[Photography By Alina Alexandra/Courtesy of the Lake Union Herald]
United States | Elijah Horton, Chicago-based freelance writer

A few days before Thanksgiving, Dollie Williams received a phone call from a school social worker with an urgent request to prepare a Thanksgiving meal for an indigent family. The unexpected plea could not be ignored.

Although Dollie is no longer in charge of community services at Chicago’s New Life Church, she immediately started rounding up a sisterhood of cooks to help rescue the family’s holiday. 

[Photography By Alina Alexandra/Courtesy of the Lake Union Herald]

[Photography By Alina Alexandra/Courtesy of the Lake Union Herald]

At 85, Dollie, a vibrant grandmother with a throaty laugh, has not slowed down. In June 2021, after 66 years serving in one capacity or another, she officially retired from leading the church’s Adventist Community Services (ACS). Yet, months later, as she bustles around her home filled with photos of the people and memories she cherishes most, you can’t help but wonder how she finds the energy to keep going. 

Her life represents one of heeding Jesus’ marching orders to “Go,” and as she went, she became a living embodiment of the verse, “Let your light shine before people so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Hardscrabble Beginnings

The call to go and serve the poor started very early in Dollie’s life. The first of nine children, she was born June 7, 1936, in Belzoni, Mississippi, living on a plantation surrounded by cotton fields, corn fields, and dirt roads. Raised in the Jim Crow Era, a time when African Americans were relegated to second-class status, she remembers indignities such as the expectation of addressing White children as “sir” and “ma’am.” Thus, the twin experiences of growing up poor and enduring the shattering wounds of racism is what pushed Dollie to help those in need. 

Her mother’s dream for her daughter to receive a proper education came true when Dollie went to Huntsville, Alabama, to attend Oakwood Academy. After graduation, Dollie took the opportunity to earn scholarship money and attend Oakwood University by selling Message Magazine subscriptions. While in college, she continued a life of service by joining the prison ministry. 

[Photography By Alina Alexandra/Courtesy of the Lake Union Herald]

[Photography By Alina Alexandra/Courtesy of the Lake Union Herald]

After a year in college, 1954-55, Dollie’s Oakwood experience ended abruptly. Her mother fell ill, and Dollie was needed at home. Later, with her mother’s health restored, Dollie wanted to return to Oakwood, but there was no work on campus for her to pay her tuition. 

Chicago Bound

In 1955, Dollie joined the 6 million Black Americans moving from the south to midwestern states to escape poor economic conditions and racial segregation, a time marked as the largest movement of people in American history. While living with an aunt in Chicago, the then 19-year-old quickly joined the nearby West Side Seventh-day Adventist Church, today known as Independence Boulevard. 

At the time, the Seventh-day Adventist Church conducted a community outreach program called the Dorcas Society (now Adventist Community Services), and Dollie found her niche when the leader, Irene Turner, suggested she follow-up with the people who came to the church for help, visiting them in their homes to assess their needs.

What Dollie experienced on these home visits turned into the catalyst for a lifelong commitment to service. “I started seeing conditions that were a flashback for me of my [own] condition, growing up as a young child,” Dollie explains. “I thought I had it hard when I was growing up. Even though I had to share my bed with my four sisters, we still had a bed. But when I went to houses where they had no chairs to sit in, they had no stove to cook on, they had no refrigerator just to store anything, and they were sleeping on floors—and when I say sleeping on floors, I mean sleeping on the floor, no cover, or anything—that did something to me. From that point on, I wanted to do something about it.”

Dollie enrolled at Malcolm X College and later completed a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Daniel Hale Williams University. She set out on a career to help “the least of these.” She stresses, “All my jobs have been human service type jobs, trying to help someone.” 

Moved by the dismal conditions she witnessed, Dollie turned to church members for assistance. “We started doing Christmas baskets and Thanksgiving baskets. That’s really the story of my life. I’ve always involved the church in whatever it was.”

Over the years, the “whatever it was” was a lot! Dollie served as the executive director of a facility for homeless women and supported the efforts of Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. in what later came to be known as Operation PUSH. She was acknowledged by the Lake Union Herald for her work in Chicago during the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots that proceeded. She was the recipient of numerous humanitarian awards, and in the early 2000s, Dollie’s name was added to the Wall of Tolerance in Montgomery, Alabama, for her efforts during the Civil Rights Movement.

From 1984–1998, Dollie served as President of Chicagoland ACS Federation, and during this time, she helped coordinate several community service initiatives and formulate choirs and singing groups. In 1992, after Hurricane Andrew wreaked devastation on parts of Florida, Dollie worked with sister churches in the area and the Lake Region Conference Community Services to adopt families that were affected by the hurricane. In the weeks that followed, she and her team held a rally in Florida, handing out checks to the families. 

Finishing the Race 

Dollie is what some might call a “Titan of Industry,” yet, throughout all her accomplishments, it’s the souls she’s helped lead to Christ that she cherishes most. 

In 2013, Dollie was elected for one last term as ACS Federation president. She felt God placed a new mission on her heart to lead two evangelistic meetings. 

The first was in Pembroke, Illinois, one of the poorest towns in the Midwest, located 70 miles from Chicago. She recalls, “We went down and [worked] the field, went door-to-door. We had what we call a community day. We went to one of the schools and had a cookout. We gave out gifts, such as washing machines, brand new deep freezers, microwaves.’’

Partnering with Pastor Lawrence Oladini and the Pembroke Adventist Church, they held a three-week revival in the fall of 2015. Dr. Timothy Nixon was the speaker, and at the end of the three weeks, four people were baptized. 

The following year, ACS Federation linked with the Robbins Church in Robbins, Illinois, and Pastor Philip Willis Sr. to host a revival series. “We did a parade. We had the fire department, the police, then we had a cookout when we got back to the church,” Dollie shared.

“Those two experiences I cherish the most, bringing souls to Christ meant so much to me,” she added. “I feel I'm more rewarded than the people because I just feel so good inside when I have been able to make a difference.”

Dollie’s husband passed away three years ago, and she’s now caregiver to Carolyn Palmer, former Shiloh {Adventist School?} principal and Lake Region Education superintendent. She volunteers every first Sunday of the month at the community service center, dishing out hot meals and dispensing words of encouragement to the homeless in South Chicago.

“I think about Christ—what He went through no matter what. He kept going; He kept on it. That motivates me to say, ‘If Christ could do that for me, I can do this small stuff He wants me to do.’”