Author, speaker, and advocate for people with disabilities Joni Eareckson Tada was the featured speaker in the Wednesday morning chapel service at Indiana Wesleyan University.
She told chapel attendees that gaining a passion for Christ is the best way to gain a passion for people.
“You are here because God is preparing you for kingdom ministry,” she said in the 10:00 a.m. service in the Chapel Auditorium at Indiana Wesleyan University, as she shared her own story of how God used suffering in her life to produce a passion and intimacy for Jesus Christ.
After a diving injury at age 17, Tada, now 62, became a quadriplegic. Her 1976 book Joni, a memoir of her first years in a wheelchair, has sold more than 3 million copies and been translated into more than 40 languages. She was instrumental in the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and has served two presidents on the National Council on Disability. “I love doing what I do,” Joni told the audience.
“Of all the things I love doing, though, I have to confess, I love taking what I’ve, quote, ‘got left’ of 45 years as a quadriplegic in a wheelchair to energize fellow believers like you in kingdom advancement,” Tada said.
Tada said that during her first few years of quadriplegia, she avoided the label “handicapped,” and stayed clear of other people with disabilities. “Every disabled person I knew, I disliked, from the militant activists who would chain themselves to inaccessible city buses, to the wheelchair students on my campus at University of Maryland who would snivel at the smallest injustice — not one of them had my sympathy.”
But as she read through the life of Jesus, Tada began to notice that Jesus is constantly spending time with people who have disabilities. “And the Lord seemed to be saying to me, “Joni, these are the people among whom I want you to serve.’”
“I began to see that Christ did not lay down his life for others in an emotional vacuum. No, he served with warmth, with passion, with zeal, and with spirited affection, and if I would but draw close to him, I could posess his passion and his pleasure for people as well.”
Tada said that God gives people suffering and affliction to draw them into greater intimacy with him: “There may have been a time when I hated this wheelchair, but it is the very thing — like a sheepdog snapping at my heels — it drives me down the road to Calvary, where otherwise I might not be inclined to go.”She advised students to seek intimacy with God if they wished to accomplish his will in the world: “When you find yourself floating in his love, wild horses won’t keep you from serving with passion.”
“God did not bring you here simply to prepare you for a, quote, ‘job,’” Tada said. “No. He’s not preparing to you to punch a time clock one day from nine to five…no, God is preparing you to share his good news with people. And to do it as he did it: with warmth and passion, with zeal, with spirited affection.
“No five year plan that you will embark on in your future is ever more important than the people that he will plant you among: the people that he’s going to call you to serve.”
Tada also invited students to spend time at the retreats which her organization Joni and Friends has put together for children with disabilities and their families. She called IWU sophomore Amy Hughes to the stage to hear her perspective on working at the family retreats.
“What I love the most is the connection we got to make with the children and the families, and watching the kids go swimming for the first time, go on hot air balloon rides, and the parents getting to see their kids participate in activities they never thought they could,” Hughes said. “It’s just a blast….and by the end of the week, you’ll be changed and be looking forward to next year.”
Tada spoke in the IWU Chapel Auditorium during both the 10:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. services.
In 2009, IWU inducted Tada into the Society of World Changers. IWU established the Society of World Changers in 2003 to recognize role models who have exemplified the concept of world changers and whose live can serve as an inspiration to future generations. Next month, Tada will appear in Christianity Today magazine’s October 2012 list of “50 Women to Watch” among those most shaping church and culture.
IWU has worked with Tada’s organization, Joni and Friends, to offer a class called “Beyond Suffering: Christian Perspectives on Disability Ministry,” which first appeared in May for students of Wesley Seminary at IWU and will be available as an elective for undergraduate students this spring.
“I think the question of suffering is probably the most challenging question for Christians,” said Dr. Ken Schenck, dean of Wesley Seminary at IWU. “If God is able to stop suffering, and he loves us, why doesn’t he do it? That is probably the biggest on-the-street question Christians have. So a course like that is very, very, very relevant.”
Joel Clark, a student at Wesley Seminary and an associate pastor at Back Creek Friends Church in Fairmount, Indiana, said that the course gave him some practical steps which the church could apply right away to accommodate congregation members with physical or mental disabilities.
“I would say the one thing that surprised me the most [in the course] was how, when Christianity first began, how much support the church gave to people with disabilities, and how over the years that’s dwindled,” Clark said.
Nathan Herring, Director of Disability Services for IWU, said that people with disabilities are the largest unchurched group of people in the world today.
“A lot of times they aren’t able to get physically to where the missionaries are in Third World countries, or aren’t able to get to churches. And even in the United States, they may not have access to get to our churches….it’s a group that you really have to reach out to, in many cases, and a lot of times that doesn’t happen,” Herring said.
Over the summer, Herring went to Romania to teach the course to a group of pastors in a trip sponsored by Joni and Friends.
“It was phenomenal. it was amazing to really see God working in their hearts and their minds through the curriculum piece, to really see them start to think about people differently. And especially in their country, where there is so much poverty…For them, the church has the responsibility of physical care, the social welfare care, and the spiritual care. So for them, it’s a lot bigger challenge,” Herring said.
As difficult as ministry among people with disabilities can be, Tada told chapel attendees that she has truly grown to love the work she does.
“I love ministering, I love obnoxious jerks sitting in their wheelchairs smoking their lives away. I love bantering with militant activists in Washington D.C…I’m inspired by the guy with cerebral palsy who hangs onto God’s grace despite a dreary existence living in an institution. But I’ll tell you this: it all falls apart, it all becomes empty ambition, it all becomes vain conceit, if there is no intimacy with Jesus Christ.”