John Schenk: Gonzo Journalist Finds Purpose in a Prayer

Posted: February 22, 2012 in journalism

John Schenk’s Tips for Finding Purpose after the Newsroom

1.   Improvise

2.   Work for a humanitarian organization.

3.   Be careful what you pray for.

John Schenk is a film buff. He specializes in old B-westerns. Many of the stories he’s covered since he left the newsroom were right out of the lawless Wild West, where the quick and dead always got the headlines. It would be the voiceless innocent caught in between who would need a journalist and witness.

Schenk remembers it vividly. It was Fall 1990. He was frustrated by lack of access to rumored pockets of starvation in southern Sudan. A friend offered to listen to him vent but after a while she suggested they pray about the problem.

Schenk said he began slowly but soon the words came “in torrents”. Suddenly he was saying: “Lord, you gave me the skills. Get me into the places of greatest need and get me out and I’ll tell the stories of your suffering people.”

Be careful what you pray for.

Soon he was en route to Romania where the fall of the dictator Ceausescu had unveiled horrid “orphanages” where “effective” children had been warehoused.  “I saw suffering like I’d never witnessed before. It was like my crash course for what was to come.”

Soon Schenk was in Beirut, an “apocalyptic” landscape after 16 years of civil war. Then the prayer inspired by southern Sudan was answered. He and a colleague “smuggled” 50 tons of food up the Nile to a remote region long-suffering under civil war and a killer disease called black fever (Leishmaniasis).”

January 1992 brought Mogadishu. Eighteen months before the “Black Hawk Down” incident that incensed Americans. Mogadishu was a lawless, crumbling city where men (and boys) with guns, chewed drugs and stole food from the unarmed masses. Schenk and his boss were drawn back many times over eight months by the suffering.

Schenk started out on a city daily in Pasadena, California in 1972 and finally walked away from deadline pressures and the intense daily grind of a police and crime reporter in 1981. He evolved from a “pretty much squeaky clean sort of guy into something of a gonzo journo” fueling his trade with “lots of alcohol and drugs.”

Schenk developed an expertise in outlaw motorcycle gangs and “their migration into organized crime in the 1970s.” He co-authored an investigative piece called Born to Raise Hell Inc. for MacLean’s Canada’s weekly news magazine in 1977.

“By 1981 I was looking to get off the adrenalin treadmill,” Schenk said.

Schenk left the Toronto Sun that year, burned out and looking for “something more meaningful,” he recalls. Maybe he’d hitch hike around the world. “I thought I was going to have to walk away from journalism completely.” Instead, he re-purposed his journalism skills. “Turns out it was as much my lifestyle as much as my trade.”

Then he heard World Vision Canada was looking for a freelancer to go to Ethiopia. It was 1985 and that country was in the grip of The Great Famine.

Schenk worked with World Vision for nine years all over Africa producing stories and still photos of World Vision development work and responding to fast-breaking natural disasters and armed conflicts in Angola, Rwanda, Somalia and southern Sudan, taking assignments in Lebanon and Romania. He videotaped gruesome images of the Rwandan genocide up close.

So, how to re-purpose one’s life?  John Schenk says, “Don’t presume media or public relations are the only tracks. Don’t underestimate the value brought to any organization by someone used to marching off the map,” he says. John especially recommends looking at humanitarian organizations.

“A hard core journalist is an improviser, sees problems, challenges. They cut through systems and protocols and find solutions. And lives get saved.”

“It’s a place where a journalist can be a pioneer.”

He recalls 2005 in the mountains of Pakistan when World Vision responded to a 7.6 magnitude quake that killed 76,000. A colleague, another former journo turned to him and said: “These mountains, we’ve got to get up there and see what’s going on.”

Schenk had been thinking the same. He replied: “Yup, but we can’t go empty-handed.” John writes, “A few days later we were marching up steep slopes with men from a devastated village, carrying 900 blankets on their backs.

We returned to camp and spent half the night writing our stories, sending our photos to World Vision HQ by satellite modem and describing our day in interviews to major media outlets from nearly every time zone on the planet.”

John Schenk has indeed been brought through some of the most dangerous places on earth. God has held up his end of the “bargain”.

And telling the stories he found there is where John Schenk has found his purpose and an answer to a prayer.


Editor’s note: John Schenk works with World Vision Global Communications. He will be in Tacoma, Washington Wednesday night, February 22nd as part of a panel to discuss the Pacific Lutheran University Media Lab’s documentary “Over Exposed: The Cost of Compassion”.  Schenk is among those featured in the award-winning documentary. The film will be shown at 7pm at Lagerquist Hall in the Mary Baker Russel Building on the PLU campus. Admission is free.

John Schenk helped edit portions of this copy. Some habits die hard.

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  1. Christopher Ricci says:

    What a great story! I give it four I’s: Informative, Impressive, Interesting, and above all, inspirational.

  2. Virginia says:

    Can just see John Schenk ‘editing portions of this copy!’ What Helpful Tips (!) & great write-up of a great fellow (all around!) So appreciated meeting John back in the ’90s – methinks at WVUS, then later through MEERO, Kosovo … Have always looked up to him (sometimes in awe, especially after Rwanda) … and his Light for Jesus Christ continues to shine. Yaay God! (and Thank You’s to the Repurposed Journalist John!)

    grace, peace & Improvising Careful Prayers
    Virginia : )

  3. Larry Short says:

    It’s my privilege to work alongside both Johns (Schenk, and Yeager the RJ Blogger) every day. They are creative, funny, resourceful, humble, and smart. Thanks for this great profile!

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