It was a golden day, the kind that feels magical from beginning to end. Jessica Hermantin, who lived with her mom, was about to turn 9. Her dad, Lazaro Lopez—whose schedule was unpredictable and hadn’t been around much lately—showed up to spend the entire day with her. He bought her a new movie on VHS tape; they cuddled as they watched Space Jam.
What Jessica didn’t know was that Lazaro had been on the run—and their special day together would be their last for a long time. The next day, Lazaro turned himself in to law enforcement, facing 41 separate charges for kidnappings, armed robberies, and aggravated assaults.
A DEEPER BOND
Jessica says for a long time, she didn't know her father was in prison. She was accustomed to not seeing him for stretches of time; they even spoke on the phone while he was incarcerated without her realizing where he was. But finally, the truth came out.
"I must have been asking for my dad a lot, and my mom just couldn't hold it in anymore," Jessica says. "She said, 'Your dad's in jail.' But I didn't fully understand. I didn't know what that meant."
Despite her lack of understanding, Jessica sat down and wrote Lazaro a letter.
"Nothing's ever going to separate us," she wrote, "and nothing's going to make me stop loving you."
The reality began to sink in as the weeks turned into months. Father and daughter missed each other terribly. But during that time, God was working in Lazaro's heart, bringing him to faith in Christ. He began to tell Jessica about what he was learning and sent her a Bible of her own.
One Sunday, when she was 10 years old, Jessica went to church with her mother. There was an altar call at the end of the service, and Jessica went forward to receive Christ. From that moment on, she and Lazaro shared something even deeper than their family bond—a relationship with Jesus.
'Nothing's ever going to separate us and nothing's going to make me stop loving you.'
Lazaro was determined to stay involved in Jessica's life—and her mother, stepmother, and grandparents all made sure that happened. Lazaro asked about Jessica's interests and gave her advice. When she joined the basketball team, Lazaro reminded her to "work on her follow through." When Jessica struggled with math, he made her repeat one of his favorite mantras: "Constant perseverance breaks down resistance." He sent her gifts and personal messages at Christmastime through Angel Tree® Christmas.
But more than anything, Lazaro—who was leading a thriving church on the prison yard—taught Jessica about God.
"It was a tradition: If there was a visit, that Bible was going to open up," Jessica says. "We would read some verses, and then it would lead to some sort of discussion, because he wanted me to have a deeper understanding."
Jessica remembers a phone call about how God saved His servants from the fiery furnace and a visit that turned into a discussion about spiritual warfare.
Because she worked two or three jobs, Jessica's mother rarely had time to take Jessica to church. But because of Lazaro's input, Jessica says, her faith was strong.
"He set a really solid foundation," she explains. "When I went off to college, I got really involved in Christian organizations on my campus and led Bible studies, and I truly believe it was the foundation that my dad set that even let me to want to pursue that."
'He set a really solid foundation. When I went off to college, I got really involved in Christian organizations on my campus and led Bible studies, and I truly believe it was the foundation that my dad set that even let me to want to pursue that.'
VETTING “THE ONE”
Lazaro had faced up to 104 years in prison, but he was miraculously released after ten. Jessica was 19, and she was thrilled to have him in her life again. By that point, Lazaro took on the role of a friend and counselor more than an authority, which Jessica appreciated. He was easy to talk to—about anything.
While Lazaro was in prison, Jessica had told him all about the time she mustered the courage to ask her high school crush to prom. So it was only natural—several years after Lazaro's release and Jessica’s graduation from college—that she would tell her dad about the new man she couldn't stop thinking about.
Moise and Jessica met at a Memorial Day picnic at church, and right away, they clicked. They shared common values related to faith, education, and family. They both love to run—their first date was a 5K, followed by burgers.
Soon after the relationship began, Lazaro invited Moise to a men’s retreat.
"He wanted to scope him out, like 'Who is this guy? What's your relationship with Christ like? What are your intentions with my daughter?'" Jessica remembers. "I was so nervous. My dad doesn't play. The number one thing he wanted for me was a man of God."
Moise quickly won Lazaro's trust. In fact, when the couple was married on November 1, 2020, Lazaro not only walked his daughter down the aisle but also officiated the wedding. Jessica still gets choked up when she remembers their father-daughter dance to Butterfly Kisses.
"Being able to have that moment was a gift from God, a miracle in and of itself," Jessica says. "My dad was facing life. The fact that he officiated, and we had that dance—it's only because of God."
'Being able to have that moment was a gift from God, a miracle in and of itself. My dad was facing life. The fact that he officiated, and we had that dance—it's only because of God.'
IMPARTING A VISION FOR ALL GOD’S CHILDREN
Today, Lazaro works for Prison Fellowship® as a field director in southern Florida. He and Jessica have spoken at several Angel Tree Parent Days, events designed to educate incarcerated parents about Prison Fellowship Angel Tree™ and encourage them in their ongoing, valuable role in their children's lives.
Jessica is passionate about helping parents in prison see that they can still have a life-changing impact on their kids.
"I really want to encourage them to imagine having that relationship with their children—I want them to actually see it," she says. "They need to believe it's possible—and just do it and not get discouraged."
She acknowledges that not all children will be as open to an ongoing relationship as she was, but she says it’s up to parents to try.
"A resistant child may not even know what they want, because of emotional hurt," Jessica says. "But maybe what they truly need is just to hear from [their parent]."
Because their relationship stayed strong during Lazaro's incarceration, Jessica says that she and her father did not go through a restoration process.
"What I needed—and probably still do—was continual healing just from him not being able to be there," she explains. While the pain of their decade-long separation is real, the joy of their entire relationship—and the way God used Lazaro's incarceration—far outweighs it.
"I am a Christian and pursue God even today because of my dad," Jessica says. "Even though I was never in prison myself, I came to know God because of imprisonment. It's just really interesting how God uses anything and everything—He just wants to call His children unto Himself."
'I am a Christian and pursue God even today because of my dad. Even though I was never in prison myself, I came to know God because of imprisonment. It's just really interesting how God uses anything and everything—He just wants to call His children unto Himself.'