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The votes are in and the winner has been picked!

And just like the past two years for the Free Wedding Photography Contest, it’s was a ridiculously tough decision. Every one of our judges expressed how touching each story was, and how admittedly hard it was to choose one couple over the others! This year’s contest was FULL of amazing stories, not just from our three finalists, but from the 40-plus submission we received total!

Stacey and I will admit that remaining impartial is only half the reason we pass the final decision off to other people. To be honest, I just don’t think there would be any way for us to decide between three VERY deserving couples. To each of our three finalists … all you have to do is look at the comments sections from our post last week to see how many people care for and love you guys, as well as those who have had you make an impact on their lives! If this contest has taught me anything, it’s that I’d be set for life with three sets of friends like you!

We’ve been blessed with some amazing stories from our four finalists, and desperately wish we could shoot each and every one of their weddings! Sadly we can’t, but hopefully we can help them out in some smaller ways. So we’re offering our runners up either a free engagement or bridal session, or 25% off any of our packages. I know it’s not much, but hopefully it’ll help make their amazing wedding days that much more special!

Needless to say, we are SO excited to be shooting our big winner’s wedding in 2011. We can’t wait to get to know them personally, spend time hearing about their backgrounds, stories, and how they came to this point in their relationship. And then, ultimately, document one of the biggest days of their lives.

It will be a true honor.

So without further delay, we’d like to announce the Free Wedding Photography 3.0 big winners ….

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JOANNA AND DREW!!!

We were so excited to hear Joanna and Drew’s story. How their relationship didn’t get off to the “storybook” start, and how now they’ve helped each other through some ridiculously difficult times over the past year, despite being an ocean apart from each other. From the death of Joanna’s grandmother in India, to trying to bring together families from the U.S. and India for the wedding, finances have not been kind to this amazing couple.

But step-by-step, they’ve taken it in stride with great resilience, keeping the Lord’s plan at the front of their minds at all time. Even down to this past week, when another unexpected illness once again put the plans for the wedding in limbo, Drew and Joanna remain persistent in their love for each other, their love for the Lord, and their goals as a couple.

To Drew and Joanna, we are SO very anxious to be part of your amazing wedding day. We’ve been blessed to get to know some amazing people since we started this little photo business, and can’t wait to add the two of you to our list of clients that we also call friends. :-D

Here’s a little more of their story ….

Drew was the first person I met on BSC’s campus. Fortuitous? Perhaps. At the time I thought he might be gay. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I was a scared freshman, painfully aware that I was quite different from the average female ascending the Hilltop. I stepped out of the car, overwhelmed by the sights…

Brand new Beamer? Hmmm…rode the ole “cheese wagon” in high school.

Designer blonde hair? Not quite…but I could smell the Indian spices on my skin.

Gucci glasses? Mini skirts? Nope, must have left those things at home.

I was definitely out of place. God had blessed me with a generous scholarship to study at BSC, which made the expensive education a possibility. Feeling hesitant, I gathered the courage and my three siblings in tow. I wasn’t sure where to go, and that’s when I saw him.

I remember it clearly, like it was yesterday. He had olive skin and a bright smile. He met my eyes and saw my questioning look. He smiled reassuringly, beckoning me forwards and pointing to the Registration table. My heart was elated! He smiled at me! I wasn’t invisible! He didn’t laugh at my “Wally-world” clothes. Maybe I wouldn’t be an outcast? Plus… he seemed cute, didn’t he??? I walked past him and snuck a closer look. Sigh. He was wearing a choker made out of pantyhose and he had gelled, spiked hair.

Ehh, never mind.

So while Drew single-handedly made me feel comfortable in my new home with his compassion and charm, it was definitely not love at first sight. We got to know each other from a distance over the next year. He dated a few girls in my class, and I saw him as the nice “Christian guy” who loved the ladies (clearing some doubt I had during our initial meeting). One year passed. During my sophomore year, I became an RA in a freshman dorm, and there was always a gaggle of sweet girls around. Drew would make appearances on the hall and soon became the resident heartbreaker with his charm and good looks. Drew earned the reputation of “flavor-of-the-week-guy” for his well-intentioned but fickle flirting. As I got to know him, I began to see that he was a fun and kind guy who had a great heart. We started talking a lot and quickly grew close as we discussed our thoughts about everything from God, to integrity, purity, ideals, ultimate Frisbee, music, poetry, and even Chick-Fil-A chicken minis. I could talk to him about anything. He was one of my best friends.

And that is definitely all that we were – FRIENDS. Once, while hanging out, a friend of ours made the statement – “Guys are never friends with girls unless they want something more.” Drew and I immediately raised our heads in contention and Drew quipped, “That is NOT true. Look at me and Joanna.” I agreed vehemently. What a gross idea; me interested in DREW?

Eww.

As the year rolled on, I noticed that Drew came around more often. He would come to the biology lab to help measure plants with me. He’d be at the paint studio ready to squeeze paint while I shared stories about my faith and family. He was always there when I was singing or leading worship. One day, while I was studying for an exam, he cleared his throat and changed our relationship forever.

Joanna, Drew, and Charisma
:

“Hey Joanna.”


J: “Yes Drew?”


“The other day my friend Charisma asked me if I had feelings for you, and I had to say yes.”


(Awkward, long pause).


“I just wanted to tell you before you heard it from anyone else.”


J: “Really?”


“Yea.”


(Longer and more awkward pause).


J: “Oh.”

And that was it. I went on to my studying and he left. I didn’t really take him seriously because of his aforementioned “flavor of the week” tendencies. I thought that perhaps I was just something new. From my perspective, he was firmly planted in “friend zone,” and I wasn’t anxious to make a change. Soon, it came time for the summer, and I was leaving to study abroad. I asked Drew to leave me alone. I wasn’t ready to enter into a relationship. I didn’t want to lose the friendship. Drew sat me down and said, “Joanna, have fun this summer. I want you to be happy. I want the best for you. But know this: I’ll be here when you come back. I’m not willing to settle anymore. I’m willing to wait.”

I was shocked by his monologue but thought in my heart, “He’ll be with someone else in two weeks.”

Over the summer we kept in touch everyday through email. We continued to build our friendship as I heard about his first summer as a youth pastor and I shared about my studies. When I came back in the fall, I realized that he was still very interested. We spent two weeks together during RA training. We talked a lot and sought council from loved ones. The day before freshman move-in day, we took a walk on the intramural fields. Dew glistened on the grass and the moon was bright. Drew told me that he still felt right about this –he wanted to give it a try. I reminded him that a slew of freshmen girls would be arriving on campus in just a few hours. He laughed. We ran through the late-night sprinklers on the quad. We prayed.

Through many transitions, we grew to know each other more. We spent a year studying together at BSC. Drew graduated a year later and felt the call into Christian ministry. God led him to Duke Divinity School and miraculously provided the finances necessary for the degree. I graduated in 2008 and began a career as an accountant. This was a time of growing for us. God was growing us, molding us (as He still is), oftentimes in spite of ourselves.

In 2009, I was blessed with the opportunity to serve as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in Scotland. (Can you see a theme here? We are constantly amazed by His provision!) Adding an extra ocean of distance made us more intentional. We discussed the possibility of marriage. We went through great times and hard times. In November 2009, I felt a peace in my heart – knowing for sure that it was right. Little did I know that about that same time, Drew was talking with my father about the possibility of proposal. In December 2009, with the help of generous friends and family, Drew was able to come visit me in Scotland, as I was unable to come home for Christmas.

I’ll let Drew tell you the rest:

Well, it was a blustery day at the 12th century castle ruins in St. Andrews, Scotland. (Most stories that take place in Scotland start that way!) The breeze came gusting in off the North Sea as I explored the ruins with Joanna and our friend Maria. Pockets of snow nestled between the blades of grass and crunched beneath our feet as we meandered around the castle. We moved toward the exit and paused to take a few more photos. I gestured to go up onto the rocks; Joanna shrugged and nodded, moving in that direction. We climbed up onto the stones and there I asked Joanna if she wanted her gift for the day.

You see, every day since my arrival I had given Joanna a gift that corresponds with the twelve days of Christmas. (While the twelve days of Christmas normally begin on Christmas and continue through Epiphany, January 6, I decided to begin twelve days before Christmas. Heretic? Probably). On each card I drew a cartoon that corresponds with the day, and I wrote a note to go with it. For example, on the first day of Christmas, I drew a partridge (a quail) in the middle of a pear tree. I wrote about some memories she and I had that involved delicious desserts on romantic dates. Then I gave her a bowl of freshly cut fruits with plenty of pears. This theme went on for all 12 days. Each day I presented the card in a bright red envelope and gave her a gift that connected with the day’s theme.

I reached into my coat pocket and retrieved the envelope. Joanna opened it to find nothing on the inside. “It’s empty,” she said with slight disappointment in her voice. More optimistically, she said, “That’s OK. We can get it later.” I faked a baffled look and reached back into my pocket to fish for the card. I grabbed the small box I had stashed away and dropped to one knee.

I looked up at her and told her about how I spoke with her father and received his permission to ask for her hand in marriage. With fumbling words, once well orchestrated, I tried to express the depth of my love for her. I told her about how I wanted to start a family with her. I opened the box and revealed the ring inside.

“Joanna Philip, will you marry me?” I asked.

(Another long pause).

(Really long…)

She smiled and said, “Yes.” Nodding, “Of course. Yes!” I pulled the ring from the box and put it on her finger. I stood and hugged my new fiancée! I called to Maria and she came quickly with camera in hand. Despite the cold wind from the North Sea, I have never felt as warm as the afternoon of December 18 when Sarah Joanna said “Yes!”

Where We Are Now

So where are we right now? Joanna is still in Scotland and Drew is serving as a minister in Birmingham. We are excited to get married- if only to be in the same place. Distance indeed makes the heart grow fonder, but enough is enough already!

Joanna has been busy with finishing her dissertation and job hunting. Joanna’s dissertation focuses on microfinance –giving loans and savings opportunities to the poorest of the poor who do not have access to traditional banks that require collateral. This idea, which has proven effective in the developing world, is a possible weapon in the quest for alleviating poverty in the developed world. This concept has really revolutionized Joanna’s perspective of finance and her future career. While we won’t bore you with the details (but would love to share a bit more over coffee, if you’re interested), Joanna is interested in seeing if such an idea could help address the needs of the people of Birmingham. She is currently in conversation with leaders in the global arena to learn more about how to implement such a program. We don’t expect that this sort of venture will bring in the big bucks, but we are excited about the long-term implications for our city and the rest of the United States.

Drew has just graduated from seminary and is currently ministering in a local Birmingham congregation. He is the minister for young adults and new members. In this role, he spends a lot of time preaching, teaching, reading, writing, and finding ways to share the gospel in an authentic way—especially with young adults. He also has the wonderful opportunity to be engaged in the community through tutoring at an inner-city summer program for at-risk kids, assisting with home repair in the Birmingham area, and helping provide bags of food for low-income families.

Bottom line: We both desire to be sensitive to God’s voice as He guides us on this journey together. Who knows what He is preparing us for? Whatever it may be – we know that we want to be a part of it!

Amachi

On another note, very recently, we were reminded of how fragile life is and how important it is to live each day to the fullest. On July 8, 2010 Joanna’s Amachi (“grandmother” in Malayalam), passed away unexpectedly. It was a devastating blow to Joanna and her family as there was no warning whatsoever. Much of Joanna’s immediate family lives in India, and this is where Amachi died. We are told that the day before her passing, Amachi spoke to Joanna’s aunt and said that she wanted to try to book tickets to come to the wedding. Joanna’s grandfather was hesitant to travel due to his age (84), but Amachi wanted to come to the wedding by herself. Hours before her passing, we are told that she was gazing at a picture of the two of us, as she did most days, and asking questions about us, the wedding, and Alabama. She always chuckled at the thought of Joanna being a “minister’s wife.”

We are very sad to have lost her. We so wanted to share our wedding day with her, as it would be the first time Drew would meet her and the first time Joanna would have seen her in almost three years. Along with the emotional grief, this tragedy has put an extra financial strain on our family. A last minute trip to India for Joanna’s mother cost thousands of dollars—an expense that strains an already-tight financial situation. We are currently trying to decide the best option for Joanna’s grandfather, as living alone is not possible. This will create an ongoing expense that was completely unexpected. Still in all of this, we know that God is faithful. We’ve seen it before!

Preparations for the Big Day

When it comes to our wedding planning, we’ve got a lot to catch up on, as distance, finances, and other factors slowed our progress. While we do not know what food we’ll serve or which songs people will dance to, we do know that we want high quality, creative, and epic photographs to capture the magic of our day. This is especially important to us due to our international background. Much of Joanna’s close family (living in India, Qatar, Dubai, and New Zealand) will be unable to afford the airfare to attend the wedding. Her remaining grandparents desperately want to be a part of the day, but they are cautioned against travel due to health and/or finances. For these very important people in our life, our photographs will be the only link they have to this day. For this reason, the photography is so very important to us. We want them to be a part of the magic as well!

When considering how to plan and provide for a wedding, we are grateful that God has revealed his faithfulness over and over again. We love looking back at our story and seeing God’s hand at work. Through it all, He has always been our provision. Where we have not had the means, He has provided. Whether it was for school or emergencies, He has been there. We also see how beautifully He has orchestrated our story. Through our friendship, He used each of us to sharpen and polish each other. If you had told freshman Joanna that she was going to marry Drew Clayton, she might have punched you. Given the prospect of marrying Joanna, Drew probably would’ve thought, “Hmm. I’ve never considered an Indian flavor before…” But now, we can’t imagine a better story.

Finally, our experience has shown us how much God cares about the little details. As a young girl, Joanna had a running list of things she wanted in a husband. Drew had a similar tally for things he wanted in a wife. We are amazed at how God has given us all that we hoped for and more than we could have even imagined.

Before we fell in love, we once talked about what we wanted in our respective future spouses. After much discussion about what made the ideal spouse, we came to this conclusion: We both wanted to be able to look at our spouse and think, “Wow. I’m the luckiest person in the world. My spouse is WAY out of my league.” If our story is any indication, God definitely cares about the details. 

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3 Responses

  1. Southern Wedding Photographer | Gresham Photography » Joanna and Drew | The Wedding [...] and Drew hold a special place in our hearts. Not just because they’re our 2010 winners of the Free Wedding Photography Contest, but because we’ve gotten to know them pretty well over the last year, since we started [...]

  2. Southern Wedding Photography | Gresham Photography » Joanna and Drew | The Engagement [...] we know is going to be gorgeous, even before picking up a camera. Last weekend’s shoot with Free Wedding Photography Contest 3.0 winners Drew and Joanna was just that …. stunningly [...]

  3. Jordan Crenshaw I'M SO VERY GLAD YOU PICKED JOANNA AND DREW!!!!! You couldn't have picked better clints!!! I know that they see this as a direct gift from God!