Two men use professional skills to further faith: Catholic audio Bible and coloring book of Our Lady of Guadalupe among their creations

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, May 20, 2012

Faith can be a funny thing. People can live their lives, have families and establish careers in the secular world while their faith bubbles along on the back burner, something that’s clearly there but not in the forefront of their public lives. But sometimes, after years of simmering, their faith lives move forward into the spotlight.

Two Chicago-area businessmen, both from media-related industries, brought their faith and work lives together with projects aimed at evangelizing the Catholics around them.

Michael Stark was at loose ends a few years ago when his friend Carl Amari approached him with proposal to produce a Catholic audio Bible. Stark had retired early and was a lifelong Catholic, active in St. Mary Parish in Lake Forest, but not what he would describe as really religious.

He had joined his father’s advertising company after a college football career, and used his ability to talk to people and his energy to do quite well, but over the years, the business changed, as did Stark’s perspective, and his heart wasn’t in it anymore.

Amari, a producer who developed a passion for old-time radio shows in his teen years, took the suggestion of an audio Bible from his friend, Jim Caveziel, whom he had visited while the actor was filming “The Passion of the Christ” in Rome. Amari thought it was a great idea, but he needed someone to back the project, and his boyhood friend Stark had the time and the money to put into it.

The result is the “Truth and Life Audio Bible,” a 22- hour performance of the entire New Testament featuring well-known actors such as Michael York, Sean Astin, Blair Underwood and Malcolm Mc- Dowell. The whole New Testament is available on CD or as an app for smartphones and tablet computers.

It follows the “Word of Life Bible,” a new King James version produced by the same company, because marketers thought a Protestant version of the Bible would sell better.

Catholic users can get the audio Gospel of Mark and all the text free as an app, or they can buy the whole New Testament for $19.99 at

‘Broke’ but ‘glad’

Stark said his financial advisors were right when they said he would take a bath on the project — “I’m not making any money off of it,” he said. “I’m broke, but I’m glad I did it.”

Promised support from a Christian publishing company did not materialize, and the CD version did not sell well at big-box stores such as Wal-Mart, he said, so now he is trying a new tactic: offering the Bible to Catholic parishes, schools and other institutions as a fundraising tool.

A letter from Cardinal George to his brother bishops in the United States has brought interest from other parts of the country, and Stark was able to reach out to priests in the archdiocese when he attended their convocation last summer.

He has also called on Father James McIlhone, a Scripture scholar in the archdiocese, for help and advice. Both have offered ongoing support.

At the very least, he said, he hopes the priests tell their parishioners about the free version of the app, which will allow them to carry the text of the entire New Testament with them on their phones.

“We’re giving this away,” he said, acknowledging that might be part of the reason that he hasn’t made money off the project.

Stark said the audio Bible appeals to nearly everybody. Older people might remember the old time radio dramas it is modeled on, with their sound effects and stellar voice acting. Young people might be more comfortable carrying their Bible around on a smartphone or tablet, because that’s what they use to read these days.

Anyone who listens to the Bible might find new and different insights than they do when they read the text — something many of the priests who have listened to the “Truth & Life Bible” have said happened to them.

It might even bring people like Stark, who once didn’t consider himself a very devout Catholic, into closer touch with the Gospel.

Publishing Mary

Another man who is using his professional talents for spiritual purposes is Pete Alfini. Alfini had attended Catholic elementary and high schools, gone off to college and started a career in publishing, working mostly in the area of children’s books. In 2003, he left his job with Random House to start his own company, then two years ago, decided to do something new.

“I didn’t have a sense of my goals in life and where I wanted to go,” Alfini said.

He looked around and decided that there was a need no one was filling: high-quality, affordable Catholic books and other printed materials. His company, the Elmhurst-based Catholic Custom Publishing, has issued the “Our Lady of Guadalupe Prayer and Activity Book,” available to parishes and schools at about $1 a copy, to help teach both Hispanic and non-Hispanic children the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe (For information, visit

A free online guide for educators can help teachers and families expand on the activities in the book, he said.

He wants to sell similar books in more non-traditional venues, such as Latino groceries and other shops after finding a solid market there for the Guadalupe activity book.

“Our plan is not to be a traditional publishing company,” said Alfini, who attended St. Domatilla School in Hillside and Immaculate Conception High School in Elmhurst. “We want to get these out to every kid out there. Our plan is to do really engaging books for kids at affordable prices.”

Teaching Guadalupe

It’s important for the church to teach Mexican and other Latino children kids the story of Our Lady Guadalupe — a huge cultural touchstone that in many families has been passed on mostly orally. It’s just as important for “Anglo” children to learn about her, as the Patroness of the Americas. So far, the books are available only in English, but he expects to have them available in Spanish shortly.

At the same time, the company is creating a line of religious jigsaw puzzles. The Knights of Columbus in Illinois last year used a puzzle version of Bartolome Esteban Murillo’s “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” a nativity-themed painting, for a “Keep Christ in Christmas” pro-life fundraiser.

Helping Catholic organizations raise money is a byproduct of offering engaging Catholic printed materials, Alfini said.

He plans to expand his product line by offering sports-themed Catholic books, more activity books about saints and more about Our Lady of Guadalupe, whom he believed can be a unifying figure for Hispanic and non-Hispanic Catholics.

He gained a lot of respect for Hispanic Catholics when he lived in New Mexico where Hispanics were the majority of the Catholic population.

“There were no shorts in those churches,” he said, adding that all Catholics should support Hispanic parents as they pass the respect for the faith on to their children. “We can learn a lot from them. They are bringing their devout, reverent approach to Catholicism to many of us.”