, things kind of exploded,” Tada said. “A publisher asked if I would write a book (I did and its called “Joni”) and the Billy Graham film ministry did a story on my life.
“This resulted in thousands of letters from disabled people,” Joni continued. “These letters inspired me to begin this important ministry, responding to people seeking advice and encouragement.”
Joni and Friends was established in 1979, in Burbank, Calif., and Tada began the now- internationally-syndicated radio program “Joni and Friends” in 1982. The ministry grew and moved to a new location in Agoura Hills in 1986.
One of the ministry’s best-known programs is Wheels for the World, providing wheelchairs for individuals with disabilities all over the world. Family Retreats are another renowned JAF outreach, during which individuals with disabilities and their entire families are encouraged and given a real respite during a week-long “summer camp” atmosphere.
As JAF has moved from a personality-focused programming ministry to a vision-driven movement, it has engaged in the bio-ethics debate, with the establishment of the Christian Institute on Disability. This development has helped prepare JAF to lead the Church into the 21st century, as technological advances outpace Christians’ engagement in science and culture.
A critical development in this growth and transition has been the addition of Doug Mazza as president and COO (Tada continues to serve as CEO). Mazza came to JAF in 1999 as executive vice president, moving to his new role in 2004. Drawing on his years of corporate management experience, Mazza helped initiate the transition from “Joni” to “Joni and Friends,” and encouraged a more collaborative and integrated organization.
Billy Burnett, vice president and chief financial officer, oversees financial and administrative systems at JAF, and along with other ministry leadership, is amazed at how God has blessed and grown Joni and Friends. The organization recently completed construction on a large, new hi-tech headquarters building — a model of accessibility for the 21st century.
As the ministry turns the corner on this its 30th year, it continues to fulfill Tada’s vision of accelerating ministry to those with disabilities. “If churches around the world would grasp the revolutionary truth that Christ’s transforming power always comes through sacrifice and weakness, it would dramatically alter the landscape of the global church,” Tada said.
In celebration of the 30th anniversary, JAF has established a special gold seal for use in all literature and communications. It serves as a reminder of how far the ministry has come, Mazza said, but is just the tip of the iceberg in how JAF plans to continue to grow and serve in the future.
“While we pause in appreciation of the past, we look forward with more excitement than ever, as we continue to see so many opportunities ahead,” Mazza added. “Because of Joni’s vision and foresight, JAF is poised to lead the Church in meeting the challenges of a new era — a time when technology has advanced and life has been devalued so that those with disabilities and those without a voice need a champion more than ever.”