Local News Archive
Print Issue: June 22, 2000
Photographer Focuses On Faith
By Priscilla Greear, Staff Writer
ATLANTAAs John Spink ran the other way from his Catholic faith throughout his youth, he was continually pursued by the hound of heaven before eventually abandoning a sinful path to find Christ.
At 42, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff photographer recalled his wedding 20 years ago to his wife, Carmen, in Kansas City by Father Charles (Chuck) Tobin who married them and also presented their baby to the congregation.
Chuck brought baby Johnabout nine months old when we were marriedand brought him forward and said, Right now this child is yours and you are to bring him up in the faith, but hes not yours forever and at some point youll have to give him back to the community of faith because he is, as we all are, a part of the church.
Spink remembers the ceremony as a very beautiful and a very different liturgy and that was really unconditional love (for me).
Away from the church since his freshman year in high school, a 21-year-old Spink had been working as a copy boy for the Kansas City Times when he eyed Carmen across the newsroom and eventually began dating her. One of her dating requirements was church attendance. I said, Okay, sounds pretty boring to me, but Ill go.
At church, however, Spink listened to Father Tobin, who was charismatic and dynamic, and for the first time he heard the churchs message of social justice.
He then became a cafeteria Catholic, choosing to follow some teachings, but not all, and shortly afterward learned that Carmen was pregnant. Once the baby was born, Spink decided to have the baby baptized.
I was with a child out of wedlock living with a woman and (Im thinking), Im gonna walk right in and ask a priest to baptize my child and Im gonna get a lecture about going to hell. I had a chip on my shoulder.
Spink wondered if this would be his last contact with the church. Yet Father Tobin calmly invited the couple to a baptismal preparation class. That right there was the whole key. That was the turning point because if he had blasted me that would have been probably the last (contact) Id have had with the church. Because he loved me unconditionally for where I was at ... at that point it just opened the door big time. He did not judge me, he did not condemn me.
Named after a disciple, Spink was a church-going child. But as the turbulent 60s rolled on, his sister wrote a letter to the pope criticizing Humanae Vitae and his father stopped attending Mass. Spink, too, began thinking that the church wasnt so infallible and so he began sleeping in on Sundays.
My faith was a mechanical faith, he said. It was a faith of rote prayer. I had never busted out of a cradle Catholic faith and really matured my faith ... It was all rules and regulations. It wasnt about relationship, he said. Spink added that he believes confirmation in seventh grade was too early and he didnt fully understand the sacrament.
His teen years were pretty dark years for me morally as he partied heavily with friends and even courted death when involved in two serious car accidents. It was years of searching for who I was, where I fit. I didnt have the benefit of having a strong faith.
Yet there was that hound of heaven again as mental images of Catholic statues and stained glass kept pulling him back. And in the darkroom of sin, the light shone most brightly to Spink through a camera lens, as he became obsessed with photography class and began winning contests.
While trying to land a job in a local studio as a lab boy, he was hired as a stringer for the Associated Press where his first snapshot was printed. The Lord just took this whole photography thing and dropped it right in my lap to literally pull my rear end out of the slippery slope going into the abyss.
After his marriage, Spink said he was still in a pre-evangelization stage, but absorbing Father Tobins example, as the couple began renting a floor of the rectory. After attending community college he worked for six years for the Kansas City Times.
In 1984 the family headed to Georgia because of Spinks new job at the AJC. They were not yet interested in joining a church community when their second son had an isolated epileptic seizure and was rushed to the hospital. Spink and his family met Father John Kieran, then pastor of Christ Our Hope Church in Lithonia, and a Catholic neighbor at the hospital.
All of a sudden, we just literally collapsed in these peoples arms and we barely knew them. Here we were again, the hound of heaven. That began our relationship with Christ Our Hope Church. Father John Kieran basically introduced us to what is community.
But in 1987, making a Cursillo weekend was the sledgehammer blow, Spink said. That was our Pentecost. This is what I should have had in the 7th grade ... Instead of knowing something about Jesus, all of a sudden, I knew Jesus. Instead of hearing about the object of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit was having his way with me.
Spink experienced the love of those praying for him.
It hasnt been the same since. I had a very profound conversion experience on the Cursillo weekend. During the closing ceremony I just got a tremendous gift of tears during that entire thing. It was like turning on a faucet, he continued. When I came down here in 1984, I was looking for a Pulitzer and the family was along for the ride ... but after my Cursillo weekend my priorities changed.
He placed God at the top of his list, followed by his wife and family.
Spinks span of news coverage includes five U.S. presidents, the Hyatt Regency disaster in Kansas, the World Series and numerous celebrities and news events. Recent awards include the 1998 Georgia Associated Press Photo of the Year and the 1998 Best of Cox Award for his picture of a Hall County tornado victim. In 1999 he earned the National Press Photographers Association Award for a shot of a crane rescue during the Cabbagetown fire and the Georgia Associated Press awarded him for his photo of a parent and child embracing after the Heritage High School shooting in Conyers.
A profound sense of peace came for Spink in 1987 when he was assigned to follow Pope John Paul II through nine cities on a pastoral visit as well as during the popes 1993 visit for World Youth Day in Denver. He gained a deeper sense, not of the vicar of Christs authority, but of his humility and mission of service. I dont think that I have ever in my life had as much awe of a human being as the time I spent on the papal trips.
Studying Scripture and learning apologetics, after his Cursillo conversion he began sharing his faith in a natural, non-proselytizing way if it came up in conversations on assignments. He said those hardest to reach are co-workers in the newsroom, as the media is full of idealistic people of good will yet who are 90 percent unchurched.
On Cursillo, I was just so filled with the Spirit that before Id been very shy about discussing my faith with anybody. But after my weekend I wasnt afraid. (Id say,) This is someone who is very dear to me ... whom I love very deeply, Jesus, and hes the best thing that has happened in my life, and his church and his Mother.
Its a treasure chest and a treasure to be sharing with everybody, he said.
Everything you deal with in life, if you have a trust in your Lord and if youre nurturing your faith whether its death, whether its tragedy, whether its challenges of the unknown, its be not afraid and its hard and its an ongoing lesson that Im learning to trust the Lord...
A gregarious guy whos rough around the edges, Spink described a few quiet joys of evangelization like when the managing editor of photography asked him to say a prayer for a Christmas party, and when a woman told him his pro-life bumper sticker, Life, What a Beautiful Choice, encouraged her to have her baby.
I was just in awe the rest of the day. What the Lord was saying was that it made a difference; it saved a babys life.
Catholic values permeate Spinks neighborhood, as he and his wife and their three sons now live in a Catholic family community established in 1996 in Covington. We are very open about our faith inside the house and out and they (his boys) see that it is a very important part of our lives.
Strengthening his family life, Spink got involved three years ago in helping to coordinate a mens apostolate called St. Josephs Covenant Keepers, a ministry which helps men falling between the cracks to share their faith and become better husbands and fathers.
Spinks wife and children have remained central characters in his own faith story.
The reason I get up and do the best I can is because of their love. That is the greatest gift God has given me. That is the biggest motivating force to serve them, my wife and my children. This is what God has taught me, this is my first apostolate.
And instrumental supporting roles, Spink said, have been played by the monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, through their spiritual direction and love. Its been a tremendous part of nurturing our faith. That has been a very important part of our faith growth as a family.
With a servants faith, the photographers life itself appears to be an award-winning snapshot. Even sharper than the image through a camera lens, it is clearly focused on the presence of God.
SPINK FAMILY -- John Spink, rear center, and his wife of 20 years, Carmen, are surrounded by their three sons (clockwise) Thomas, John and Michael. The family lives in Covington and they attend St. Pius X Church, Conyers.