Prison ministry volunteer: ‘When I walk in here, I only see the face of God’

Bettye Williams, left, is congratulated by Bishop John Noonan, during a ceremony where she was recognized as volunteer of the year for 2023 for Central Florida Reception Center. The Holy Cross parishioner has volunteered for 14 years to some 3,500 inmates at the local prison in Orlando. (GLENDA MEEKINS | FC)

ORLANDO | When Bettye Williams arrived in Florida, she felt called to volunteer in prison ministry. But she needed help making it happen. Fourteen years later, after some guidance from a friend, the Holy Cross parishioner was humbled to receive Central Florida Reception Center’s volunteer of the year award.

“When I come here, I’m coming to see the Lord because I meet Him here,” Williams said of why she is so driven to help the imprisoned. She said she was called to the ministry because she loves the Lord. “And when I walk in here, I only see the face of God. I only see Jesus. That’s all that I see. It’s just a wonderful ministry and I wish I could do more.”

Williams visits Central Florida Reception Center, a state prison for men in Orlando, three days a week. She prepares the reflections, teaches the Rite of Catholic Initiation of Adults for those wishing to become Catholic or who would like to complete their Sacraments, and on Friday evenings, she facilitates Bible study and a Liturgy of the Word for roughly 200 to 500. In the past 14 years, 15 inmates have become Catholic.

Together with cohorts just as passionate about caring for inmates, she was honored April 20. Nicholas O’Neal, the center’s senior chaplain, presented Williams with her award, joking each time he let her know about prison protocol, she would sweetly say, “No. You need to give the inmates more time, spend more time with them.”

“We’re grateful for your spirit and for your love,” he told her.

Bishop John Noonan shared his understanding of the commitment required of those present, noting his experience volunteering in prison ministry for 12 years at the South Florida Reception Center in Miami.

“I know what it’s like,” he said. “It’s a very rewarding ministry because you’re meeting people at the lowest moment in their life. They’re very vulnerable, but also very open too, especially the message of the Gospel.”

He said the ministry taught him one of the biggest lessons of his life. He added Williams lives up to the Gospel of Mt 25:31-40 — “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

“(Prison ministry) truly is a real blessing. I received more than I gave. Sharing time with the inmates, they gave me more of themselves than I could even believe. I believe today I am a better priest because of them,” he told those present. Then turning to Williams he said, “Bettye, you are a wonderful lady with a good heart and love for the Lord.”

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic Staff, April 27, 2023