As Joni Eareckson Tada blew out the candles on her birthday cake on Oct. 15, she thanked God for the “grace that has brought me this far, all the way to 63. I’m breaking all sorts of spinal-cord injury statistics, and I credit it all to God’s amazing grace.”
Along with that grace, she thanked God for the relationship she formed many years ago with Billy and Ruth Graham.
While she was in Charlotte, N.C., to kick off the Southeast Disability Ministry Summit Oct. 5, Joni shared memories of meeting the Grahams, her most memorable Crusade moment, and her anticipation for next year’s My Hope with Billy Graham outreach.
Although she didn’t visit Mr. Graham on this trip, she cherishes the final time she met with Billy and Ruth Graham as a couple. She was in North Carolina for a Joni & Friends family retreat. “We had a free afternoon, so my husband, Ken, and I asked if we could come over to visit and pray and sing a few hymns.
“We had such fun,” Joni continued. “We were welcomed so warmly into his home. Ruth was sitting in her wheelchair and Mr. Graham was in an easy chair. My husband and I, and a couple of friends, we harmonized over all our favorite hymns and spoke and sang buoyantly of the glories of heaven above.”
It’s now a treasured memory, Joni said. “And even though Billy Graham will soon turn 94-years old, his love for Christ, his enthusiasm for the Gospel and his commitment to prayer is truly exemplary to me and millions of others.”
The long-standing relationship began after Ruth Bell Graham read Joni’s autobiography in 1976. The story of the young quadriplegic who broke her neck in a diving accident and had to face life without the use of her hands or legs moved Mrs. Graham deeply. Joni’s courage in overcoming obstacles, and the way she was “lifted up out of depression by holding on to the hem of the garment of the Lord Jesus,” made a huge impression on Mrs. Graham.
“Bill,” said Ruth, “you really need to have this young girl at one of your Crusades.”
Over the next couple of decades, Joni appeared at 12 different Crusades with Mr. Graham, both in the United States and overseas. “It’s been a long history with the Graham team, whom I love dearly,” Joni added.
One particular highlight was the Billy Graham Crusade in Budapest, Hungary, in 1989. “First, I was so impressed that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association sponsored the train fares of any disabled person and their family who would want to come and attend the Crusade,” Joni recalled.
“On opening night, I’ll never forget wheeling out onto that platform and looking out over a sea of people in this gigantic sports stadium that was overflowing. It was massive, but all around the track and field, there were lines of people with disabilities whose families had dragged them in on blankets, pushed them in baby carriages, carted them in on wheel barrows and pulled them in on mattresses—crowding the field.”
Joni said she thought, “There is a beautiful illustration of the Gospel of Luke 14 where Jesus tells us to go out and find the disabled and bring them in. That is what Mr. Graham and the team did in Budapest, Hungary, and I was so overwhelmed, so touched, so proud of Jesus in him and the rest of the team. To me, it was one of the highlights of my life.”
Now Joni is equally excited about My Hope with Billy Graham, a nationwide, year-long effort to share Christ through personal relationships, that will culminate in a broadcast on Nov. 7, 2013—Mr. Graham’s 95th birthday. The program will feature a new Gospel presentation from Billy Graham, classic footage, riveting testimonies and special music. But the broadcast is just one part of a strategy comprised of prayer, training for evangelism, hospitality and follow-up by local churches.
“I am so excited about My Hope with Billy Graham that will be aired in living rooms across the nation on Mr. Graham’s 95th birthday,” said Joni. “What a way to help this giant of the faith celebrate his birthday—by fulfilling his vision to bring many more people into the fold of Christ’s family.”
For someone who is disabled or physically unable to attend an evangelistic event held in a stadium, My Hope’s living room setting is a blessing. Joni is reminded of a moving scene that happened in her own living room several years ago: “I’ll never forget when I was watching a Billy Graham Crusade—we had our next door neighbors come and visit with us. Little Kimberly was sitting there on the couch and when Mr. Graham welcomed people to come forward, she got off the couch, walked over to the television and sat crying.”
What a powerful illustration of not just the Gospel changing a life, Joni added, “but of the power of sitting with your family and friends in a living room to watch Mr. Graham preach that time-honored Gospel that is so life-transforming.
“I encourage everyone to get in on this marvelous opportunity—My Hope with Billy Graham—and be a part of sharing the Good News of Jesus on that special weekend and celebrating his birthday.”
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