April 14, 2018 10:04:35 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
" ... I was in prison and you visited me ... "
Matthew 25:36 (New Living Translation)
Jail is last place anyone meeting Dottie Porter for the first time might expect to find the engaging 80-year-old. Nonetheless, Porter has a standing date at the Lowndes County Adult Detention Center every Thursday morning. Few things can prevent her from keeping it. Not even a stroke in 2013. Well, at least for no longer than she could help it.
"As soon as I got out of the hospital I came," said the determined octogenarian. "My nose was all red and my eyes were black, but I came to the jail."
Why so important? Porter volunteers with a small prison ministry team that meets with women serving time behind bars at the LCADC in Columbus. She would go more often if she could, as she used to before the stroke.
Porter's path to the local prison began soon after she moved to Columbus in 2008 from Jackson, where she had been active in programs including Kairos, another prison ministry. It might surprise the women she meets with now, but though Porter's passion for the cause was strong, she was outside her comfort zone in the early days.
"At that time, I was very shy," she said. "I didn't know how to relate to the girls."
That, of course, has changed with time.
New city, new missions
Once settled in Columbus, where some of her five children live, Porter met Kathi Coleman after coming across a notice for Kairos Outside at the downtown Columbus YMCA. At the time, Coleman helped facilitate that support program for women who had loved ones in prison. Porter was soon involved.
"We went for a walk on the Riverwalk and shared our lives with each other and what we'd seen God do in Kairos," Coleman said of an early encounter with Porter. "It was just God's timing, and she was coming along about the same time we were getting permission to go into the prison. She wanted to go in with us, and she's been going ever since. ... She's one of those people who just keeps loving and giving."
"When I think about Mrs. Dottie, I think about the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31:10-31, where she is always showing her loving kindness ... "
Kimberly, LCADC inmate
This past Thursday morning, Porter drove herself to the detention center in east Columbus as usual, and joined Coleman and another volunteer, Ann Kellum. Once inside the building, they followed a familiar procedure. Their Bibles and inspirational materials are inspected each visit by an officer before the women are escorted down a long corridor to meet with female prisoners who choose to participate.
Porter remarked, "It's an interesting thing, but now almost all the girls come."
The volunteers share scriptures, study the Bible, sing and pray together with the women, Coleman explained.
"We make copies of things that are inspirational to pass out to them, something to hold in their hand," Porter added.
One volunteer writes a card to each inmate every week, sometimes including a short devotional, always adding a friendly, encouraging remark.
Porter brings a meditative verse of scripture most weeks.
"The world is so loud and confused, and Dottie teaches them usually through a meditation of the scriptures," explained Coleman. "They get real quiet and real still -- they just meditate on that scripture that day. It's just very peaceful. The holy spirit works through her ... there's a really deep spiritual connection between Dottie and the ladies."
Porter remarked, "During the week I think, what do they need and how can God show me which verse to use? And I always have something good to share with them," she smiled. "The girls look so beautiful when they are in the space of meditation; their faces just transform. Sometimes some come in looking so grumpy at first and, within a few weeks, they're just smiling and more relaxed."
"Mrs. Dottie has been a huge blessing to me in many ways. She reminds me of an angel of God ... I truly appreciate her and can say that I love her."
Amy, LCADC inmate
Heartache and hope
Prison ministry brings volunteers face to face with harsh realities. It requires a unique capacity and heart.
"The hardest part is just to see the pain and heartache of so many women away from their families and children, to see how addictions are so hard to overcome, just the struggles of this life," Coleman said, her voice clouded with emotion.
Recidivism is a sad fact, often fueled by drug use.
"But we've also seen some wonderful success stories, and we see them on the outside serving Christ and helping other people through the same things they've been through," Coleman continued. "It's amazing, God just fills us with his love for these ladies. That's what keeps us coming back."
Jail Administrator Capt. Ryan Rickert and Chief Deputy Marc Miley value efforts by ministry volunteers because, Miley said, jail should not be the end of the story.
"It's a chapter in a book, and you can close that chapter and write another one, a new one," he emphasized.
Inmates who genuinely want help can take advantage of Bible studies and programs offered by jail administration including GED training, he said. Efforts are also underway to implement substance abuse recovery classes.
Volunteers like Porter play important roles in building support systems that give inmates a better chance of turning lives around. One LCADC female correctional officer remarked, "Mrs. Dottie has shown much love to everyone, and she's been very kind in sharing her wisdom and knowledge; that can surely help us all in our everyday lives."
"By coming here the volunteers show they are caring about the incarcerated from our community," said Rickert. "There are avenues in life that don't have to lead to jail ..." Ministry groups remind prison populations of that with every visit.
Porter gets as much out of volunteering as she gives.
"I find that my creative life is enhanced, my leadership skills developed and honed, and my spiritual life is really enriched," she said.
Laura Beth Berry of Columbus, one of Porter's daughters, describes her mother as a "phenomenal woman," one devoted to the prison ministry.
"When I see her, she almost always wants to tell me about what happened at the jail first," Berry said. "She is so blessed by going there and ministering to those girls. They all (volunteers) receive as much blessing as they give out."
Porter said, "I feel so close to the girls at the detention center; the love we share with them is just so rich. I value this experience so much. I hope that I can keep on doing it. ... I'm 80 years old, and it still just feeds my spirit."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.