Doug Grote said he was right where he wanted to be in life.
He fit right in at his college of about 1,500 students, studied youth ministry and met his future wife. Later, he was youth pastor at a church in Ohio, learning how to baptize people, officiate weddings and funerals and launch his ministry in recreation. Life was good, he told OBU students during a weekly chapel message Wednesday, Sept. 28.
As a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Grote heard cautionary tales that academics and finances could take a toll on his young marriage, but the expected challenges only pulled him and his wife closer together. Again, he said, he was right where he wanted to be in life.
Grote is director of partner growth with Upward Sports. His role in recreation ministry started with work at summer camps during his seminary years. Following seminary, he worked at camps and a recreational center for one final summer while his wife lived with her mother in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., where their daughter, Kristen, was born.
Cool Spring Baptist Church in Mechanicsville, Va., a suburb of Richmond, hired Grote as its first recreation minister, fulfilling his desire to lead a church in establishing its first recreation ministry.
"The community was ready, the church was ready, and we were right in tune with God," Grote recalled. "The ministry took off. It was exactly where I wanted to be. … It grew and grew and grew. The amount of people who were shared Christ through something as simple as a ball just multiplied."
Grote's wife pursued her education goals, working at night to be able to work on her education during the day. Their second child, Dayton, was born. They had a nice house and a dog. They were a "typical American family," he said.
"If you were to ask me at that minute what my life philosophy was, I would have told you very simply, 'I'm a Christian, I have Jesus Christ in my heart, I have heaven as my home, and I'm in no hurry to get there because life is too good here,'" he said.
On Aug. 3, 2004, the Grotes' day began as usual, with Doug planning to deliver Kristen and Dayton to daycare at the church while his wife rested. Having just returned from a nine-day sports mission trip to Ireland, Grote had a slow day at work. His wife called around noon to say she would pick up the family's sports utility vehicle and their children.
Grote arrived at the childcare center and noticed he had not signed his daughter into the center, which was not necessarily uncommon for him as a church staff member. He walked down to his daughter's classroom, and his wife looked at him and said she could not locate Kristen's belongings. At that moment, Grote said, he knew something was terribly wrong.
He ran to the parking lot, opened the door of his vehicle, and Kristen was not in her car seat. He looked in the back of the vehicle, and there his daughter lay. Emergency personnel and police arrived, and they took Kristen to the hospital. When Grote arrived, he realized she was dead.
"If you would have asked me right then what my life philosophy was, I would have told you that I'm a Christian, that there's a place for me in heaven, and I'm ready to go right now because life here on Earth stinks," he said.
The grief and guilt that encompassed Grote and his wife was immense, he said. He shared with the students about the anguish and loneliness he experienced. He found it incredibly difficult to attend church, although his church strongly supported him, because church services focused on worshipping God -- and he did not feel like worshipping God.
"During this time nothing was of value," he said. "My daughter just died, and it was because I screwed up. Nothing mattered anymore. I didn't care about a degree. I didn't care about a job. I didn't care about relationships."
Nights were the worst, Grote said, because if he went to sleep, he would have to wake up and live through another day. He would get in his car and drive, cry and yell on the interstate. People from across the country sent the couple books to help them cope with their tragedy. One particularly difficult night, Grote stood in front of the bookcase and selected a book, but it offered no condolence. However, it directed him to the Book of Habakkuk, written by a prophet experiencing devastation and tragedy.
"How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?" he read in Habakkuk 1:2. Grote said the anger he felt toward God was exceeded only by the anger he felt for himself.
The horror of the event continued as the prosecutor decided whether to bring felony charges against Grote. He was acquitted of the felony but convicted of misdemeanor child neglect. During sentencing, the prosecution could provide no witnesses with disparaging remarks against the minister. The defense presented three verbal witnesses supporting Grote, and the judge received hundreds of letters from the community testifying to the positive impact of his ministry. The judge sentenced Grote to 200 hours of community service, telling him, "You are still valuable to your community."
Grote told the OBU students that for many of them, life currently may seem ideal. But he warned them that life brings tragedy: an unexpected break-up, an unexpected death or another unexpected twist. He urged each student to consider where he or she stands in their relationship with God. When tragedy strikes, he said, they need to be firmly rooted in God. He also told them to remember that God will rescue them in times of need.