FEATURE STORIES

Second Chance Jail Ministry:
The Mark Pottebaum Story


by Brenda Huff
March 2008

 

As I walk up their driveway to greet Mark and Heather Pottebaum, they meet me halfway with warm handshakes and friendly smiles. I observe that they look like ordinary folk. I am here to interview Mark, and to learn more about his involvement in Landmark Baptist Church’s Jail Ministry. After introductions, we continue to walk past the landscaped summer flower garden into their modest Deer Park home. Over the course of the next 2 hours (and Heather’s homemade coffee cake), I discover that despite his mild mannered demeanor and guy-next-door appearance, Mark has a story that is anything but typical, and is quite extraordinary!

Mark's childhood could easily resemble many of ours. He went to a Baptist church early on, and accepted Jesus as his Savior at around seven years of age. His parents divorced when he was six, and his mother retained custody of him. His mother remarried when he was twelve. His, he says, was a fairly normal childhood. 

Mark graduated from Deer Park high school in 1993, and joined the Navy. During his four-and-a-half year enlistment, he was stationed at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Interestingly Mark's maternal grandfather had been a police officer, and his mother had worked for the FBI in an administrative position. The groundwork was laid early for Mark to have an interest in criminal justice. As a young man, Mark had aspirations of becoming a police officer. 

In high school Mark began going down a crooked path, away from his walk with the Lord. His walk away from the Lord was gradual, each step being one bad choice made at a time.  This pattern continued in the Navy. He began hanging out with an unscrupulous crowd, listening to hard core metal music and tinkering with pornography. He had no significant life goals, no purpose, and no idea where he was headed. His personal life spiraled downward, although he managed to function well in his job. 

After his discharge from the Navy, Mark moved back to Cincinnati in 1999. He obtained a political appointment in Norwood as the Director of Safety. This job lasted 6 months. He then became a Group Manager at Biggs. It was during this time that Mark's life took an abrupt turn.

In early 2001 Mark began to have problems with his short term memory. “If someone told me something, and I didn’t write it down right away”, he said, “I would forget it.” He was especially having problems at work. The problems were significant enough to warrant a visit to the doctor. An MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) revealed the presence of a brain tumor.

Mark took the news just like any other young man with no direction in his life:  He was petrified! He was hit by a flood of thoughts and fears. What if he died? He was afraid to face God and explain how he had lived his life. He feared God's disappointment and anger. He questioned the decision he had made so many years ago as a child to follow Jesus. He certainly hadn't done that in his adult years. Where was he headed? He wasn't sure it was heaven. Mark was visited by Pastor Trammel, from his childhood church, who prayed with him and assured him that he was still saved.

Mark underwent brain surgery (a biopsy) in March 2001 to obtain brain tissue for testing. While Mark was still on the operating table, tissue samples taken from his brain were rushed to the lab for testing.  Multiple tests gave the same ominous news:  The tumor was incurable and untreatable.  Mark had 6 months to live. 

Mark was still unconscious as his mother and others prayed for him. He awoke to his mother at his bedside exclaiming, “You’re a miracle!”  Final testing of Mark's brain tissue had yielded different, impossible results:  It showed that his tumor was a germinoma (usually found in infants), and treatable and curable through radiation. There was no reasonable explanation for the change in the test results, but it was happy news! For Mark it was an undeniable gift from God, and a wake up call to live differently. 

In the aftermath, Mark went through 30 radiation treatments over six weeks, and extensive memory rehabilitation while living with his mother. The memory exercises in rehab were challenging because Mark’s short term memory was virtually nonexistent. A hole had been drilled through the short term memory area of his brain during his surgery to biopsy the tumor. He tells this story:  “I remember sitting at my Mom’s dining room table one night with a clean plate in front of me. I asked her if I had eaten and she just started crying. Apparently, I had eaten a huge meal, and loved every minute of it!”

After Mark recovered from his illness, he attended Landmark Baptist Church (LBC) regularly. He was a changed man. God had given him a new lease on life, a second chance. In the mornings he awoke with a brand new sense of joy and gratitude. He no longer took life for granted, and felt a sense of purpose in living. He was infused with the desire to tell others about his miracle, and to serve God. He recalls listening to a guest speaker at his church, an evangelist, who impressed upon him the importance of following the unique call that God places on your heart. At that point, he knew he was called to be a pastor. 

At a men's bible study, Mark heard about the Justice Chaplaincies of the Greater Cincinnati Council of Christian Communions (GCCCC). When Mark heard about the great need for more jail ministries and reaching out to inmates with the good news of the gospel and of God's love, he felt the unmistakable call of God.

Mark got online and learned more about the justice programs offered through the council. He then got in touch with Rev. W Jack Marsh, the associate director of the Justice Chaplaincies, and began the process and training needed to begin Landmark's jail ministry. With the help of the council and the support of his church, Mark spearheaded Landmark's jail ministry. It has been going strong since its inception in 2004. Mark's team consists of roughly a half dozen men and one woman. 

Roughly a year-and-a-half before starting the jail ministry at his church, Mark met Heather. Mark had fervently prayed for the Lord to give him a wife, and had a desire to find a Christian woman to share his life with. Mark jokes and laughs about how desperate he was to find a wife! The couple went on a blind date set up by a co-worker of Heather’s, and the rest is history! They married in April of 2003. Bittersweet to the occasion, Mark’s mother, then dying of cancer, was able to attend the ceremony. She died 10 days later. Mark recognizes Heather as one of the great blessings that God has given him, and an answer to persistent prayer!

Every 1st and 3rd Sunday of the month, Mark and his dedicated worship team meet bright and early in the parking lot of LBC. From there they carpool to a jail site within Hamilton County and conduct worship services with inmates. Each time the team goes out, they minister at a different unit in one of the jails. The GCCCC is the governing body over all of the participating worship teams from various churches in the Hamilton County area. They coordinate a schedule for the teams.

Mark and his team usually set up in the recreation area of the unit they are serving. The inmates within that unit are invited to come and worship. The team has one hour to conduct the worship service; not much time to make an impact! A typical service begins with a few songs and introductory prayer, followed by a quick message (usually given by Mark), and one or more testimonies from the team. It ends with fellowship and prayer. 

Mark prepares a different message every time. His time involved with jail ministries has taught him flexibility, how to read his audience, and to speak 'where they are'. He doesn't always stick to his prepared script, but has learned to respond to the needs of his listeners. His listeners are street smart and world savvy:  He knows that any hint of insincerity or a rehearsed speech will blow his message. He says, “The most significant impact to me has been the realization that the need in the jails is for down-to-earth messages that are relevant to the inmates and present the Gospel.”

Those coming to worship come voluntarily and many are seekers. They want to be there. They have an intensity and hunger for the word of God fueled by dire circumstances and real need. Many know that they are in trouble and they need God! They are looking for change and better direction in their lives. You will not find anyone nodding off in the pews here!

Mark’s life experiences allow him to uniquely and genuinely relate to the inmates he ministers to. In the past he made poor life choices and many mistakes. He was headed down a dead end road in life with little ambition or vision. That is, until God intervened. And here is where Mark's testimony packs its greatest punch! At the worst moment in his life, when he was facing certain death, God rescued him. God transformed his life. Now he has joy, hope, purpose and meaning through his relationship with Christ. He knows firsthand what it is like to feel desperate, at the end of your rope, and to feel like a failure before God. He offers hope of transformation, of renewal, and of new life to those who are facing the consequences of bad life choices. 

Today Mark continues the jail ministry at LBC. He was ordained as a Baptist minister in the fall of 2006. He works full-time at a bank, and is enrolled online at Liberty University's School of Religion. He is in his junior year of the program. He hopes to eventually pastor his own church. Mark often quotes Proverbs 3:5,6: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Mark is a living example that God is merciful, a way-maker, and a life-giver for anyone who seeks him with a repentant and sincere heart. 

 

 


Mark and Heather Pottebaum

Mark and Heather Pottebaum