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A Giver From the Heart

I still remember my first conversation with Sammie Dortch. I remember it like it was yesterday.

At that time, I was a recent transplant to Chicago. As I shared with an acquaintance some struggles I was facing with adjusting to my relocation, they replied, I know someone that you need to talk to. Her name is Sammie Dortch. The very next day I was in conversation with Sammie, making plans to meet at her house for a one-on-one conversation.

A few days later, I was sitting in Sammie’s living room admiring her exquisite taste in art. After an hour of inquisitive reciprocal conversation and a bit of ideating around our shared commitments to justice-making, Sammie without hesitation asked, “How can I support you?” In turn I replied, “Will you be my mentor?” Without hesitation Sammie replied, “Yes!” With a posture of gratitude, I asked Sammie how I could support her in return. Just like that, Sammie invited me to join her work with Off the Pews as one of the founding board members, and an offer to apply to Community Renewal Society’s Board of Directors.

Little did I know that Sammie would become so much more than a trusted mentor. Sammie was my spiritual mom, spiritual guide, grandmother, auntie, big sister, friend and comrade in the struggle for justice. But because Sammie’s incarnational ministry was her whole way of being, her presence was not just a gift to me but to so many. When I think of Jesus’ words as recorded in the Gospel of John 14:12 -14:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.


I think of Sammie’s life and legacy.

Like all who have encountered Sammie, her commitments to healing our communities wounded by racism, classism and poverty where undeniable. Sammie’s charitable acts of service where directed towards holistic social transformation. Sammie’s audacious commitments to justice revealed how deeply she loved people and community. Her life and works call to mind Dr. Cornell West’s reflection: “Justice is what love looks like in public, just like tenderness is what love feels like in private.” Through Sammie’s life and her willingness to co-labor with God in Kin-dom making, an encounter with Sammie in many ways revealed God’s giving heart. Sammie was a true and genuine giver from the heart! In Sammie’s faithfulness to Creator God, Jesus’ promise in John 14:12-14 were evidenced.

As we celebrate the life and legacy of Sammie Dortch, we are confident that Creator God embraced her with motherly affection singing praises of “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”

Dr. Sammie Dortch will not only be missed, but her absence will be felt. There are many in Sammie’s village who are who they are because she chose to love us, see us, and be with us. She now takes her seat amongst the great cloud of witnesses, as an ancestor whose wisdom, strength, humor, and friendship guide us on our sojourn until we meet again.

While Sammie is absent from us in body, she will live on in our memories. Her commitments to creating beloved community with youth impacted by systemic racism and poverty will be remembered through the mission, vision and works of Off the Pews: Faith in Action. Sammie’s personal library collection will be donated to Cook County Department of Corrections where an academic library will be established in the name of Sammie Dortch. The men and women detained at Cook County Jail who are part of educational program tiers will have regular access to intellectual resources to assist them as they pursue their personal commitments to educational enrichment.

So, let us reach towards the heavens to grab hold of the baton that Sammie extends to us all. May we carry on her legacy with the same tenacity, creativity and vision for justice that she embodied!  

Rest in Power, beloved sister! You will be missed, my friend!

With warmth and gratitude,

Jia Johnson

Impressionist style painting of a kneeling woman, holding a large basket of fruit with one elbow, and her hands crossed over her heart. Painted in golden earth tones, with highlights of white along the edges of the fruit basket and from her white shift concentrates the light of the painting, overall, at the center of the painting and the woman.
Painting from Dr. Sammie Dortch's art collection with the inscription "A Giver from the Heart."

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