Grace Place Ministries: Church home behind bars

By Lane Gardner Camp, Special Contributor…

Shayne Lavera writes lovingly of the congregation that she calls her church home.

“I have never experienced a church where I feel so welcomed, wanted and loved,” is how she puts it.

Ms. Lavera has been incarcerated for 17 years. Her congregation, called Grace Place Ministries, is at Mark H. Luttrell Correctional Center in Memphis, Tenn.

Mary Nelle Cook, a volunteer with Grace Place Ministries, spends time with inmate Andrea Miles at the Mark H. Luttrell Correctional Center in Memphis, Tenn. As many as 120 women at the prison participate in weekly Grace Place activities. PHOTO BY CAROLINE HAMILTON

Grace Place Ministries was recently named a mission congregation in the Memphis Conference. With its new status, it becomes the first prison-based mission congregation in the UMC’s Southeastern Jurisdiction. The other United Methodist prison congregation in the U.S. is Women at the Well UMC, located in the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, Iowa.

Interim Resident Bishop Benjamin R. Chamness and the combined cabinets of the Nashville Episcopal Area which includes the Memphis and Tennessee Conferences, voted unanimously on Aug. 1 to approve Grace Place as a mission congregation.

Approval was a long time coming, according to Rev. Diane Harrison, who has served Grace Place as its executive director since it was started in 2007—with a $75,000 private gift—as an extension ministry of Good Shepherd UMC in Memphis.

As many as 120 women serving sentences for crimes that range from embezzlement to murder participate in Grace Place Ministries activities over the course of a given week, said Ms. Harrison.

The women take part in worship services, receive communion and join small groups like choir, Bible studies, book clubs, craft and exercise classes. There are even groups that minister to persons inside and outside the correctional facility.

Grace Place’s combined activities, which take place in the correctional center’s chapel, total about 14 hours per week.

“Everybody is welcome,” said Ms. Harrison.

“We are pleased that the gospel is being shared in a meaningful way among those who are incarcerated,” said Bishop Chamness on behalf of the combined cabinets.

“This is rethinking church,” he said. “It is going outside the box.”

Old and new

While Grace is a relatively new mission, it’s not a new idea, according to Bishop Chamness. “We know that Jesus said ‘I was in prison and you visited me.’ And John Wesley wrote: ‘Prisoners need to be visited above all others, as they are commonly solitary and forsaken by the rest of the world.’”

Grace Place qualifies as a mission congregation because membership opportunities and resources are limited and not likely to result in a chartered congregation for an extended period of time; and because it is expected that long-term sustained funding from sources outside the congregation will be necessary to enable the congregation to exist, and the assumption of full connectional support items by the congregation is unlikely.

Bishop Chamness expressed hope that Memphis Conference churches will work with Ms. Harrison to provide needed services for Grace Place.

Grace Place has a 2012 budget of just over $90,000, which includes program and office expenses, along with pastoral support. Many area churches—United Methodist and other denominations—currently support the ministry with gifts of time, money, services, supplies and prayers.

The move to approve Grace Place as a mission congregation, Ms. Harrison said, sends a message to the women there “that the church affirms them. . . . It gives them a real connection to other United Methodist churches.”

It also means the conference will appoint a pastor to the congregation if needed, said Ms. Harrison.

“Church” as provided by Grace Place is something imprisoned women “choose” in a place where they don’t have anything else,” she emphasized.

Ms. Harrison read a handwritten letter from Ms. Lavera as part of the presentation to the combined cabinets.

“I have seen many churches, ministries and individual volunteers move in and out of the prison gates,” she wrote. “Few have infiltrated the prison ranks in the way that Grace Place has.”

Ms. Lavera said Grace Place provides for her not just religious worship services, but a “church family.” She participates in the choir, Bible study and exercise classes, among other activities.

“Grace Place is an integral part of my spiritual, mental and physical life,” wrote Ms. Lavera.

Bishop Benjamin Chamness

Noting that a prison is like any community with various services, Ms. Harrison said few are surprised that prisons have medical services, education classes, and employment and recreation opportunities, for instance.

“Of course a prison should have a church,” she said. “Prison is no different from the free world.”

While this new approval and recognition as a mission congregation has special meaning for Grace Place, it doesn’t change the fact that it was “already about the amazing work of helping incarcerated women see that they are not forgotten by God . . . [and] . . . helping them hear the call to discipleship to find a way to serve,” according to the Rev. Sandra Clay, superintendent of the Asbury District in the Memphis area.

Ms. Clay praised the “daring leadership” of Ms. Harrison and its two councils (an “Inside Council” of incarcerated women and an “Outside Council” of volunteers from Memphis area United Methodist churches).

“Grace Place . . . has a stronger United Methodist Women [UMW] unit than many of our local congregations and [the women] are always looking for a way to serve their brothers and sisters who live in the free world,” said Ms. Clay.

“From the world’s perspective, I imagine that living the gospel looks rather upside-down, but at Grace Place, the gospel message is true freedom and genuine love—two things that prison bars can’t lock down or a prison sentence deny,” she added.

Ms. Camp is director of communications for the Memphis Conference.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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