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Jack Sparks1929 – 2010A Reflection by David W. Gill10 February 2010
Jack Sparks died of a heart attack at age 81 on Monday morning, February 8, 2010, near Anchorage, Alaska.
Jack grew up on a farm in Indiana and became professor of statistics and research design at Penn State University.At Penn State he got involved with Campus Crusade for Christ and decided to leave his academic post and work in campus ministry.While in Santa Barbara during a student uprising which burned a bank to the ground, Jack decided to come to Berkeley, the epicenter of the student movement of the Sixties and Seventies.Initially a project sponsored by Campus Crusade, the “Christian World Liberation Front” soon reorganized as an independent, nonprofit, nondenominational outreach to the campus and the counterculture.
Jack and Esther Sparks, and their four young children (Stephen, Robert, Ruth, and Jonathan) rented a house near the Berkeley campus in early 1969 during the Peoples’ Park controversy which had thousands demonstrating in the streets and resulted to one shooting death by police.Jack’s neighbors organized and forced them to move because they didn't like the Sparks family opening their house to hippies and countercultural types for meetings and “crashing” overnight.
In 1975, after six years with CWLF, Jack joined with a group of former CCC staff members to start the Evangelical Orthodox Church, which eventually merged with the historic mainline orthodox churches. For thirty-five years until his death, Father Sparks continued his pastoral ministry and leadership and carried out an ambitious program of research, writing, and editing to serve and promote orthodox Christian faith and practice.
Others can speak of Jack’s undoubted major contribution to Orthodox Christianity in America.His six years of leadership of the Christian World Liberation Front in Berkeley remain, however, one of the most exciting and amazing gifts to both the church and the world many of its participants and observers will ever see.
From his Campus Crusade for Christ background, Jack Sparks brought a passionate faith in Jesus Christ and a bold, militant commitment to be present and bear witness absolutely anywhere possible.But when Jack came to Berkeley he left behind him the conservative, traditional formulas and allegiances of Campus Crusade and the American Evangelical establishments in order to be fully, radically, and simply present in the culture as a disciple of Jesus.He took St. Paul quite literally about “becoming all things to all people in order to win them.”Bearded and bib-overalled, Jack blended into the campus and counter culture very quickly and only emerged six years later (to the astonishment of all of us who worked with him during those CWLF years) to become part of an Orthodox leadership team in a very different calling and setting.
The Christian World Liberation Front shared some commonalities with the “Jesus People” movements around the world at the time and was often included in news articles and books on that topic. Staff leaders like Bill Squires, Arnie Bernstein, Howard “Lono” Criss, and Ken “Koala Bear” Winkle oversaw several urban residence houses and the rural “Rising Son Ranch” which provided housing and caring relationships. Hundreds of hippies, “flower children,” dope users, and counter cultural drop outs found acceptance, care, redemption and new life through the loving outreach of Jack and his CWLF “Forever Family” colleagues. The Bible studies were open, honest, free and exhilarating; the music growing out of the experience was catchy, singable, inspiring, and often amazingly deep.CWLF also meant rallies on Sproul Steps at Cal, baptisms in Strawberry Creek, Christian alternative rock concerts, food giveaways, picketing and protesting against war and for the gospel in Golden Gate or Flamingo Park, against the exploitation of women and for the gospel in North Beach, rattling the cages of wannabe religious gurus and frauds, complacent liberal Protestants, and fearful, backward looking fundamentalists and evangelicals.
CWLF was also politically and socially thoughtful and engaged.CWLF leaders shared much in commonwith the early Sojourners movement in Chicago and then Washington DC and with the Anabaptist/Mennonite approach of John Howard Yoder and others.CWLF’s concerns about poverty, homelessness, sexism, racism, warfare (Vietnam was usually the focus) and violence were genuine and often led to concrete actions and participation in larger debates, demonstrations, and even the political party conventions of 1972.Some of this participation was witness with others concerned about the issues, but it was also witness to these movements about a deeper perspective rooted in Jesus Christ. Walt and Ginny Hearn inspired many to pursue “simple living” less wedded to a culture of consumption, conflict,andindulgence.
CWLF was especially distinctive from both the Jesus Movement and the Evangelical Political Activists in its educational orientation.Jack had been a public university professor and was intensely committed to interaction with Berkeley as a university community, to the combat of ideas, not just the saving of individual souls for the afterlife.Jack’s passion for learning attracted many other Christians influenced by Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri movement and Regent College’s new presence at the University of British Columbia.The Spiritual Counterfeits Project led by Brooks Alexander and others pursued a serious study and expose of the fraudulent cults and gurus on the scene at the time.“The Crucible: A Forum for Radical Christian Studies” was launched by David Gill, Bernie Adeney and their colleagues as a sort of “L’Abri” study group and counterpart to the various “free universities” cropping up as alternatives to Cal Berkeley. [The Crucible was folded into the New College Berkeley graduate school in 1978].In 1971 Sharon Gallagher and David Gill began co-editing CWLF’s tabloid “Right On” Jack had launched in 1969 as an alternative to the “Berkeley Barb” and from 1973 to the present Gallagher has continued leading its development as Editor of Radix Magazine with Copy Editor Ginny Hearnand a long list of writers, art directors and illustrators like Keith Criss and Larry Hatfield, photographer Steve Sparks, and other contributors.
And that is just a brief sketch of three basic aspects of the CWLF Jack Sparks led.An innovative “Street Theater” acting troop had a big impact for a few years.Moishe Rosen got some of his inspiration for starting “Jews for Jesus” from Jack Sparks and CWLF.It is impossible to list all the individuals and ministries that directly or indirectly owe much of their inspiration to Jack Sparks and the CWLF he founded.All across North America non-Christians were intrigued by what was happening --- wanting to know more about Jesus as a result.And churches of all kinds were inspired to rethink their own discipleship and outreach in more creative and radical biblical terms.
Bill Squires reflects on his experience: “Jack really taught me to be willing to step out of the narrow Texas-style conservative Christianity I came from and think outside the box, take risks, and try new things. He taught me to love all types of people, that all people regardless of race or class were God's children and were precious to Him. And as long as you love the Lord and stay in His Word with an open heart to Him, you can try anything in ministry.”
David Gill reflects: “I was already a passionate Christian when I first met Jack in early 1971 as a resident and recent graduate of Berkeley.I had always struggled with a micromanaged, God-in-a-box, repressive Christian church.Meeting Jack and the kind of colleagues he attracted to CWLF was an incredibly liberating, exhilarating experience.Jack and Esther were utterly loving, accepting, free, and faithful followers of Jesus and Scripture who asked “Why not?” when they heard somebody’s idea or proposal.It had to end some day and it did in 1975 when Jack moved on to the Orthodox world and the Berkeley Christian Coalition and its descendents carried on without him.But for six years there was the unforgettable “magic” and power of God’s Spirit coursing through Jack Sparks and the CWLF. Thank God for our brother and what he meant to so many of us.”