After years of drug abuse, she finally got sober. But she had no idea what God had in store for her.
- Posted on Apr 27, 2021
I flopped onto my bed, exhausted. It was late, so late my teenagers were asleep. I’d put in extra hours working for a friend’s online gift shop. Thanksgiving was a few weeks away, and holiday orders were already piling up for the 2019 season.
I was a single mother working two other jobs—maintenance at a community college, house cleaner—to support my family and launch my own addiction recovery program for women. All my hard work would pay off in the end, I was sure, but…Lord, I am tired.
I clicked open the Facebook app on my cell phone, hoping to scroll through smiling pictures of friends and family for a quick pick-me-up. But the first thing that popped up was a post—“My dad needs a new kidney”—from April Potter Holleman, the sister of my good high school friend Misti, who had died in 2011. Their father, Terrell Potter, now retired, had been an officer in our town’s police department.
Before I could finish reading the post, a fully formed sentence appeared in my mind. You have this man’s kidney.
I shot bolt upright. “God,” I said, trying not to let my voice break, “I don’t have time for this.”
Holy Spirit, have mercy! I was pushing 40 with two teenagers to raise. I was caring for 92 women in addiction recovery, up to my neck in good works. I didn’t have the energy to add another person to my roster.
Besides, who would want a kidney from a recovering addict, someone who’d abused her body the way I had? Certainly not an upstanding man of God like Mr. Potter. I didn’t know him well, but I remembered from hanging out with his daughter that he lived a Christ-centered life.
The kind of life I was striving for.
I got hooked on prescription opioids in 2007. I had a nice house then and a good job as an electrician at a mobile home plant. Though he and I were divorced, the kids’ father was in their lives, and I was grateful for that after growing up without a dad. Then I had six operations to remove cancerous cells from my ovaries. A doctor wrote scrips for my postsurgical pain. The cancerous cells kept returning. Finally I had to have a hysterectomy.
That surgery left me reeling. My hope of having more children someday was gone. I’d lost something so foundational to my sense of worth and womanhood. I felt like damaged goods. When the doctor stopped writing scrips, I bought pills from people at work, then from dealers on the street. The next thing I knew, I was shooting OxyContin—a faster, more intense high than taking pills.
I spiraled fast. I lost my job, my car, my friends. Were my kids fed? Did they get to day care or school? I didn’t care. About them. About anything. Except getting high.
During the years that followed, the one constant, if you could call it that, was the town police department. I was arrested for the first time in 2007 for possession of a controlled substance, then another 15 times over the next five years.
“You’re trying to ruin my life,” I’d scream when an officer booked me. “You want to get me in trouble.”
In 2009, I was arrested for possession of stolen property and fraudulent credit card use. I recognized the officer. Terrell Potter. I’d been to his house, eaten at his table, laughed with his daughter. It didn’t matter. At that moment, I hated him.
“You’re a bunch of pigs,” I snarled, getting cuffed against the cruiser. “I’m not hurting anyone!”
“Watch your head,” he replied quietly, ducking me into the back seat. “We’re just doing our job, Jocelynn.”
I was a repeat offender, a junkie. Most cops spoke to me with contempt, treated me as if I were worthless. Not Terrell Potter, even after arresting me several times. He always treated me with respect. He would ask about my mom and my children. Even through the haze of addiction, I could see something different in his eyes—different not only from the other officers but also from how most people looked at me.
There was kindness. Compassion. Hope. Hope that I didn’t have. As if he was somehow able to look past the unkempt hair and dirty clothes, the physical wreck of the addict, to the suffering human being inside. Someone who could still be saved.
By November 2012, I’d lost my house and moved in with my ex-husband. We were watching the local news one night when my face popped up with “Alabama’s Most Wanted” in big letters underneath. I’d made the paper plenty of times, but somehow seeing myself on TV jolted me.
“Is that for your speeding tickets, Mama?” my daughter asked.
That’s it, I thought, I’m done living like this. I don’t want to lie to my kids anymore.
I turned myself in the next morning. The children were better off with my ex and my mom. I hadn’t been much of a mother.
I thought I would be sent straight to rehab. Instead I was sentenced to serve six long months in Franklin County Jail. What a place to detox.
Sometimes a woman from the jail ministry, Miss Cooper, would come talk to the female inmates. “Our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit,” she’d say. “Corinthians reminds us to glorify God with our bodies and treat them with care.”
Though I didn’t join the prayer circle, I would listen from my bunk. I heard Miss Cooper love on those women, not judge them, despite the crimes they’d committed. That got me wondering if maybe there was a force for good in the universe. I started reading the Bible.
I went from jail to rehab. Addiction stalked me like a ravenous beast. All I wanted was a pill. Just one little pill. I can’t do this, I thought. I can’t stay clean. It felt as if I had reached a breaking point, given a stark choice between life and death.
“I give up,” I told my client rep at rehab one day in April 2013. “I’ve tried to beat this my way, and I can’t. I’m ready to do whatever it is God wants.”
The words just spilled out of me. I was desperate, reaching blindly for something beyond myself, but suddenly I felt lighter. Clear-headed for the first time in years.
“And what do you think God wants you to do?”
I thought about Miss Cooper, preaching about treating our bodies with care. “Stay clean,” I said.
I graduated rehab that August and moved in with my mom. I had nothing. No license, no car, no job. It didn’t matter. God had delivered me from my addiction. I was committed to learning how to take care of myself and be the mother my children deserved. I had no illusions. It would be a hard road back, as hard as the road that had gotten me here. But now I had God.
I also found a new passion for helping other women get clean. By October, Mom and I were driving around, reaching out to addicts. “Look at me,” I’d say. “I was just like you 11 months ago. Let’s get you to rehab.”
One day at a time over the next several years, I forged a relationship with my kids. I worked with judges and the district attorney. On Sundays and every Christmas, I ministered to women in the Franklin County Jail. My phone rang day and night. I took on second, third, sometimes fourth jobs to help put 803 women and 146 men through rehab. I filed paperwork to start a nonprofit called The Place of Grace Center, a recovery program for women.
Now the Holy Spirit was telling me I had Terrell Potter’s kidney. A part of me wanted to lash out and fight the way I had in the old days. I was already stretched so thin. And wasn’t I damaged goods anyway?
I spent the rest of the week fasting and praying, waiting for a sign that God was serious. Friday morning, my eyes landed on the Gospel of Matthew. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
I called April Potter Holleman. “It’s Jocelynn James. I was friends with your sister in high school.”
April was surprised to hear from me—we hadn’t been in touch in years—and even more so when I blurted out, “I’ve got your dad’s kidney. Let me know what I need to do.”
After April and her family got over the shock, she sent me to get tested at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. I got a call from the transplant coordinator on December 5. “Great news,” she said. “You and your dad are a match.”
“He’s not my daddy,” I said. “I’m not even kin to him.”
She could hardly believe it, she said. The match was so perfect.
Terrell and his wife invited me to their home. “If you’d asked me to write down a hundred folks who might give me a kidney, I wouldn’t have thought to put your name on the list,” he said.
The Potters were so godly that I felt bad about donating a piece of me. My body isn’t exactly pristine, I thought. Weren’t they worried?
“We’ve been praying so hard for the perfect match,” Terrell said. “You’ve blessed us, Jocelynn. Thank you.”
I was stunned into silence. After so many years of drug abuse, it was still hard for me to believe my body was precious, capable of providing a perfect kidney. That I was precious, worthy of saving someone else’s life.
Terrell’s gaze met mine. His eyes held the same kindness and compassion I’d seen when he’d arrested me in the depths of my addiction. Only now I truly understood what he’d been trying to tell me. You are a beloved child of God. You too can be saved.
On July 21, 2020, Terrell and I were prepped for surgery at Vanderbilt, surrounded by our loved ones. His family and mine, board members from The Place of Grace, bosses from all my jobs. I couldn’t have imagined so many folks caring about my well-being in those days when Terrell was picking me up off the streets.
Six hours later, my kidney was Terrell’s. “Your kidney broke national records,” the surgeon said. “Most urine produced after a transplant surgery!”
The Potters and I are family now. We’ve got a group text going, and I talk to Terrell every day. I don’t even knock when I walk in his front door. “Is that you, Jocelynn?” Terrell asks when he hears me rummaging through the fridge.
“Just getting a Diet Coke.” For someone who grew up without a daddy, having Terrell in my life means the world. I know God loves me, but I’m grateful that my earthly father figure does too.
I’m humbled when I think about how God renewed me from the inside out, restoring a body that I’d abused, making it possible for me to help Terrell. And restoring my soul. When I reach out to people struggling with addiction, I try to show them what Terrell showed me. That they are children of God, worthy of care, worthy of love.
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