Bishop and cabinets approve prison's Grace Place Ministries as 'mission congregation'
From left, Mary Nelle Cook, a volunteer with Grace Place Ministries, spends time with inmate Andrea Miles. Photo by Caroline Hamilton
Interim Bishop Benjamin R. Chamness, right, wears a prayer shawl from Grace Place Ministries during Aug. 1 cabinet meeting. At left. Rev. Diane Harrison and Lauren Enzor show knitted items made by incarcerated women. Photo by Rev. John H. Collett, Jr.
By Lane Gardner Camp, Director of Communications, Memphis Conference
Grace Place Ministries is now a mission congregation in the Memphis Conference and with its new status becomes the first prison-based mission congregation in the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church.
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, according to Paragraph 259 of the 2008 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.
Grace Place Ministries is located at Mark H. Luttrell Correctional Center in Memphis.
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.
What does Grace Place do?
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 Harrison.
The women take part in worship services and receive communion, as well as join small groups like choir, Bible studies, book clubs, craft and exercise classes – and 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 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, in reference to United Methodist Communications’ welcoming and advertising campaign called Rethink Church. “It is going outside the box.”
But really it’s not a new idea, explained 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.’”
“A place of grace” is how Harrison describes Grace Place. She said the incarcerated women “can not only experience the transforming love of Jesus Christ, but hear and respond to their call to discipleship.”
Harrison and volunteers like Lauren Enzor, Chair of Grace Place’s Outside Council and a member of Covington First UMC in Covington, TN, believe the women are best able to live out their call to discipleship by participating in a United Methodist congregation within the prison.
What is a mission congregation?
Enzor accompanied Harrison to Nashville on Aug. 1 to make a presentation to Bishop Chamness and the combined cabinets in favor of recognizing Grace Place as a mission congregation.
According to literature shared with the cabinet, Grace Place believes “incarcerated women can serve the Lord and experience what it means to be a part of the body of Christ.”
Paragraph 259 of the 2008 Book of Discipline lists four “conditions,” any one of which will qualify a congregation as a mission congregation in the United Methodist Church.
Grace Place qualified under two of the conditions, explained Chamness:
- Membership opportunities and resources are limited and not likely to result in a chartered congregation for an extended period of time.
- It is expected that long-term sustaining 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.
Chamness expressed hope that Memphis Conference churches will work with Rev. Harrison to develop and conduct needed services for Grace Place.
Grace Place has a 2012 budget of just over $90 thousand that 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.
Chamness noted that with its approval as a mission congregation, Grace Place becomes, to his knowledge, only the second United Methodist congregation in a U.S. correctional facility, but the first in the Memphis Conference, the Nashville Episcopal Area and the Southeastern Jurisdiction.
The other United Methodist prison congregation in the U.S. is Women at the Well UMC in Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, IA.
Why does a prison need a church?
Asked what approval as a mission congregation means to the women served by Grace Place, Harrison said, “It means to them 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 Harrison.
“Church” as provided by Grace Place is something imprisoned women “choose” in a place where they don’t have anything else,” she emphasized.
Among the documents Harrison presented to the combined cabinets was a hand-written letter from a female inmate.
Shayne Lavera, incarcerated for 17 years, wrote, “…I have seen many churches, ministries and individual volunteers move in and out of the prison gates. …Few have infiltrated the prison ranks in the way that Grace Place has.”
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 Lavera. “I have never experienced a church where I feel so welcomed, wanted and loved.”
Noting that a prison is like any community with various services, 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 reasoned. “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.”
Those words of praise are from Rev. Sandra Clay, Superintendent of the Asbury District in the Memphis area.
Under what Clay calls the “daring leadership” of 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 Ministries is finding consequential ways to be a church in every sense of the word.
“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 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.”