Joni & Friends global disability conference unites caregivers, leaders

by Joni B. Hannigan, Editorial Staff |
Joni and Friends International

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (Christian Examiner) – A father for the first time lifts his 14-year-old son out of his wheelchair and places him on his lap, cradling the boy in his arms.

For years, Wilson Essein carried a deep grudge against God for giving him a "problem," but considered himself a faithful husband and provider.

Wilson Essein cradles his 14-year-old son on his lap for the first time at a conference in Ghana sponsored by Joni and Friends International. | Joni and Friends International

Committing himself to his family and wife, before God, he has since pledged that together they "will take care of this precious gift from God."

It was that kind of story that caught the attention of Steve Bundy, vice president of the Christian Institute on Disability at Joni and Friends International Disability Center, and prompted him to ask the question of 'What could be done to better equip the church to do more in meeting the needs of the disabled?' as God's representative on earth.

"You see the life of not just a father and husband, but an entire family was impacted for the Kingdom through a simple encouragement for the Gospel," Bundy told Christian Examiner. "It sends incredible ripples of affirmation very central to the heart of God in restoring families."


Global Access Conference 2015, a Feb. 17-20 gathering designed for disability leaders, ministers, educators, and world changers to share experiences, is the ministry's initial attempt to provide one central event where families are brought to "health in Christ," Bundy said. "Where disabilities and possibilities meet."

Joni Eareckson Tada, Founder and CEO of Joni and Friends | Joni and Friends International

The event launches at a time when the world is clamoring for attention to moral issues such as hunger, sex trafficking and homelessness. Bundy said there is also a moral imperative to look at the more than one billion people who are directly affected by disabilities and those in a supporting role around them.

"I think the primary reason we feel this is so important is that suffering is the common denominator of all human experience," Bundy said. "We believe God has called the church to have a Bible response to human suffering in the ways that suffering is most often manifest ... through life challenging circumstances such as disability, mental health, and mental health challenges."

The first-of-its-kind 4-day conference features speakers such as Joni Eareckson Tada, Nick Vujicic, Doug Mazza, Lon Solomon, Charles Ware, Kathy McReynolds, Joseph D'Souza, Bernadette Todd, and Eddy Bazin.


Each participant will receive a pre-release 8-page sample chapter of the "Beyond Suffering Study Bible" courtesy of Tyndale House Publishers, to which Tada, founder and CEO of Joni and Friends, is a contributing writer. The Bible tackles mental health and other life challenges with devotionals, encouragement and study tools focused on suffering and disabilities.

Tada, in her introduction to the Bible, writes:

"The Beyond Suffering Bible" is scheduled for release by Tyndale House Publishers in Fall 2016. | Tyndale House Publishers

[The Beyond Suffering Bible] is designed to help the reader­—especially those affected by disability—grasp the goodness of God amidst critical questions about suffering. Through profiles, devotionals, and connection notes, this edition of God's Word delves into doctrines of His sovereignty, our salvation, heaven, and hell. ...

Most of all, the Beyond Suffering Bible exalts God as preeminent and supreme over every disease and disability. It showcases the righteousness and mercy of God on behalf of those who struggle under the weight of disability, poverty, and injustice. It will help you go beyond suffering so you, too, can say 'My suffering was good for me, for it taught me to pay attention to your decrees' (Psalm 119:71).


Christopher Duffley, a 13-year-old blind and autistic singer and multi-instrumentalist will lead worship times, as will George Dennehy, a man born without arms who plays music using his feet, who was adopted by a U.S. family from a Romanian orphanage. Artist Hyatt Moore will paint a large canvas depicting the Luke 12 banquet live at the conference. He is the former president of Wycliffe Bible Translators and painted The Last Supper With 12 Tribes.


Over 140 workshops, led by experts in their fields, hope to bring about a rich time of fellowship and worship, Bundy said, and also promote a time of extensive networking that leaves participants with resources for a "pragmatic ministry approach."

The conference provides not only the structure of speakers, workshops, worship time, and resources, but it will provide access to what Bundy calls the "best practices" into practical ministries via introductory membership into an association called "Global Access."

"It is the very first time we have brought together local ministries, churches, pastors, and volunteers, to those who have mental illness, with representatives from around the world," Bundy said.

With four tracks focused on biblical issues, missions, disability ministries and technology, Bundy said the conference acknowledges that, "from the pastor to the church member and parent and spouse, everyone has a place to contribute and something to receive from a conference like this."

The technology track, for instance, examines how technology has "radically" changed the way people communicate and has especially impacted the disabled, reviewing apps for autism and speech impairments and even discovering trends in technology related to increased mobility.

Looking to accommodate over 700 registrants from more than 30 countries and 40 plus states, Bundy said the international experience has excited those interested in a biblically-based curriculum which equips the church to ministry to those who suffer and are marginalized.

The endeavor -- which took more than two years to plan -- will take place at Calvary Community Church in Westlake, California, a 100 percent disabled accessible location. Even the schedule is based on "disability etiquette," which allows for a 9:30 a.m. start and an 8:15 p.m. ending to accommodate those with physical disabilities, and has shuttles running to and from hotels during the day for those who need to take a break.

The conference program is available in Braille; videos and key notes that will be close captioned and interpretation services will be provided for the deaf; and, some major world languages interpretation will be offered via headsets during plenary sessions, Bundy said.

Nearly every keynote speaker is affected by a disability or has a family member with a disability, he noted, pointing to the need for not only reaching those who plan ministry to the hurting, but those who are ministered to.

"We are convinced this will be a real movement of the Holy Spirit," Bundy said.

For more information, to register for the conference, or to find out about hotels and travel, go to Global Access Conference.