By Brian Blackwell, Message Staff Writer
FLORIEN (LBM) – As he looked down the bore of a loaded gun, John Sparks felt he was barreling toward death on that fateful fall day.
Wanted for first-degree murder, Sparks found himself surrounded by a SWAT team in a Salt Lake City restaurant, Aug. 17, 1977. Thankfully, the officer pointing his revolver at Sparks decided not to shoot, choosing instead to spare his life and take him into custody.
Sparks eventually would land in prison, but having been reprieved from immediate death, he began a path that eventually would lead him to find eternal life in Christ.
“I told the guy I had taken a hostage. I told him I was going up the stairs and out the door to die,” said Sparks, now pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Florien. “When you have nothing else left ‘good’ in life and are the bottom scum of the earth, death seems like the only option. But thanks to my grandmother who prayed I would not die until I came to Christ, I found hope in the prison cell.”
Raised in church, Sparks participated in Vacation Bible School and other biblically-based activities as a young boy. However, his first sip of alcohol at age 12 (during a fishing trip) sent Sparks’ teetering down the wrong path of serial addictions and destructive behaviors that led to a 50-year sentence for second degree murder.
After landing in the hospital for attempted suicide only months upon entering prison, Sparks was questioned by a physician about his personal struggles.
The doctor diagnosed Sparks as having anger issues and said he needed to face up to those problems.
Upon returning to his cell a few days later, Sparks kept thinking about the conversation. Then, he remembered a small red Bible his grandmother had given him not long after he arrived in prison.
Sparks picked up the Bible and confessed to God about his confusion.
“I tried to remember verses from when I was small but couldn’t make heads or tails of it,” he said. “I remember sitting on my bunk saying to God, ‘If you are going to do anything, do it, because I don’t know what to do.’”
Immediately after this plea, as questions popped into his head, Sparks would “happen” to turn to a relevant passage.
After nearly an hour of this unusual “question and answer” time, Sparks knelt down by the bed in his cell and asked Jesus to forgive Him and to become Lord of his life.
“From then I have been a different person,” Sparks said. “Because of a law in Alabama that reduced time served for good behavior, I spent the next 14 years in prison, but spent every day a free man because Jesus saved me.”
As the years passed, Sparks grew closer to Christ and even enrolled in a prison religious studies program, and his changed life led to his gaining the chaplain’s trust.
Sparks pored over religious books and periodicals, including an issue of the Alabama Baptist newspaper that had published a letter to the editor from a female seminary student who shared about her difficulties while growing up with an alcoholic father. He wrote Donna about her troubles and eventually the two were regular pen pals.
The relationship blossomed and on Nov. 28, 1987 they were married in the prison chapel, and the two lived apart until he was released, Aug. 11, 1991.
During the ensuing 26 years, God took Sparks on a journey that included stops at several churches in various ministerial roles, including his most recent one at Antioch Baptist Church.
Since Jan. 1, 2015, Sparks has been the pastor of this congregation which averages more than 100 in attendance at Sunday morning worship services.
He has led the congregation to be mission-minded, taking members on annual mission trips to Honduras and Mexico, and sending the youth to help lead camps at various locations. He also is active in the local schools, with the focus of building relationships with students and faculty.
Looking back on God’s journey for him since that fateful day in 1977, Sparks is grateful how God has used his past experiences in prison to show others they too can escape the darkness of Satan.
“I get up each day and think I have the greatest job in the world to minister to God’s church and the community,” he said. “I get to pray and share Gospel with people and show them that there is hope. I am living proof that God can change a life and use what Satan meant for bad and use it for something good.”