By Daniel Jackson
Over the past several years, a relationship between Joni and Friends, a Christian ministry devoted to helping people with disabilities, and Bryan College has been developing.
Bryan’s alumni have gone to work in the offices of the organization, the college recently began offering a course designed by Joni and Friends, and Joni and Friends use Fort Bluff Camp on Dayton Mountain to host their camp for families with children of disabilities. On April 22, Joni Eareckson Tada herself visited Bryan campus for the first time.
A diving accident when she was 17 left Joni paralyzed from the shoulders down. Now 63, she advocates for people with disability. Author of over 48 books, she talks about suffering, disability and Christianity.
Rudd Auditorium was packed for the chapel hour on April 22. Visitors, both young and old, filled the seats and others stood in the back.
She spoke about how people with disabilities bless the church. She said many people who live with day-to-day suffering have to rely more on God. Through living faith, they show faith in God.
“We’re God’s best visual aids. We’re God’s best flannelgraphs,” she said.
At one point in her presentation, she stopped.
“Ken, can you help me a second?” Joni said to her husband.
Ken Tada hopped onstage to help Joni reposition herself.
“Not only can I not breathe,” she said, “I don’t have any balance.”
Earlier in the visit, Ken had to go onstage to help his wife clear her throat. Joni told the audience to pray for her while Ken helped her.
He helped her move forward while she explained that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. She loves depending on her husband because it teaches her to depend more on God, she said.
Bryan Alumna Laura Payne, who works with Joni and Friends as the South East Director, said Joni and Friends created a curriculum called, “Beyond Suffering,” which is the most comprehensive curriculum Joni and Friends have complied.
Last September, the organization also released the curriculum in Braille and Spanish. Bryan offered the course, taught by certified instructors, both last fall and this spring.
Like Bryan, the curriculum emphasizes worldview, thus, there is something of a philosophical connection, Payne said.
“Bryan’s been doing that for over 30 years,” she said.
Payne graduated from Bryan in 1982. While she was here, she worked on the Bryan Triangle.
Many courses on worldview do not address disability, but “Beyond Suffering” fills a need, said Payne, because there are many people who deal with disability, such as U.S. veterans who became disabled through serving in the military.
Payne said Tada came to campus through the connections made through Summit Ministries and John Stonestreet, and through Bryan’s use of the “Beyond Suffering” curriculum.
Joni and Friends also uses Fort Bluff Camp to host its East Tennessee Joni and Friends Family retreats.
The family retreats are week-long retreats for families of a child with a disability.
Dayton’s Lucia Fary, grandmother of sophomore Jay Carpenter, volunteered at the camp for the first time last year. She was assigned to a child.
“You just interact with them and help them have a great time,” she said.
The moms that attend the retreat get pedicures and craft necklaces and get support from the other mothers.
On the first day, the volunteers, about 80 in all, gathered to welcome each family that entered the camp. They gathered with balloons, firecrackers and when a family drove up, they shouted for every child that arrived.
She remembered thinking, “Who cheers the handicapped? No one, not really.”
Darlene LaPlue, a Bryan alum and longtime volunteer with Joni and Friends, said she never realize the need was so great. Now in her 11th year volunteering with the organization, she said people don’t realize the problem because these families are hidden away.
In the retreat that will be held this July at Fort Bluff, the camp will be filled with families, but Joni and Friends still needs volunteers, said LaPlue.
While the future of the connection between Joni and Friends and Bryan will depend on the national organization, Payne said she hopes their relationship will continue to grow.