Dayna and Zeb Cook’s story is one that they deem similar to most — one marked by beauty that only God could make from ashes.
“That’s all of our story,” Zeb said. “That is the gospel story. He is the hero of all this.”
Today, Dayna serves with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina’s Convention Relations group. Zeb leads Apex Baptist Church as senior pastor and the state’s Baptist board of directors as vice president. They’ve been married and in ministry together for 17 years, and are raising three children.
Dayna Cook grew up in a close-knit family, surrounded by grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and even great aunts and uncles. She lived with her parents and younger brother on a farm in a small town outside Gainesville, Florida. They went to church on Wednesdays and Sundays and for kids’ camp and youth camp.
When Dayna was 11 years old, she said a prayer at a children’s camp. But nothing changed.
“I basically did that because everybody else in our group had already walked the aisle and got baptized,” she said.
“My thought process on who Jesus was, was a bunch of rules that I had to live by. That was hard for me because I didn’t understand what the rules meant and that they were there for protection over me.”
At 18, convinced she knew what was best for her, Dayna left home and church. She met someone and became pregnant. A teenager, alone and afraid, Dayna chose to terminate her pregnancy.
At 19, Dayna became pregnant again and had a second abortion. Life was “spiraling out of control,” she remembers.
“Even though I wasn’t a believer at that time, something inside of me felt like it was wrong. I thought it would be a secret that I would carry for the rest of my life.”
Three years later, she was distanced from her family, had turned to drugs and went to bars almost every night.
Then one weekend in 2004, she received an invitation from her parents to come home and see her brother, Dustin, who was visiting from college. Without her knowing, Dustin, then a student at The Baptist College of Florida, knew bits and pieces of what was going on in her life and had been praying for her for the last year. He had also asked his roommate to pray with him.
Dayna briefly met Dustin’s roommate, who happened to be Zeb, when he came to pick Dustin up and drive back to school. Zeb had grown up in a nearby town about 30 miles away. He remembers that even from a quick interaction, he “was able to see in my spirit some of the struggle she was carrying.”
“It felt very normal for me,” Zeb said. “I had some peripheral brokenness in my family growing up. I made a lot of decisions before knowing the Lord that really pushed me to this place of regret and shame and difficulty.”
A few days later, Zeb called Dayna to share how he came to know Jesus right before his senior year of high school.
She heard the gospel in a new light and, for the first time, understood the truth that “Jesus came to save and not to condemn, like John 3:17 says.”
Dayna shared, “For the first time I felt that to be so real. I was changed at 22 years old after hearing the gospel. I believe prayer from my brother, my brother’s roommate, even from my family — that that was an answered prayer. … I couldn’t save myself, and something greater had to take place in my life, and that was Jesus.”
A story redeemed
Zeb and Dayna’s friendship later grew into something more. They dated for six months and then married in January 2005.
Dayna felt led to talk about her past a couple years into her walk with Christ, but she suppressed it, fearing what people would think and what it could do to their ministry. But in 2011, she suffered a miscarriage that nearly took her life.
“I felt like that was punishment because of my past,” she said. “I know that is not the God we serve, but the enemy is the great deceiver. The enemy is our greatest accuser.”
As she lay in the hospital, losing consciousness, doctors quickly reviewed her medical history to determine steps to save her life. Dayna’s mom was in the room when doctors mentioned her previous abortions.
In the waiting room, her mom asked Zeb about what she heard. He encouraged her to ask Dayna about it once she recovered.
“From there, it was almost like chains were broken,” Zeb recalled. “God began to open doors for [Dayna] to share this story.”
Dayna said, “It never gets any easier … but each time I share, it brings some type of freedom. It’s been a long journey — 18 years — some days I do feel loved, but then other days I still struggle with it.”
Sharing her story
She first publicly shared her testimony with a large youth group. After she spoke, three women in their 60s approached her saying, “That’s my story. I’ve never been able to tell anybody.”
God has given her opportunities to let others know that they’re not alone — and that “there is also forgiveness there, and there’s hope on the other side of my story and their story.”
Zeb and Dayna still meet women tearfully thanking them, saying, “I needed to hear that.”
Even as the Cooks now raise three active children who are ages 5, 9 and 13, they continue to minister to women and families dealing with similar circumstances that they have faced. The Cooks encourage them to consider seeking support through their local church and pregnancy resource centers.
“You are deeply loved. You are wanted,” Dayna said. “There is hope, and that forgiveness and hope only come from Jesus.”
She invites women to talk to someone and not try to walk through an unexpected pregnancy alone.
“There is another option,” she said. “Choosing life is that option. God is the giver of life. Your baby is here for a reason. You are here for a reason.”
Impacting more lives
Zeb joined other North Carolina Baptist leaders in August with celebrating the dedication of a new ultrasound machine at the Albemarle Pregnancy Resource Center in Elizabeth City. The machine was donated through a partnership between North Carolina Baptists and the Psalm 139 Project, a pro-life ministry of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Last March, North Carolina Baptists also partnered with the Psalm 139 Project to donate a mobile ultrasound machine to the Smoky Mountain Pregnancy Care Center in Franklin. Baptist state convention officials plan to place additional machines in other parts of the state.