New resolution after 55 years in my wheelchair

I wonder sometimes, Who am I, God, that you brought me this far? Lately I whispered this question from 1 Chronicles 17:16: “So King David [said]”Who am I, O Eternal God, and what is my house, that you have brought me hither?” Who am I to enjoy a national radio platform for 40 years? Who am I to be so blessed in marriage to Ken for 40 years? And how did I find the strength to survive 55 years as a quadriplegic in a wheelchair?

The truth is that I don’t have the strength. I still wake up every morning desperately in need of God. Like David, I often confess, “I am poor and needy” (Ps. 40:17). Maybe that’s how God brought me here. I can’t say, but I do know that “the eyes of the Lord go out throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully devoted to him” (2 Chron. 16:9, NIV). God searches high and low for the weak who love him so that he can pour into them his strength. It may be my story, but it’s not for me to say how I got here. I just keep praising my sovereign God every step I take.

It is the noble cause of Christ to which I have devoted myself for decades, and I can think of nothing that gives me more joy. Yet as I reach the milestone of 55 years of quadriplegia – not to mention two bouts of cancer, severe respiratory issues, COVID-19 and chronic pain – I cling tightly to Acts 20:24 (NIV) “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only goal is to finish the race and accomplish the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of witnessing to the good news of God’s grace.

And with this anniversary marking 55 years in my wheelchair, I reflect on more than a few milestones through which God has done amazing things.

God transformed my heart, changed my attitude and showed me that there are more important things in life than walking.

Anniversary of the Persons with Disabilities Act

When a broken neck turned my life upside down 55 years ago, leaving me depressed and devastated, the last people I wanted to be with were wheelchair users like me. They made me feel uncomfortable, so I basically ignored anyone with a crippling disease. Imagine my amazement when a little over a decade later, God used my own affliction to birth an international disability ministry. Somewhere in that decade, I got over my fears of the future and my contempt for people with disabilities. God transformed my heart, changed my attitude and showed me that there are more important things in life than walking.

I landed in a wheelchair at a time when there was very little access for people using mobility equipment. In the 1970s, I would arrive at a restaurant, only to be told to drive down an alley, past smelly dumpsters, into a side door that led through a crowded, noisy kitchen in order to reach my dinner table.

I remember being stuck in a boutique fitting room trying on clothes. My wheelchair had gotten stuck between the swinging door and the wall; the store manager had to come and jerk me off for free. My wheelchair left scratches all over the locker room. I was terribly embarrassed. It was like that in the early 1970s, before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

With each passing year, I accumulated more embarrassing incidents of being stuck, getting stuck, and taking long, winding detours to get into movie theaters, restaurants, churches, and stores. I finally had my fill of embarrassing episodes, so I started to actively advocate for myself and other people with disabilities.

In the late 1980s, I somehow landed a job on the National Council on the Disabled under President Reagan. One of the first initiatives the Council tackled was the lack of access in public places. Together with other disability groups, we were able to send Congress a landmark bill to improve access for Americans with disabilities. Finally, in 1990, I sat on the White House lawn with other Council members and watched President Bush sign the ADA into law.

I don’t often think of the days when I served on the Council. However, on a recent vacation in Yosemite National Park, Ken and I noticed that everywhere we went the paths were paved and marked with access symbols. I was pleasantly surprised to find miles of trails I could ride. And for places I couldn’t ride, there were accessible trams.

At one point, as I rolled along the floor of Yosemite Valley, I stopped to tearfully reflect on the days of navigating my way through dark alleys and backdoors. That was then. And now? Virtually the entire network of national parks is open to me. This month marks 32 years since the ADA was enacted.

Beyond Advocacy: A Vision for Belonging

Of course, people with disabilities need more than smooth sidewalks, lowered drinking fountains and exit ramps. In the United States, laws enforcing accessibility standards are helpful, but they cannot provide the sense of place that people with disabilities so often lack. Although 32 years have passed since the ADA, people with disabilities are often still isolated and marginalized. That’s why I started Joni and her friends in 1979. I knew there were countless thousands of people struggling with the same resentments and fears about their disability. So I assembled a team of like-minded friends who wanted to do everything we could to make Christ real for people with disabilities around the world.

A higher law than the ADA is required. In Luke 14:13-14, Jesus tells us to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed”. At Joni and Friends, we envision a world where every person with a disability finds hope, dignity and their place in the body of Christ.

We envision a world where every person with a disability finds hope, dignity and a place in the body of Christ.

For example, here in the United States, we host family retreats where parents of people with special needs receive much-needed respite and entire families discover that they belong, not just to a community that understands them, but to the body of Christ. Thousands of veterans have returned from war with physical injuries, mental injuries and PTSD, so we host warrior getaways for these brave service men and women and their families. There are also desperate needs in communities like East St. Louis, Nashville and Downtown Los Angeles. So we seek to expand our programs and our resource churches to bring people with disabilities into the fold – into the house of God through faith in Christ.

Global reach for a global need

My heart breaks when I think of the billion disabled people in the world, most of whom live in poverty with little hope for change. They feel forgotten by their communities. But Jesus did not forget them.

In developing countries around the world, we distribute wheelchairs and Bibles through our Wheels for the World program. Joni’s house consists of disability centers offering occupational therapy, medical supplies, Bible study and discipleship programs, job training, wheelchair maintenance, and more. We also partner with local hospitals to provide wound care, surgical support and physical therapy. In short, wWe strive to “prove” the power of the message of salvation with evidence of Christ-centered compassion.

We were about to open a new Joni’s House in Ukraine when war broke out in February. When the Russian bombs fell, disabled people found themselves stranded in danger. So we started to serve Ukrainians with disabilities, but not as we had planned. Our in-country coordinator, Galyna, began organizing evacuation efforts, even as Russia intensified its rocket attacks. Supported by her network of churches and our partners in Poland, Galyna has worked tirelessly and courageously to find people with disabilities and evacuate the most vulnerable among them, hundreds to date.

Today, even though Ukraine is less in the headlines, Galyna and members of our network continue to provide housing and food for Ukrainians with disabilities. We are currently planning a family retreat for displaced Ukrainians with disabilities and their carers.

curved sky

From the dark basements of Ukraine to the foothills of the Himalayas to the streets of downtown Los Angeles, people with disabilities are suffering untoldly. Their needs are urgent, so I “run” the race the Lord Jesus has set before me. There are too many people struggling like I did 55 years ago when I crushed my spinal cord and became a quadriplegic.

Growing old with quadriplegia can be filled with additional challenges, but that doesn’t demoralize me. With God’s help, I hold everything lightly. I try not to grab my fragile life, or pamper it, or minimize my activities at Joni and Friends just because I’m getting older, weaker, and in more pain. On the contrary, I find great comfort and joy in dying to myself and living each day to serve the Lord Jesus and others in the world whose disabilities are far deeper than mine.

What else could be more important than practicing Christianity, with your sleeves rolled up, among the needy? When I am tired, I draw inspiration from the life of Jesus who, even while nailed to his cross and in great pain, nevertheless continued to serve others (like the thief, his mother and the soldiers who had need forgiveness). Ephesians 5:1 tells me to imitate him. So I am determined to honor my Jesus, serve others, finish the race, and complete the task of witnessing to the grace of the gospel.

About Laurence Johnson

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