Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

cram halfPart of an occasional series on living with hardship

Joni Eareckson was a typical teenager, living a typical American life. Born in Baltimore in 1949, she was named after her father John. Joni – pronounced "Johnny" – was extremely athletic, enjoying swimming, hiking, tennis and anything outdoors.

In July 1967 when she was 17 years old, Joni took a dive into the shallow waters of Chesapeake Bay and broke her neck, causing a severe spinal cord injury. As a consequence, Joni is a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the shoulders down and living without use of her hands or legs. She has been in a wheelchair for 45 years.

In the early months after the accident, Joni was consumed with anger and despair. She begged friends to help her commit suicide by slitting her wrists or dumping pills down her throat. She dreaded what she saw as a meaningless life in a wheelchair.

At the same time, Joni’s faith crashed under the wilting desolation of her hospital bed. She tired of people’s sanctimonious answers and their assurances that her accident must have been God’s will. How could a loving God destroy her life like this?

It was another teenager who helped answer some of her desperate questions. Bringing a Bible with him during a hospital visit, her friend pointed to the example of Jesus’ hanging on the cross. "Joni, whose will do you think the cross was?" She knew the answer from Sunday school: the cross was God’s idea. The cross was no mistake.

Suffering is a mystery, Joni often says, and nobody is glorifying it. "There is no inherent goodness in disability, disease or deformity, but we are promised . . . that all things fit together into a plan for our good and God’s glory."

Nevertheless, her physical and emotional healing was painful and long. "There was a time when I used to think that man’s chief end for happiness was to have a date on Saturday night and to be a slim, trim 135 lbs., a size 12 dress … a nice little home in suburbia with a white picket fence … and 2.5 children. …After my accident … I began to see that it was people who counted."

Through lengthy hospital and rehabilitation stays, Joni painstakingly began to learn how to live with her disabilities. She also began to immerse herself in Scripture to become spiritually strong.

To support herself, Joni learned to draw and paint by holding the tools with her teeth. Her artwork is remarkable in its beauty, and her success brought her a measure of financial independence. She has written more than 40 books, recorded several music CDs, and starred in an autobiographical movie of her life. Her first book, Joni, was an international best-seller, perhaps because she never sugar-coated the terrible pain and doubt that emerged after her accident.

In 1979, Joni founded a ministry to disabled people throughout the world. Joni and Friends Ministries (JAF Ministries) began to uncover enormous need for disabled people to receive not only practical help but also to have access to churches. JAF Ministries offers seminars to train local churches to reach out to the disabled, who often feel alienated from mainstream society. They also launched Wheels for the World, which restores and distributes wheelchairs to developing nations.

Perhaps Joni’s greatest contribution, however, has been the hope she has given millions of people who are disabled. Speaking to a group of wheelchair-bound listeners, Joni said that she used to view the wheelchair as a source of alienation and confinement, but that, with God’s grace, she now views it as a symbol of independence and freedom.

But it took time for this transformation to occur. "There will be dark days when you will ask questions, not out of a searching heart but out of a clenched fist," Joni told her audience, "but that’s okay. God is big enough to handle our biggest doubts and he’s not held hostage by our handicaps. ... Let God reach down into an otherwise awful pain in your life and wrench out of it positive good for yourself and glory for him."

In 1982, Joni Eareckson married Ken Tada, and together they continue to bring hope to those who live with disabilities. They certainly speak from experience.

Regina Cram lives in Glastonbury and is a freelance writer.