"The Greater, Grander, Mosaic"

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Joni Eareckson Tada has been a quadriplegic for 46 years, left paralyzed by a diving accident when she was 17. But her story of God’s sovereignty in suffering has become her hands and feet, reaching across the world and changing hearts and lives for Christ from the coast of California to the Gulf of Guinea in Africa. 

From the confines of her wheelchair, Joni has expanded God’s kingdom in ways she never dreamed possible. Over the last four decades, the Lord has used Joni as an international speaker, best-selling author, recording artist, painter, Christian ministry leader and tireless servant. This year, the ministry she founded — Joni and Friends — celebrates 35 years of sharing the hope and love of Christ with people all over the world who are affected by disability.

While her arms and legs have limits, Joni’s vision is clear: bring Jesus up close and personal to those the world too often overlooks. And her heart’s course for the furthest-out ones was set long ago, through the pain of her own struggles and the power of the ministry of Young Life.

Joni was an active, typical teenager growing up in Baltimore, Md., in the 1960s. She spent much of her time outdoors and with her family — horseback riding, backpacking, playing tennis, swimming — and was captain of her lacrosse team at Woodlawn High School. And she loved Young Life.

Her older sister, Kathy, attended Young Life with her friends, and Joni remembers longing to be old enough to go to club with her.

“I was a spiritually aware kid, but not a believer,” Joni recalled. “I was so happy when I became a sophomore and got to join Young Life. I understood it to be a great place to make friends. I was so surprised to see many of my field hockey buddies there my first night of club. We sat together, laughed, and had fun.

She heard about an upcoming Young Life trip to Natural Bridge, Va., and begged her mom to let her go. It was a turning point in Joni’s faith.

“Carl Nelson was speaking,” Joni said. “I remember sitting there, hugging my knees on the hardwood floor, and listening to Carl tell us we needed to measure our lives against [the impossibly high bar of] the Ten Commandments. And I thought, ‘I’m not going to make it.’

“Later, my counselor in cabin time explained that’s why Jesus came, and it was like a giant light bulb came on. That’s what my parents were hinting around about all those years? That’s what all those years of going to church meant? It struck me afresh and anew. I happily and readily embraced Him. I felt a change immediately.

“I remember singing, ‘And Can It Be That I Should Gain?’ in club that weekend. When we got to the line ‘My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee,’ I remember literally feeling my chains fall off. There wasn’t any major sin in my life, but I knew I was free.”

From there, Joni attended club and Campaigners every week, immersing herself in the ministry and relationships that introduced her to life and joy.

“Before Young Life, I thought of Jesus as a stiff, religious, arcane figure,” Joni said. “I related to Him more as stained glass than a real person. But Jesus is personal. He wants to relate to me and me to Him. Following Him is not following a list of dos and don’ts. It’s being led by a real person. 

“Young Life takes Him off the shelf and out of the dusty theology books and makes Him somebody you want to follow. Young Life showed me what a captivating person Jesus really is. Young Life shattered that stained glass.”

Two years later, when tragedy shattered her world, it would be Joni’s relationship with Christ and her Young Life friends that helped her pick up the pieces.

It was a hot July day in 1967, the summer after Joni’s high school graduation. The setting sun reflected off the Chesapeake Bay where Joni and her sister, Kathy, were swimming. Joni noticed a raft anchored a little ways offshore, and decided to swim out and dive off of it.  

Joni misjudged the depth of the water; her head hit bottom, and the impact fractured her spinal cord. She was paralyzed instantly.

In a moment, Joni went from packing her bags for college and planning for her future to being trapped in a hospital bed, waiting, hoping and praying for physical healing that would never come.

She was in the hospital nearly two years, during a time when many quadriplegics did not survive their injuries. Joni said when her life felt like chaos, her Young Life friends were a constant support.

“It was my Young Life friends who came to the hospital. They were my most faithful visitors,” Joni said. “They brought their guitars, Seventeen magazines and Bingo, and didn’t treat me like an invalid or a cripple or sick. They treated me like Joni. They related to me as though I were still whole and complete. I didn’t sense an ounce of pity from my Young Life friends, and I loved that.”

Joni wrestled for years with questions about God’s sovereignty in her suffering. She remembers lying in her hospital bed, unable to move on her own or do anything to care for herself, and battling thoughts of suicide. 
One memory in particular brought her both pain and promise as she walked through the darkest moments:

“I went to Star Ranch [Young Life’s first camp] as a junior, and Chuck Reinhold was the club leader. We spent the day hiking to the top of Cheyenne Mountain. I remember my muscles were aching and I was tired. At the top, the view was stunning. It was breathtakingly beautiful. 

“As Chuck started talking to us, he singled me out and said, ‘You’re going to go places, Joni. God is going to do great things with you.’ That was such a big deal. My heart was bursting with joy! It was one of those inhalation moments — I was on cloud nine! 

“When I broke my neck the following year, I quickly recalled that moment. Chuck came often to the hospital to visit me, but we never talked about it. I was just afraid he’d have to recant what he said, and I didn’t want to embarrass him. I grieved over it. I felt cheated. I didn’t feel that way about my circumstances at all — in fact, I wanted to die!

“Later in my life, I finally looked back on that and could say, ‘Yes, Jesus, your hand was on me all the way.’ It was a beautiful moment.”

In 1969, Joni was finally released from the hospital to resume her “new normal” life. Answers to some of the hard questions she had about her faith were coming to light, and her Christian life, she says, was getting back on track.

Joni became a junior counselor to a group of sophomore girls from Randallstown High School and went with them to Frontier Ranch in her wheelchair. To this day, Joni and her “girls” still keep in touch, and many of them serve now as volunteers for Joni and Friends’ Family Retreats.

Joni is grateful her Young Life leaders pointed her to Jesus before her accident, so that when tragedy cast deep shadows over her faith, she knew where to find the Light.

“What we win kids with is what we win them to,” Joni said. “If we win them to games and fun, to being cool and cool leaders, then when they break their neck at 17, it’s not fun anymore. It’s not cool anymore. 

“The context is important, but I’m so grateful my leader didn’t win me with just games and fun. My leader won me with the Gospel. She won me with Jesus. It was so helpful to me that my leader made Christ central. When you win people to Jesus, they are drawn to Jesus when tragedy and suffering hit.”

And that’s been Joni’s mission ever since — to win people to Jesus. During her rehabilitation after her accident, one of the skills Joni learned was writing with a pen between her teeth. She began using this newfound ability for more than just communication; it became her creative expression. Soon, her drawings and paintings were on exhibit professionally. And her connection to the world began.

Barbara Walters heard about Joni and interviewed her on the Today show in 1974. After the interview, Walters encouraged Joni to write down her story; Joni’s autobiography was published in 1976. Soon after, a movie about her life was made.

As her story became known across the world, Joni found the outpouring of need and support overwhelming. She wanted to respond and help those who, like her, needed hope in the midst of suffering. In 1979, Joni and Friends was born.

Wheels for the World, Cause4Life global internships, TeamMED, the Christian Institute on Disability, Church Relations, and Family Retreats — each of these ministries makes up and expands the Joni and Friends mission: to communicate the Gospel and equip Christ-honoring churches worldwide to evangelize and disciple people affected by disabilities.

As Joni’s ministry grew, a high school history teacher and football coach named Ken Tada stepped into the picture. 

Ken had known Joni and her story from a distance for years. His first introduction was impersonal — she was a face on a poster in the window of a Christian bookstore he drove past every day on his way to work at John Burroughs High School. In 1979, he saw her introduce her film at a Young Life banquet and was impressed by her spirit and message.
Ken had also become a Christian through Young Life, but in a way less typical.

His senior year in college, two of his good friends, Nobie Hill, who was on Young Life staff, and his brother Eddie, a Young Life volunteer leader, invited Ken to help out on a Young Life weekend retreat. Ken wasn’t familiar at all with the ministry, and the weekend opened his eyes in more ways than one.

“I had a biology midterm that Monday but since they said it was a “retreat,” I thought I’d have a chance to study,” Ken recalled. “Turns out, I didn’t pick up a book the whole weekend. The excitement, the energy level, kids piling on top of us — it was nonstop!

“That Saturday night after listening to Randy Giusta give the message, we had quiet time. I remember going outside, sitting on a rock — I know exactly where I was — and seeing a shooting star. It was at that moment I accepted Christ as my Savior. I failed my midterm, but got something much better in return.”

Ken said Young Life’s clarity of message pulled together his head and heart at just the right time.

“Many of us are introduced to church and religious things early in life, and they don’t click. Young Life is where it clicked for me,” Ken said. “This was the first time I understood the Gospel. I knew this was very real. The message was real. It spoke directly to me. I knew I could have a personal relationship with the God of the universe through Jesus Christ.”

Ken became a Young Life volunteer leader at his high school, where he taught for 32 years. 

Ken and Joni finally met officially at a surprise birthday party thrown for Joni by some mutual friends. They connected, began a friendship that blossomed into love and married in 1982.

Now 64 and 67, the Tadas have been married 31 years. Ken serves as director of Ministry Development for Joni and Friends alongside his wife, and they are thrilled Young Life shares their passion through its Capernaum ministry.

“In the early ’80s, I was in San Jose with Nick Palermo (founder of Capernaum, Young Life’s ministry with teens with disabilities),” Joni said. “He was picking up his kids in a big, old van for club, and I was so impressed. I knew what Young Life had meant to me, and I never dreamed Young Life and this vision could connect. To see it in action, I was over the moon. I had no idea he’d take Capernaum so far.” 

Joni remembers coming full circle with Young Life when she spoke at the all-staff conference in 2004. She was thrilled to be able to “make a big deal” about Capernaum from the platform. 

Last October, the Young Life Capernaum staff took a course from Joni and Friends’ Christian Institute on Disability titled, “Beyond Suffering.” Now Joni and Friends and Young Life are strategizing ways for club kids who graduate from Capernaum to assimilate into their Family Retreat program. 

“So that’s really the cherry on top,” Joni said of the collaboration. “I love the way Young Life wants to include every kid — not just the athletic or cliques at high school who are easy to reach, but the unreachable, the unlovely, the isolated, the disabled. Young Life exists to make Jesus personal to every kid. That’s the power of Young Life.”

This spring Joni and Ken joined the Young Life Capernaum Board, and Ken believes the connection between their ministry and the mission of Young Life is invaluable to those they serve.

“I think there is a wonderful relationship between the two,” Ken said. “We follow the mandate of Luke 14 [inviting everyone into the “great banquet”], and we feel our responsibility is going out and equipping folks to do the same. If we can help folks doing Capernaum and make their job easier, we will lend a hand. 

“And we know it works both ways. They are speaking to a group of young people we might not have access to. A young person finishes a Family Retreat with us, and when they go back home, we send them to Capernaum. What a great way for them to plug in.”

Joni and Ken find humble satisfaction in seeing the Lord continue to allow them to proclaim His name in unexpected places. Most recently, the Oscar-nominated (then rescinded) song “Alone Yet Not Alone” sung by Joni, for the film of the same name, introduced her to a whole new generation of people who’d never heard her story before.

While hers is a sacred platform, it isn’t new. For most of her life, Joni has been watching God work through her suffering. And even though her front-row seat is a wheelchair, the view is eternal.

“My friend Steve Estes coined a phrase 40 years ago and I’ve been saying it ever since: ‘God permits what He hates, to accomplish that which He loves.’ That’s my mantra. If I were to sum up my life, that would be it. 

“I’m so honored God has given me this platform from my wheelchair. It’s odd that it’s a wheelchair; it’s odd that it’s suffering. It’s not what I thought it would’ve been. But that’s the point of God doing something beyond what we can ask or imagine. He sees the greater, grander mosaic.”​​

​If you would like to know more about the ministry of Joni and Friends, please visit their website at joniandfriends.org​