Behind bars, a United Methodist church takes hold

Lane Gardner Camp, Special Contributor…

MEMPHIS, Tenn.—“Have you ever been pursued?”

It’s a question that drew some laughter when posed by Bishop Bill McAlilly during a Feb. 16 worship service at Grace Place UMC in Memphis.

Bishop Bill McAlilly baptized one of the charter members of Grace Place United Methodist Church, during a Feb. 16 service at the Mark H. Luttrell Correctional Center in Memphis. The church was approved in 2012 as the first prison-based mission congregation in the UMC’s Southeastern Jurisdiction. PHOTOS BY LANE GARDNER CAMP

Grace Place UMC, realize, is located inside a female prison—the Mark H. Luttrell Correctional Center (MLCC), part of the Tennessee Department of Correction.

Only Bishop McAlilly wasn’t referring to being pursued by law enforcement. He was talking about being pursued by God.

Bishop McAlilly illuminated his question with a sermon based on what he called the “familiar and friendly words” of Psalm 23 that comfort men and women throughout the entirety of their lives by providing hope.

“Even when we’re not good, God’s goodness and kindness pursue us,” said the bishop, who described the God of Psalm 23 as the One who “pursues us so we might not walk alone.”

Bishop McAlilly was one of approximately 75 people—inmates and Memphis Conference laity and clergy—assembled in MLCC’s chapel for “a service for organizing a new congregation” that included the bishop’s message as well as music, liturgy, prayer, baptisms, communion and more.

Mission congregation

Grace Place UMC is the first prison-based mission congregation in the denomination’s Southeastern Jurisdiction and the second in the country, after Women at the Well UMC at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, Iowa.

It was last August that the combined cabinets of the Nashville Episcopal Area that includes the Memphis and Tennessee Conferences, voted unanimously to approve Grace Place as a mission congregation of the United Methodist Church, according to the Book of Discipline.

Grace Place was started in 2007 with a private gift as an extension ministry of Good Shepherd UMC in Memphis. Volunteers from many United Methodist churches in the area have for years supported the ministry with gifts of time, goods, services, money and prayer.

Grace Place UMC operates with two councils—an “Inside” one that includes inmates and the Rev. Diane Harrison, the church’s pastor, and an “Outside” one made up of volunteers (laity and clergy) from throughout the Memphis area, most of whom are United Methodist, but not all.

The church meets inside the correctional center on State Road. The chapel is in the medium security main building which houses approximately 330 inmates, according to Ms. Harrison. Across the street, she said, is the minimum security “annex” with a population of about 125.

Because minimum and medium security inmates are not allowed to intermingle, Grace Place draws only from the 330 women in the main building, even though the church does offer a book club at the annex, explained Ms. Harrison.

Gathering for worship

As inmates gathered in the chapel Saturday evening, visitors from outside the prison slowly trickled in. All had to pass through security and screening checkpoints before being cleared to enter.

Some visitors also had background checks done by the MLCC’s chaplain through the National Crime Information Center.

Lena Townsend, liturgist for the service and secretary of the church’s Inside Council, welcomed visitors and helped them find their seats, while passing out printed copies of the order of worship.

Asked about the meaning of the service to her and the other women at MLCC, Ms. Townsend teared up and replied, “It’s great to have a church here. It’s especially great for long-timers when someone cares about you and keeps coming back.”

Annie Laura Jennings, a member of the Outside Council from Ripley First UMC in Ripley, Tenn., and an active volunteer at Grace Place, was moved by Ms. Townsend’s emotional response, noting, “And Lena is not one to cry!”

Two of 14 women inmates await their reception as charter members of Grace Place United Methodist Church.

Ms. Townsend officially transferred her church membership that evening—from Good Shepherd UMC that she joined in 2008 while in the prison. Only now, after being approved as a mission congregation, is Grace Place able to formally receive members.

Worship and activities

“[Grace Place] means so much to these women,” commented Mary Nelle Cook, a member of the Outside Council from Christ UMC in Memphis, who attended the service.

Ms. Cook is a retired physical education teacher who visits Grace Place UMC once a week to teach an aerobics class, one of many small group activities the church offers, including another exercise class, choir, Bible study, book club, and crochet group called “Touch of Grace.”

Including worship services that average about 60 in attendance, weekly activities of the church total about 14 hours per week in the multi-purpose chapel. Small group activities serve anywhere from 10 to 20.

‘We’ve come together’

With the 15-member choir seated at the base of a large cross draped in purple for Lent and everyone else looking on, Ms. Harrison welcomed Bishop McAlilly and his wife, Lynn, from Nashville, along with the Rev. Sandra Clay, superintendent of the Asbury District in the Memphis Conference, and others from inside and outside the prison.

“We’ve come together to form a new congregation,” said Ms. Harrison, referring primarily, but not exclusively, to the church’s 14 charter members, presented by Lauren Enzor, chair of the Outside Council and a member of Covington First UMC in Covington, Tenn.

Two of the women were received into membership by “baptism with laying on of hands” while the other 12 joined by transfer of their church memberships.

“Remember your baptism,” Bishop McAlilly told the 12 who reaffirmed their faith as he threw handfuls of holy water in their direction.

The Rev. Diane Harrison is pastor of Grace Place United Methodist Church, and played the piano at its Feb. 16 service within Mark H. Luttrell Correctional Center. Ms. Harrison has led the congregation, with much help from volunteers, since it started in 2007 as an extension ministry of Good Shepherd UMC in Memphis.

More may join in time, said Ms. Harrison, but the church understands that many already have strong church affiliations. Those women are invited to simply “partner” with Grace Place UMC while they are at MLCC.

Prayer shawls

Early in the Saturday evening service, prayer shawls were presented, one each, to Bishop and Mrs. McAlilly. The couple wore the shawls for the remainder of the service.

Prayer shawls, often handmade, are created to wrap around one or more people to create a sacred space for meditation and prayer. Usually the ones who make the shawls pray for the recipients.

After receiving the prayer shawls from Bessie Dodd and Sarah Richardson of the church’s Inside Council, Bishop McAlilly looked out on the many gathered for the service and commented that the number in attendance was probably greater than the average attendance of more than half the United Methodist churches in the Nashville Episcopal Area.

He called it a “great privilege” to be part of the church’s organizing service for which so many had worked for such a long time.

“Five years!” many of the inmates said in unison.

Bishop McAlilly said after the service that while he has visited in many prisons, this was the first time he has presided over a United Methodist service inside a correctional facility.

Because a prison setting does not lend itself to a traditional time of passing an offering plate for financial gifts, Grace Place UMC used that part of the worship service for those gathered to individually express words of appreciation and gratitude to God.

Among the spoken prayers were thanks for “bringing the bishop here,” “letting us see another day” and “second chances.”

One inmate prayed, “Thank you that we can love and have church even in here. We are more free than many on the outside.”

To which many replied, “Amen!”

The choir offered songs throughout the service, including “You Are My All and All” and “He is Jehovah.”

Michelle Shoemaker and Shayne Lavera, who call themselves “Hands of Grace Place,” signed (though American Sign Language) the recorded song, “Lord, You Are Holy.”

‘This is my church’

After communion was served to all in attendance, Bishop McAlilly declared Grace Place UMC “duly constituted and organized for the glory of God, the proclamation of the gospel and the service of humanity.”

He prayed, “Bless this your congregation. Watch over its beginning. Increase its ministry and mission. And sustain it to the end, through Jesus Christ our foundation.”

After the service, as inmates and visitors left the chapel, Bessie Dodd, president of the Inside Council, contemplated on the ministry of Grace Place UMC, saying, “I’ve been locked up 31 years. I never had a church, but now this is my church. . . . Before Pastor Diane came, I stayed locked in my room the whole time. There was nothing to come out for, but now there is.”

Bishop McAlilly’s parting words as he headed out the chapel door were ones of appreciation for “a night when God’s grace can penetrate even the walls of a prison.”

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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