By Grace Thornton
On Sept. 23, 1991, Michael Putnam killed someone in a car accident.
“It wasn’t an accident, though,” he says quickly. “It was a wreck.”
His life was a wreck, too. Putnam had been on a downward spiral since first drinking at 12, trying drugs at 14 and falling into a heavily alcoholic lifestyle in the Marine Corps after high school. Then he drove drunk, and the driver of the car he hit died.
“It was hard for me to come to grips with the fact that I’d taken somebody’s life,” Putnam said. “I wanted to change. I wanted to be different.”
He was sentenced to 10 years, served five and then got out. But he wasn’t different. And one day while he was putting up barbed wire, it became clear he was still the old self he hated.
“I slashed my hand real bad, and they gave me prescription pain killers. I should’ve known I couldn’t just use it while I needed it and put it back on the shelf like I was supposed to,” Putnam said.
He became addicted. He got in trouble. And he got sentenced this time to 17 years. That was in 2000.
“Right after I got locked up, I went through withdrawals sitting in a county jail. I was very despondent,” he said. “I cried out to God, ‘If this is all my life is ever going to be, just take me now.’”
But God sent him a lady instead – a lady whose name he can’t remember “to save his life” but could “paint you a picture as plain as day.”
“She came in there every week without fail (to the prison’s chapel services) and just shared her love of Christ,” Putnam said. “At the end of one service, she asked us to bow in prayer, and she came over, bent down and whispered in my ear, ‘God’s got a plan for you.’”
Putnam went back up to his cell that night and cried for hours. “I told God, ‘Even if I have to die in here, I want to be a different man.’”
It was on. At Leake County Correctional Facility, he was assigned to work as a clerk for Joe Abel, prison chaplain and Associational Missions Director for Leake County Baptist Association.
“He’s an old Marine, and we connected right away,” Putnam said. “One of the things that really helped me was his discipleship program.”
Then he got transferred to Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, where he enrolled in New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary extension classes held at the prison.
“These classes taught me so much and gave me a firm foundation in Jesus Christ,” Putnam said.
He was released in 2008, but Putnam -- now a Celebrate Recovery leader and Sunday School teacher at Walnut Grove Baptist Church – keeps going back.
“Prison is one of the biggest mission fields we have in this country, and Joe Abel made a profound impact on my life doing the ministry he does,” said Putnam, who now does prison chaplaincy work on a volunteer basis. “We need more of it.”
That’s exactly why Abel does what he does, with the help of the Margaret Lackey Offering for State Missions.
“Michael learned quickly, accepted the Lord and we baptized him. He has served the Lord phenomenally since then,” Abel said.
And there have been other Michaels.
“There’s another man (from the prison) who is now a youth minister at one of the churches in the county, and he’s doing really well,” Abel said. “There’s another one who speaks all over the state, and there’s one in Yazoo County who calls me often to tell me how the Lord is working.”
And the Lord’s doing that work through Mississippi Baptists’ prison ministry, he said.
“Change is happening,” he said — not in huge numbers, but it’s happening, one life at a time.
For more information about prison ministry, call the Men’s Ministry department of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board at 800-748-1651, ext. 339 or 601-292-3339.