LEXINGTON — Light can shine even in the darkest moments.
For Lentrail Abston, this notion has proven true time and time again — including his stint in prison. In fact, it was during solitary confinement, not long after the Cleveland native was charged with armed robbery, that Abston encountered a beaming ray.
“When I was in the county jail at 17 and getting ready to be tried for my case, there was a man who would come teach Bible study at the jail. Many of us would go to the study just to get out of our cell, so I went once, but a couple days later I got into a fight with another inmate and I got sent to the hole,” he recalled.
Because of this, Abston missed the meeting, which caught the attention of the Bible study instructor.
“I can remember it very clearly: the CO (correctional officer) knocking on my door, telling me that I had a visitor, and I was kind of in awe, like, ‘Who is this?’ So I go out there and it’s the guy who taught the Bible study,” he said.
“I don’t remember his name, and I don’t remember specifically what he said to me, but what I do remember is thinking about the fact that this man cared about me enough to actually notice I wasn’t there.
“That really had an impact on me, and that really got my attention, spiritually speaking.”
Abston, 28, grew up on Cleveland’s east side with his mother and two half-siblings. His father was murdered before he was born; his sister’s father was in prison for manslaughter; and his brother’s father wasn’t in the picture.
“We live in a broken world,” Abston said. “The world is broken because of sin, and my family was not exempt from that brokenness.
“Early on I watched my mom struggle trying to take care of three kids on her own. Watching her struggle had an impact on me. I was somewhat of an angry young man and got into a lot of fights in school.”
When he was in the fourth grade, he and his family moved to the west side of Cleveland.
“That was a dark time,” Abston recounted. “We struggled with poverty, had our lights cut off. My mom was abused by a guy she had known.”
About two years later, they moved back to the east side of Cleveland, where “there was a lot going on — drugs, gangs,” Abston said. “I began to get involved in it all.”
At age 14 he had his first encounter with the law. He was busted with marijuana possession and placed on probation. A year later he joined a gang, started selling drugs, and dropped out of high school. He later earned his GED at age 16.
“When my mom found some drugs in the dryer she told me to stop what I was doing or leave the house, so I chose to leave,” he said.
He crashed at a friend’s apartment during the day and spent his nights selling drugs.
“I wasn’t a guy who would rob people, but I did hang around a guy who would rob people,” he said.
One morning the pair was driving around town when Abston noticed a man with a cross necklace standing outside. Thinking that the necklace looked “attractive,” Abston, grabbed a gun from the car, hopped out onto the street and robbed the man of his necklace and wallet.
A bystander must have noticed, Abston said, because shortly after the incident, the police began tailing their car. Abston made it back to his friend’s apartment, where the police followed. When he heard a knock on the door, he knew there was no outrunning them. He was arrested and charged with armed robbery and later sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.
“That was a hard pill to swallow,” he said of the sentencing. “But in so many ways, I was thankful because I could have gotten up to eight years.”
Looking back on his life, Abston believes God used certain individuals to help him grow as a Christian, some of whom he met during his prison sentence.
On his first day at Mansfield Correctional Institution, Abston met a fellow inmate who noticed Abston’s Bible sitting nearby.
“He told me, ‘I see you have a Bible there.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, I’m going to be keeping my eye on you. I’m going to see if you’re really going to walk the walk or just talk the talk,’ and then he walked off.”
The inmate later retuned and shared his story with Abston. He said he had been in prison for murder for 36 years, the last 20 of which he had been a Christian.
“Hearing his story really intrigued me,” Abston said. “He was a man who had joy and seemed pretty well put together after all of that time.”
The inmate encouraged Abston to attend the Bible studies and Sunday morning church service at the prison.
"I immediately plugged in and started to go to them," he said.
Reflecting upon his journey to becoming a Christian, Abston said one moment in particular stands out. It was after a conversation with an inmate and Abston began to pray.
"That prayer was unique and really a defining moment in me surrendering to Jesus as my Lord," he said.
Shortly after that experience, Abston was asked to lead one of the Bible studies.
“I was very challenged by that,” Abston said. "I was a new believer, didn’t know much about the Bible, but I began to prepare and taught, and afterwards (an inmate) said he wanted me to keep teaching the Bible study.
“It was through teaching the Bible study that I really fell in love with the word of God.”
Abston also attended a study that was part of the Bill Glass Behind the Walls prison ministry, led by the late Bob Ray of Mansfield.
“I know I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for his intentional investment in me,” Abston said of Ray.
The two formed a kinship, one which lasted beyond Abston’s prison sentence. Abston was invited to live with Ray after his release on Thanksgiving Day of 2013.
“Living with Bob was impactful in many ways,” Abston said. “He was the father that I never had.
“He also called the Christian community to come alongside him in helping me, and that was displayed in many different ways, whether it was by people inviting me to their house for a meal and modeling to me what a Christian household looks like, or by some of his friends helping teach me how to drive.”
Not long after his release, Abston got his first car, job and home. He also met the woman who would become his wife.
It was May 2015 when Abston was introduced to Ingrid. She was visiting the area looking for sponsors for a Christian school in her native Dominican Republic, where she worked as principal.
She shared about the school during a service at Berean Baptist Church, where Abston had been attending.
Abston invited her out on a date, “but she wasn’t really interested,” he said.
However, when she returned to the Dominican Republic, “God did a work in her heart,” he said. “She knew God was bringing me to mind, so she reached out to me on Facebook.”
From there, the two grew closer as they talked more frequently.
Tragedy struck when Abston’s mentor, Ray, died in September 2015 of liver cancer.
“I was working at Milliron when I got the message that he was in the hospital, and within the next 16 days he was gone to glory,” Abston said. “That was very traumatic for me. That was another blow of brokenness I really had to wrestle through.
“And through that valley, Ingrid was right there. She supported me; she prayed for me. I remember there were times I was so weak I really wanted to give up — not on life, but I was just so broken, and I remember her praying for me. I really felt like she put me on her back and walked me into the presence of God.
“Coming out of that trial, I was certain of two things. No. 1: God is sovereign and good. And No. 2: I was going to marry this girl.”
In May 2016, one year after meeting Ingrid, Abston took a trip to the Dominican Republic with a ring in his pocket. They were married in December and moved into their new home in the Dominican Republic.
The language barrier posed a challenge for Abston.
“I didn’t really know Spanish until I moved there,” he said. “It was very humbling, but I had a crutch because many people there knew English.”
They both worked at the same school where Ingrid was principal. He started out teaching chapel to fifth and sixth graders and later worked as a high school Bible teacher.
“I taught a year-and-a-half with a translator and then a year-a-half on my own. I was heavily dependent on PowerPoint and the Holy Spirit,” he said with a laugh.
During that time, Abston enrolled in Liberty University’s online program. He finished his schooling in May 2020, earning a bachelor’s degree in evangelism.
Abston continued to keep in touch with Mansfielders, and through those relationships, he was connected to Berean Baptist Church’s newly hired lead pastor Dan Krause.
In speaking with Abston, Krause was struck not just by his story of redemption, but also his work ethic.
“It’s where grace meets grit,“ Krause said. “God has done a work in him, and he’s met the work that God has done with hard work on his side, too.”
Abston and his wife had been praying about moving to the Mansfield area. When a door opened for him to work at Berean Baptist Church as a pastoral resident, they made Mansfield their home with their two young children, Amir and Amaia. The Abstons are now a family of five with the addition of baby Avi in June 2021 and have since moved to Lexington, where they currently reside.
Abston joined the Berean staff in the summer of 2020.
“His (Abston’s) story is awesome, but I didn’t hire him for his story,” Krause said. “His hard work ethic — he went to the Dominican Republic, learned Spanish, finished a degree and taught Bible in a culture he was unfamiliar with, all the while reading every book he could get his hands on and growing in his walk with the Lord — that’s the reason why I was really wanting to have him on staff.
"I think his story is kind of like the cherry on top.”
In August 2021, Abston was promoted to pastor of missional living. A special ordination ceremony was held at the church, with attendance from Michael Nolan, CEO of the Bill Glass Behind the Walls prison ministry (the same ministry his mentor, Ray, had served).
“It’s a huge responsibility to love and lead God’s people. It’s not something that I take lightly, and it’s definitely not the script that I would have written — only God can do that,” Abston said of his position as pastor.
In his role as pastor of missional living, Abston said he is responsible for shepherding the congregation largely by cultivating opportunities for discipleship.
One initiative he championed was the formation of missional community groups, in which members of the congregation are encouraged to meet regularly in small groups in hopes of sharing life and maturing as Christians.
He also does community outreach, including his weekly visits to the Richland County Juvenile Detention Facility.
“I know that I have an in with them because of what I’ve been through and that I’m able to relate to them and contextualize the gospel because of what I’ve been through," he said.
"God has truly allowed my life to be a demonstration of what He means when He says He uses the foolish to shame the wise and the weak to shame the strong because I’m not some great theologian or anything like that, but it’s by God’s grace that I am where I am today.
"I know that God has intentionally given me this story and worked these things out in my life for His glory and for the sake of reaching other people."
Abston said his time at Berean has been a blessing — one which he believes has allowed him to gain the skills needed for his next assignment as a resident church planter with Christ Community Chapel in Euclid, Ohio. His projected start date is June 1 of this year.
“I feel very excited to be able to step into a burden that I feel like I have carried for years,” he said. “There is also some real anxiety knowing this will be the hardest thing that I have ever done, and there is a family who will experience front seat the highs and the lows that comes with church-planting.”
Looking back on his experiences — from prisoner to pastor — Abston calls himself a new man.
“I'm not the same person,” he said. “There has been a change in my mind. There has been a change in my heart. That’s not to say there aren’t any internal battles with sin, but I’m really a new person and living out this newness in Christ.”
He hopes his story can be an encouragement to others.
“Jesus is not intimidated by your broken story,” Abston said. “Jesus was not intimidated by taking these broken pieces and making something beautiful out of them.”