The Reverend Doris Green
A Prison Minister Shares the Peace of Her Own Survival
To look at the Reverend Doris Green today, with her perfectly pulled-together, casual chic elegance, her big, friendly smile and bubbling laughter, her utter respectability as a community advocate, you would never guess she had ever been down and out. But it's her background as an abused child, a young gang member, and a battered wife that fuels her passion for prison ministry, the strong sense that she could have been the one behind bars -- for life.
July 22, at Edna's soul food restaurant off the corner of Kedzie and Madison on Chicago's impoverished West Side. The backroom walls covered with framed photos of celebrities and political figures paying tribute to owner Edna Stewart. Edna's was a stop for all of the Civil Rights campaigns of the 60s. More than just a place for leaders and grits, Edna's is a place for former prisoners to get another chance at turning their lives around. It's the restaurant's policy to hire them.
So it's a particularly fitting place for Rev. Green to speak to young black women of the West Side who are participating in the search for an AIDS vaccine. They not only lend their bodies to science, but they go through regular rounds of HIV education and awareness. Recently, they had seen a flyer informing them that former inmates were at higher risk of HIV infection.
To prevent any stigma that might arise from this awareness, the vaccine study coordinator invited Rev. Green to speak. These young women are more than just study participants. They are members of the Participant Community Advisory Board (PCAB) in the study, and Rev. Green is a member of the study's general CAB. She is passionate about promoting awareness of the virus and the social ills that breed it, but equally passionate about not adding stigma to the people who are already infected, particularly men who are or have been in prison.
Her summery cotton outfit, a long billowing blouse over culottes, white with bright flowers to match her bold jewelry, makes her look styled and polished, the picture of "fresh as a daisy." Outside, before the presentation begins, motorcycles roar by. It reminds her of growing up on the West Side. "I used to be in a motorcycle gang," Rev. Green said. "I had a devil on the back of my jacket. Can you believe that?" She laughs at the thought.
The conversation begins. One young woman says that HIV is not about who you are, but "what you be doing."
"'What you be doing,'" said Rev. Green. "I like that.
"I always remember someone along the way who helped me, who showed me something that I wasn't maybe quite ready to see, but that's why I want to reach others.""I have more than 27 years doing prison ministry," she continued, "and what I truly understand is that in HIV we have the same thing going on. In Illinois, 65% of inmates are African Americans, a huge population of our loved ones. The HIV rate, like the rate of incarceration, primarily affects the African American community. Those people in prison are no different from the people in my community. The people with HIV in prison are the same as the people with HIV in our community. These are not enemies. These are our people."
It's an understanding she developed throughout those 27 years.
By the time she was 12, Doris Green had gone through severe trauma -- witnessing the death of her beloved mother, suffering molestation, experiencing the death of a close friend, and attempting suicide.
At the age of four, she watched as her mother, a battered wife, died of a heart attack. Her father, who had gone into real estate at her mother's urging and with the use of her business sense, raised his seven children on his own until he began living with one woman after another. A drunk, he was physically abusive, beating them all.
The family moved to the West Side when Doris was nine. Coming home from school one day, the friend she always walked with did not show up. Crossing the busy four lanes of heavy traffic on Ashland Boulevard by herself, she saw the brains of an accident victim on the street. She later learned she had seen the remains of her friend.
Somehow, this death made her see her mother's death for what it was: permanent. Until then, she had been hoping for her mother's return. Now, wanting to die herself, she stood in the same street where her friend had been killed, but was saved by a man who stopped his car and yelled at her to get out of the street or he would "whup your butt."
Death and a suicide attempt were not the only traumas she experienced. At the age of five or six, a cousin in his late 20s had carried her up to the attic of her house and fondled. She was afraid to tell anyone. At the age of 11, during a sleep-over with her best friend, the friend's father carried his daughter out of the room during the night. He came back to fondle Doris. She was terrified and, not knowing what to do, she pretended to be asleep. She never told her father, fearing he would kill the man.
It took a long time for her to understand how all this trauma led her down the path she took -- or the path that took her.
"I Could Have Been the One in Prison"
Like many of the inmates she was to meet later, she was living in a world of violence with little to no emotional nourishment.
Looking for love and trying to please the first man to pay attention to her, she became pregnant at 14 and had to drop out of high school. She soon fell into the pervasive trap of her community -- gangs, sexual rampage, parties, and clubs fueled by drugs and alcohol, and men more than able to use and abuse.
Later, after going to jails and prisons to speak with inmates, she was struck by how similar their stories were to her own life. With the help of a ghost writer, she compiled a few of the stories into a book, yet to be published, contrasting their stories with hers.
In her book, a prisoner explains, "I know that men and women get tricked into the 'sporting life' -- a life that looks full of glamour, excitement, and pleasure, but is only filled with pain and suffering." Explained another prisoner, "Now let me talk straight: the sporting life isn't all that it's meant to be. I lost a lot of buddies in gang wars over drugs and territory. Sure, dealing dope puts a wad of money in your wallet. I bought fast cars, fast women -- whatever I wanted. Then I got bored. I couldn't understand why I had it all, but felt so empty! Here I had money, women, cars, drugs, and I was unhappy. How could this be?"
Rev. Green adds her view. "The sporting life is full of false glamour and the deceitfulness of riches. It's a life that tries to fill your emptiness with worldly possessions. But money, drugs, and cars don't last forever, and men looking for a good time don't want to settle down."
She looked at the prisoners she ministered to and she felt, "But for the grace of God, I could have been the one in prison." She later adds that when she was ready to leave the "sporting life," she didn't know how to escape it.
From Church to Spirit
After more than a decade of this crippling lifestyle, she began attending church as a result of having a religious sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous, which she had joined with the abusive man she lived with in an effort to encourage him in his recovery. She says she later realized that she also was abusing alcohol, and was on the verge of becoming an alcoholic herself.
It was while in church that a group speaking about its prison ministry touched her heart. She joined the ministry as a volunteer. Her work began a lifelong passion.
There was the violent killer whose life had been surrounded by violence, as had hers. She could relate to his rage, and how close she had come to being angry enough to kill.
There was the battered wife, accused of participating in a homicide. Her story took Rev. Green right back to the night she came close to killing her husband.
In time, however, she turned away from the religious path to a spiritual one.
At Edna's, she told the story of reaching out to God to ask why, why was her life filled with so much pain? She heard a voice, clear as if it was next to her. That day she reached a new understanding. She went home and said "I'm sorry" to her husband. He yelled at her, "Get outta my face!"
"I walked away," said Rev. Green. "I ain't no fool," she said with a laugh.
In her book, she explained this part of her healing from a lifetime of abuse. "This may sound strange, but I went back to all the men who had ever hurt me, and asked them to forgive me. I asked them to forgive me for the anger and bitterness I had held against them over the years." In that request for forgiveness, she was able to release those bitter feelings that were keeping her a prisoner.
"There's a need for healing in our community," Rev. Green said during an interview. "At one time in my life, I thought religion would solve a lot of our problems. But I had to sit back and look at that. It makes people become so vulnerable, so that they don't even take care of themselves. 'Well, Jesus is going to heal me.' There's hopelessness in a lot of that for some people, because they're already depressed. They're looking for something coming out of the sky [she makes a flourish with her hands for emphasis], or wait until they go. There's no reality of now. What can I do now while I'm living on this earth to protect myself?
"I'm finding, for me, peace and serenity in spirituality," she said. "I don't know how to give that to anyone. I'm not perfect. No one is going to be while on earth. [She laughs.] I'm okay with that. But I'm learning how to live in a realm of healthiness for me. I'm not saying everyone has to be spiritual. It just worked for me, in treating people in the way that I wanted to be treated."
Her life on the way from down to up hasn't been without setbacks. Her youngest child, the light of her life, who has his mother's big smile -- in fact, looks just like her -- developed an addiction and spent time in jail. Today, like his mom, he works in social services.
She and a prisoner fell in love and were married. As a result, the ministry she had helped to found, Men and Women in Prison Ministries, was barred from several institutions. She and her husband later divorced.
But no matter what the setback, others helped her get through, and that's what she hopes to do in return.
"I was in that space where they are, and someone came and gave me something," said Rev. Green. "It's all about how do people start not caring about stuff and things, and start caring about people, themselves and others. How does that happen? I've lived the other life, the promiscuous, drinking, forbidden one. I've come away from that now. I should have been in prison, with the life I've led.
"So how to translate that into our community? I went through losing a mom at a real young age to being abused as a child, and in relationship after relationship, finding my way through shelters with my babies, holding on and having people around me who cared about me. From one step, to the next step, to the next one. It's all steps. All of those things that happened to them happened to me too. I don't talk about it much, but it happened. I always remember someone along the way who helped me, who showed me something that I wasn't maybe quite ready to see, but that's why I want to reach others," said Rev. Green. "I'm just giving back what was given to me. I want to inspire people to want to love themselves."
She's not naïve about prisoners. She knows there are predators. As she explained at Edna's that day about HIV, "We do have that small population of people who know and don't care. 'I got it and I don't care if I give it to you.'" At the same time, she sees the forces working against people. "There are laws to keep people in prison for the rest of their lives," she said. "Property crimes are a felony. People go to prison forever for stealing $300."
Then HIV was thrown into the mix, crystallizing even more the injustices at work in her community, and providing a new path for service -- for awareness, advocacy, and hope. Death, that old familiar face, returned to her life.
"One day I looked around [in the prisons] and people were gone. They had died. I wondered, how could so many people be dead?" she remembers. The constrictions of her old neighborhood returned in full force. They had died for lack of clean needles, for lack of health care. They died from stigma and shame, and how that keeps people from taking care of themselves or asking for help. The despair of it fueled a new passion for Rev. Green.
Her recognition as an advocate grew. Today she is Director of Correctional Health and Community Affairs for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, and still maintains her ministry.
From the wreckage of her youth, she learned it didn't have to touch her spirit. Abused, battered, a victim -- that's not who she was. As with recovery, she could start today, and every day, to build a new life for herself, filling it with all the good things she wanted -- peace, faith, and a sense of purpose for her life. She has released herself from the pain of her past, and is now free. Her greatest desire is to help others find the way out.
Contact Rev. Green at firstname.lastname@example.org
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