School bullies. A horrific earthquake. A Mormon community. An American barista-in-training. Shifts along the seemingly unrelated fault lines in a New Zealander’s life resulted in a shake-up that led him from an agnostic childhood to a foundation built on God’s grace.
“If anyone’s out there and listening, I need help.”
So went the prayer of 14-year-old Jack Cotter. He had been bullied by his classmates since age 10, and they would continue their torment until he was 17. “Kids thought I was odd,” he says. “I tried to protect myself by being a clown. That made it worse. They called me ‘worthless’ and told me to go kill myself.”
In middle school, Jack got his first cell phone. He used it secretly to read the Bible, a book his family didn’t own. Lonely and sad, Jack was desperate to find someone to talk to, and so he prayed, “If anyone’s out there and listening, I need help.”
This is the story of how that prayer was answered.
Jack was born in Christchurch, New Zealand. When he was five, his dad, a banker, settled in Kaikoura—a quiet coastal town on the South Island with snow-capped mountains edging right up to the ocean.
“Dad was my best friend growing up—still is,” says Jack. “He taught me how to dive and spearfish and was my rugby pal. He taught me to be a decent man—kind, generous, gentle.”
Idyllic surroundings aside, life in New Zealand comes with a side order of earthquakes and tsunamis. “Big earthquakes always seemed to happen at night,” says Jack. “After the 2010 Christchurch earthquake, I slept in my parents’ room because I was so scared.” But when Jack questioned his parents about what happens after death, they would say, “When you’re dead, you’re dead. That’s it.”
On Nov. 14, 2016, Jack awoke just after midnight. He felt a jolt, then another, each bigger than the last. “The Kaikoura earthquake ruptured along a record number of fault lines, so the ground was going side to side, up and down, every angle,” he says. The earthquake would later be measured at a 7.8 magnitude. It went on for two minutes; it felt like forever. Sixteen-year-old Jack yelled to his parents downstairs. They told him to stay put. He found out later that they were hugging in bed, assuming they would die. Finally, the quake stilled, but that did nothing to ease the family. They lived 100 meters from the ocean. Just offshore, there was a deep oceanic trench. A tsunami was likely, and Jack’s family knew they had about four minutes to get to high ground.
Jack says, “I was praying in my head, ‘God, please help me. Get us somewhere safe. Deliver me and I’ll be more open with my faith.’ At the time, only one friend knew I was seeking and reading the Bible.”
Jack’s dad floored the gas as they headed inland and uphill. When the road became impassable, they set up camp in a farmer’s paddock. Punctuating an ominous quiet was the sound of massive boulders rolling. “It was crazy listening to the mountains crashing down as we sat there through the aftershocks. Finally, we heard reports on the radio of a collapsed homestead. It was our neighbors’.” Jack and his dad drove back to the house, hoping to help. “On the way down, my dad was praying, which I’d never heard him do in my life,” says Jack. When they reached their neighbors’ house, the fire service was there and had already rescued two people: the wife and her 100-year-old mother. The husband was still missing. Jack began to search through the rubble. He found the husband’s body, crushed.
After the earthquake, Jack had one of the roughest years of his life. The incident left him with his own personal aftershocks. “Dead is dead,” his parents had told him. But was it true? He doubled down on his faith search. “I couldn’t just make a promise to God and then throw it under the rug,” he says.
At school, Jack was still being bullied, but now temptations—drugs, alcohol, sex—also reared their head. “The devil knew I was getting closer to Jesus. I had faith, but no faith community,” he says. Then Jack traveled to America for three weeks to visit a Mormon friend. “I had so many questions, and now I could ask them without criticism. I didn’t have to hide my faith for fear of bullying. I went to church with them and to a youth conference in Salt Lake City. The people were friendly and loving. They were tempted in the same way as I was, but they didn’t want to live with those sins.”
When Jack returned to Kaikoura, he began meeting with two Mormon missionaries after work and was impressed by their genuine love and faith. Eventually, Jack decided to be baptized as a Mormon. “It’s a very attractive church to be part of. Why wouldn’t you want to get your unbelieving relatives into heaven?” he says. Not everything about Mormonism sounded good, however. Jack read the Book of Mormon several times and was bothered by the pressure to live a perfect life and repent enough. “I was following all the covenants and commands that I could,” he says. “I had a lot of questions but never got good answers. But it had taken me so long to be open with my faith that I didn’t want to leave Mormonism.”
Jack decided that becoming a Mormon missionary might be the best way to get answers. “My parents thought it was the stupidest idea I could come up with—two years without contact, away from them.” God didn’t think it was a great idea either, and so he intervened with a traveling missionary of his own: a spunky American girl with an electric grin, a zest for adventure, a love for Jesus—and a teaching degree from Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minn.
The gospel finally
The youngest of five sisters, Abby Braun grew up in Montana and Nebraska. She had always wanted to teach but was determined to travel before taking a call. She came across a program for a working visa to New Zealand. “After I graduated, I worked three jobs for eight months, saving money,” she says. When Abby got off the plane in Auckland, she was overwhelmed by the bustling city. That wasn’t her style. She applied instead for a job on the South Island—a barista position at Dolphin Encounter, a marine tour group in Kaikoura.
Meanwhile, Jack was poised to become a dolphin guide at the same outfit, but his boss asked him to extend his time in the café to train an American. “I was disappointed, but I said yes,” says Jack. “Then Abby walked through the door. My first thought was, Wow, that’s a pretty American.”
Jack was attracted to Abby but also curious. “I figured most Americans are Christians, so I asked if she believed in God and what church she belonged to. When she told me she was a WELS Lutheran, I was like, ‘What freaky thing is that?’!” The following days were filled with deep conversations and flying sparks. When Jack’s boss asked him if the American girl needed more training, Jack quickly said yes.
Abby and Jack started hanging out after work. “Abby would tell me about her favorite parts of the Bible. When she quoted, ‘For it is by grace you have been saved,’ it really hit home. I was work-righteous. God’s grace and forgiveness hadn’t seeped in. It was exactly what I had been searching for. I loved hearing about grace—Mormons don’t use that word. It’s a huge thing they don’t have and an amazing thing to share with them.”
By December, Abby and Jack were falling hard for each other. “When he told me he was Mormon, I was like, oh man, that door is closed,” says Abby. “But it became apparent through several months of friendship that he was still searching.” When Jack asked if she would ever marry a Mormon, her answer was a firm no. Still, she kept praying and witnessing and listening to Time of Grace sermons with Jack until “it came to a point where I felt like he needed to try a WELS church. So I asked him to come to America.”
Jack agreed. A year after they met, in August 2019, Abby and Jack flew to America. Abby introduced Jack to her family and friends—and her sister’s pastor. “I brought him to Good Shepherd Lutheran in Sioux Falls. I was really praying that he would like it,” she says. He did. A few days later, they began studying the Bible with the pastors there. Abby and Jack got married the next year.
Today Abby and Jack Cotter live in Flagstaff, Arizona, where Abby served in her first teaching call. In June 2021, Jack became a permanent resident. A month later, on July 5, their daughter, Evia Meryl, was born.
Jack misses Kaikoura’s mountains, ocean, and dusky dolphins, but he is delighted to be part of a church “where everyone believes the same thing. None of us are perfect, but everyone believes it’s through God’s grace we will get to heaven.”
What’s in the future for Jack? For now, he is studying the Bible and equipping himself to share God’s Word. “I think it would be great to be trained and then go back to New Zealand,” he says. “I could be a tool in God’s hand to bring some people to faith in a part of the world that really needs it.”
In the meantime, Jack and Abby frequently witness to his parents over the phone. “I see a softening in their hearts,” says Jack. “They hear how Abby and I believe and live the Word. We pray that God will use their granddaughter to witness to them when they come to visit us. They will see us reading the Bible to Evia at bedtime and praying at meals and going to church.”
Because if there’s anything Jack and Abby Cotter know, it’s that you never know what closed door God will open.
Author: Sarah Habben
Volume 109, Number 05
Issue: May 2022