A Vision of Hope
JONI EARECKSON TADA
21st c. motivational speaker and advocate for people with disabilities, Tada expresses her vision of hope through art, ministry, and advocacy.
A 21st-century motivational speaker and author, advocate for people with disabilities, artist, and radio host, Joni Eareckson Tada’s vision of hope is one of resiliency in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulties. When a traumatic event threatened her burgeoning faith in God, Tada gathered strength by focusing on her talents and exploring how she could use them to express her understanding of God’s compassion.
We are often troubled, but not crushed; sometimes in doubt, but never in despair; there are many enemies, but we are never without a friend; and though badly hurt at times, we are not destroyed. At all times we carry in our mortal bodies the death of Jesus, so that his life also may be seen in our bodies.
Joni Eareckson Tada was born October 15, 1949, the youngest of four sisters. Tada’s parents raised her and her sisters to hold a deep appreciation of God and the outdoors. Tada held an incredibly active early life that included hiking, playing tennis, and riding horses. Her earliest memories of the God of the Bible were from campfire stories she heard while sitting on the beach of the Delaware River with her family.
As a 15-year-old sophomore at Woodlawn Senior High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, Joni first came into contact with an organization called Young Life, a faith-based youth organization that guides adolescents in spiritual growth. “I had noticed that lots of the ‘neat’ kids, the achievers, the popular ones, were Christian kids from Young Life,” she explained, “So when I heard about a ‘fantastic retreat’ Young Life was sponsoring, I wanted to go.” It was during this Young Life retreat in Natural Bridge, Virginia, that Tada made a conscious decision to be a follower of Christ.
In my early teens I was looking for my own way and lifestyle, and I didn’t have time for God. I had experimented with many things to find out where I fit into Life. At first I thought popularity and dates were the answer. Then I thought the discipline of athletics was where I would find it. But now my searching ended. All the pieces of the puzzle fit together, and it all made sense! Jesus, God’s Son, had come to save me and make me a whole person.
However, Tada’s initial faith commitment was a superficial, not spiritual, one. In her young mind, believing in God and his gifts meant He could answer her prayers for popularity, dates, and good grades. This shallow view caused problems for the teen. Reflecting on her early years, Tada recalled her spiritual progress at this point as limited by feelings of anger, jealousy, resentment and possessiveness. Her grades dropped, which led to fights with her parents, and she lacked goals or motivation. “It seemed no matter how hard I tried to improve, I was always a slave of my desires,” she later explained. Struggling to deepen her faith, Tada took to praying frequently on the matter.
On July 30, 1967, shortly after high school graduation, Tada’s life took a drastic turn when she dove off a raft into shallow water in the Chesapeake Bay. Her head struck the sandy bottom of the water, severing her spinal column and fracturing her fourth cervical vertebrae. The accident rendered Tada immobile from the shoulders down. While in the hospital, she remembered a petition she had made to God shortly before the accident: “I want You to work in my life for real. I don’t know how—I don’t even know, at this point, if You can. But I’m begging You—please do something in my life to turn it around!” Deep in suffering, Tada wondered if God was somehow answering her prayer.
Over the coming months, Tada found herself in and out of Intensive Care Units, enduring multiple surgeries and painful tests as a result of complications from her injury. She struggled to regain full mobility, and hoped she would eventually be able to walk and use her hands again. But when this physical healing didn’t come, Tada fell into a deep depression, cursing God for betraying her. At her lowest point of despair, she prayed for death.
He has left my flesh open and raw, and has broken my bones. He has shut me in a prison of misery and anguish. He has forced me to live in the stagnant darkness of death. He has bound me in chains; I am a prisoner with no hope of escape. I cry aloud for help, but God refuses to listen; I stagger as I walk; stone walls block me wherever I turn.
I was angry that my life had been reduced to the basics of eating, breathing, and sleeping—day in and day out. But what I discovered was that the rest of the human race was in the same boat. Their lives revolved around the same meaningless cycle—except with them, it wasn’t as obvious. Peripheral things distracted them from the fact that they were caught on the same treadmill.
On the advice of an occupational therapist, Tada reluctantly began to learn how to write using her mouth. On her first attempt, she wrote a letter to her parents. The result gave her a newfound feeling of independence. With growing enthusiasm, Tada began exploring more artistic endeavors, gradually learning how to draw, paint, and etch in clay. The ability to create for the first time in several years brought her renewed hope and energy, and shifted her focus back to her life with a personal God.
Learning to draw signaled the start of Tada's emotional and spiritual recovery.
Courtesy Joni Eareckson Tada
With the help of physical therapists, Tada learned to write and drawing using her mouth.
AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo
Her life reduced to its absolute essentials, Tada began to more deeply explore her true purpose. She gradually began to recognize that she could draw upon talents and skills that could overcome the limitations of her physical condition. With this liberating knowledge she started to discover what she could do to more fully serve God. In the process, she began to read and study the Bible, as well as to explore the writings of thinkers like theologian Francis Schaeffer and Oxford University professor C. S. Lewis. As a reflection of her shifting thoughts on faith, Tada started to sign her paintings “PTL” which stood for “Praise the Lord.” The expression represented her growing belief in God’s care and purpose for her.
My friends, consider yourselves fortunate when all kinds of trials come your way, for you know that when your faith succeeds in facing such trials, the result is the ability to endure. Make sure that your endurance carries you all the way without failing, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.
Life changed drastically for Tada in 1972, after a business colleague of her father complimented one of Tada’s paintings, which was hanging on the wall in her father’s office. When Tada’s father explained that his daughter painted it without formal training or the use of her hands, the man asked if he could put together an art show of Tada’s work.
The show earned the attention of local media and caused an outpouring of public support for Tada’s work. Fans of Tada’s art inspired her to create a greeting card line and prints, and her growing popularity as an artist led to her partnership in a bookstore in 1973. Tada kept busy running the bookstore, attending art fairs, and giving talks on her faith and experiences.
Tada began spreading her message of hope in the media. Here, she speaks with interviewer Larry King on CNN’s Larry King Live.
Courtesy Joni Eareckson Tada
In 1974, Tada’s work garnered national attention when NBC’s Today show reached out to discuss her paintings. By 1979, her mission had expanded, and the Joni and Friends ministry was founded. Through this organization, Tada brings hope and practical help to people with disabilities, and trains churches in ways to effectively minister to disabled persons. Joni and Friends now has more than 46 allied ministries worldwide. Additionally, Tada became involved in social action and public policy reform, serving on the National Council on Disability in the 1980s, and becoming a continued advocate for disability education and outreach as a member of the U.S. State Department’s Disability Advisory Committee.
Through her Joni and Friends ministry, Tada's radio broadcasts reach hundreds of listeners around the world.
Courtesy Joni Eareckson Tada
For Tada, it was the moments of her deepest doubts and despair that shaped her ultimate vision of hope—an assurance that all things unclear will become known through her faith in God. In her ministry, Tada is open about her daily pain and struggle with hope. But she is also candid about her re-commitment to God each morning. “Because I go to God with that earnest dependency and requirement of His grace every single day,” Tada recently shared, “I experience the sweetest most precious, most intimate union with Jesus Christ.” Through revisiting this reservoir of hope each day to give her strength, Tada has grown to understand and accept His higher purpose for her—not of a physical healing, but instead a more profound healing of the soul.