“Are you pregnant?”
“Are you calling me fat?”
That was the conversation between my wife and a man incarcerated at one of Ohio’s maximum security prisons. But to best understand how we ended up at that point, we have to travel back a few years.
During our wedding vows, my wife Kyla and I said that we wanted God to do whatever he desired with our lives. We asked Him to guide and take us where he wanted us to go.
It sounded good and made for beautiful vows, but we honestly weren’t prepared for Him to actually take us up on that offer.
He led us straight into prison work. Shortly after our wedding, Kyla and I found ourselves in the middle of a maximum security prison replicating our weekend church services inside prison walls. We were in our early 20s, alone in a prison chapel with 80 incarcerated men and no guards.
And we loved it.
As part of the training to be a prison volunteer, you are told not to be vulnerable or share too much personal information—out of protection for yourself and your family. God told us otherwise. Quickly our time together became about modeling vulnerability and sharing our struggles and celebrations with the men on the inside.
One of the main struggles that we shared was our inability to get pregnant.
I remember Kyla sharing this intimate struggle with the men in attendance one night. Many of them were fathers, who because of their choices, had been separated from their children. They listened to Kyla emotionally share her heart, and they empathized with her. Never once offering advice or suggestions. They grieved with us.
Every week for the next six months, they would surround us, lay hands on Kyla and me, and pray for us to become parents. Their prayers were as consistent as the morning sunrise.
When we would arrive for service, they would genuinely ask how we were doing, investing in us and encouraging our work as a couple. I remember the numerous stories of failed marriages, abandoned fathers, and abusive relationships that were shared with us.
Our grief provided a space that allowed these men to share their failures. Their insight and experiences gave us the parenting and marriage counseling we always desired but in the unlikeliest of places.
To the rest of the world, these men were rapists, murderers, drug addicts, and thieves. To us they were counselors. Because we were following the same God, they became like family.
A Friday evening in May of 2016 at Lebanon Correctional Institution rocked our world.
The night began like any other. The men made their way into the chapel while Kyla and I greeted each one of them. As they were all taking their seat, one of the men approached Kyla and put his hand on her shoulder.
His name was Dominique. A man who, when we first met him, described himself as “a true thug.” He was rough, crude, and unpredictable. To be honest, in all my years working and volunteering in prisons, he is the only individual who ever made me truly afraid.
And here he was, with his hand on my wife’s shoulder.
Kyla turned to him, visibly uneasy.
“Are you pregnant?” Dominique softly asked.
“Are you calling me fat?” Kyla jokingly responded.
“Oh no, I’m sorry,” he said. “I just had this feeling.”
“No. Unfortunately, we aren’t.”
Dominique apologized and quickly walked away. It was an incredibly awkward encounter, mostly because his actions and demeanor were the opposite of what we had come to expect from, in his own words, “the inmate all other inmates are afraid of.”
We went ahead with our service that evening, giving no second thought to the encounter.
Three days later, I was awakened at 6:25am by my wife screaming my name from the other side of the house. Startled, I got out of bed and ran to meet her. She stared at me with tears streaming down her face and her lip quivering, the words unable to escape her mouth.
Then she handed me the first positive pregnancy test we’d ever received.
After thanking God and sobbing together, we called our family and friends to tell them the exciting news. I remember the joyous feeling of telling our parents they would be grandparents for the first time.
However, one of the most amazing experiences in my life came four days later when we went back into Lebanon Correctional for service with the men. We stood up front with tears in our eyes and smiles the size of the Grand Canyon as we shared our news.
“You’ve been praying for us constantly, and we’re excited to share that we are expec––”
Kyla didn’t even get the words out of her mouth when the room erupted. The men, wearing their state-issued blue uniforms, rushed forward, showering us in hugs and affirmation—many of these men shedding tears right along with us.
As more than 80 men bombarded us, I looked to the back of the room and saw Dominique.
Standing alone with an infectious smile on his face, he nodded at me, then left the chapel to return to the institution.
I remember that day so vividly. It was a celebration the likes of which I have never experienced in my life.
I remember nine months later after Arabella was born. We brought her newborn pictures into the prison to share with the men. The pure joy on their faces was amazing to witness—fathers who had abandoned their children, men who didn’t know their parents, fathers who had buried their children. They found utter joy in the face of my newborn daughter as if she was their own.
Every time I look at my beautiful 15-month old baby girl, I think of those men who prayed so diligently for her. The men who society says are worthless and irredeemable, and men who are every bit a part of our family. And to this day, these men still build into me as a father and a husband, helping me to learn from their struggles and successes.
God used prison to bring us a baby, and he used the men incarcerated there to teach a pair of young parents how to be the parents God needed us to be. More than anything, we’ve learned that when you invite God’s will to be done, you better hold on and expect the unexpected.Written by Grant Doepel on