Prison-based Grace Place UMC demonstrates that a congregation isn't limited by what it doesn't have


Members of Grace Place UMC, located inside a Memphis, Tenn., prison, make crafts to support their mission work inside and outside the prison (top photo, above). The congregation's activities are like any United Methodist Church, including having a choir (bottom photo, above). Photos by Rev. Diane Harrison. Click on link at top of story to see more photos.

Click here to see more recent photos of Grace Place UMC.

By Lane Gardner Camp, Director of Communications

It has been more than a year-and-a-half since Grace Place UMC became a congregation of the Memphis Conference of the United Methodist Church.

During that time, the church for women prisoners at Mark H. Luttrell Correctional Center (MLCC) in Memphis (part of the Tennessee Department of Correction) has compiled an impressive list of Christian service inside and outside their facility.

And they’ve done it “without a nickel in their pockets,” according to Rev. Diane Harrison, who pastors the church that today has 48 members, along with associate or “partner” members and still others who participate in one or more of the congregation’s activities.

“Grace Place shows us anything is possible with God,” said Rev. Sandra Leatherwood Clay, superintendent of the Asbury District where Grace Place UMC is located.

Though the congregation is located within the walls of a prison, "it shows us we don’t have to be limited by what we don’t have,” explained Clay.

About Grace Place UMC

“This is a place where you can be a whole person,” said Harrison about the congregation she serves.

Grace Place UMC provides the women of MLCC an “opportunity to know Christ” and to “serve him,” she emphasized.

The church is the first prison-based mission congregation in the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. It began in 2007 as Grace Place Ministries and in 2012 became a “mission congregation” of the Memphis Conference as defined by the United Methodist Book of Discipline. A "service of organizing" with Bishop Bill McAlilly was held on Feb. 25, 2013.
The church meets inside the correctional center on State Road. The chapel is in the medium security main building which houses approximately 330 inmates. Across the street is the minimum security “annex” with a population of about 125.
Grace Place draws only from the 330 women in the main building, even though the church does offer a book club at the annex.
Financial Support
While many individuals and churches from United Methodist and other denominations support Grace Place with gifts of time, goods, services and prayer, operational money has been a little harder to come by for the Memphis Conference’s newest congregation.
But it does come.
Financial gifts are the “lifeblood” of Grace Place UMC, says Harrison in the April 2014 issue of the church’s newsletter, “Grace in Action.”
The newsletter lists the following Memphis Conference churches that made financial gifts to Grace Place from January 2013 through March 2014: Beech Bluff, Covenant, St. Luke’s, Covington First, Emmanuel, Enville, Gibson Wells, Good Shepherd, Highland Heights, LaGrange, Lone Oak, Mt. Pleasant (Beech Bluff, TN) and Ripley First.
Memphis Conference United Methodist Women also support Grace Place UMC.
While there are many generous individuals who give money to Grace Place UMC, Harrison says there are currently just six she would classify as “regular” donors. Interesting to her is that none of those individuals reside in the Memphis Conference or the state of Tennessee, not all are United Methodist and one is a national television celebrity.
Harrison said they all just have a heart and appreciation for a prison congregation like Grace Place.
Grace Place UMC and Rev. Harrison receive no funds from the Memphis Conference, according to Harrison and confirmed by Clay and Memphis Conference Treasurer James Finger.
The church does have an endowment, thanks to a gift in late 2012 from Hunter and Jeannie Harrison of Ridgefield, Conn., Harrison’s brother and sister-in-law. That money was invested with the United Methodist Foundation for the Memphis and Tennessee Conferences in 2013 to “secure the future of” Grace Place UMC, said Harrison.
The endowment funds are not intended for operational use, though they have at times been accessed when operating funds are low, she said.
The gift established the endowment to which others may contribute, according to David R. Reed, Vice President for Planned Giving and Development for the Foundation.
Reed, who also serves as Lay Leader for the Memphis Conference, praises the mission and ministry of Grace Place UMC for its ability to spread the love of Jesus Christ inside and outside the prison.
“I think they are better at taking the message outside than we are at taking it inside,” said Reed.
Raising Money
Without sufficient reliable source(s) of regular income, members of Grace Place UMC have become creative at earning money – not for their own benefit, but so they may be Christ’s witness inside and outside the prison, explained Harrison.
“Talk about ‘rethink church,’ we’re doing it! Talk about a new church start that is ‘cheap,’ we’re it!,” said Harrison.
“A Taste of Grace Place” is the name of a cookbook the women published in 2013 and continue to sell. Click here to read more about the cookbook and how to purchase copies.
Crafting is a favorite activity of the women, according to Harrison, and results in many items that are made and given away. Some – like crocheted crosses, angels, scarves and bears -- are sold by Grace Place volunteers outside the prison.
Grace Place UMC will have an exhibit at the 2014 Memphis Annual Conference, June 1-4, in Paducah, Ky., where cookbooks and some of the women prisoners’ hand-made items will be available for sale.
The women of Grace Place also make items they don’t sell, but give away to person’s in need inside and outside the prison. These include crocheted cancer caps, baby blankets, prayer shawls, hats and scarves.
“Many people may find it surprising that the women of Grace Place are actively involved in missions beyond the wall of the prison,” said Harrison.
Here’s a list of ways the women have blessed others with the money they earned in 2013 from cookbook and craft sales:

  • $250 to PET Project
  • $144 to Rice and Beans Ministries
  • $250 to Bishop Bill McAlilly’s campaign in 2013 to raise money to build a parsonage in Africa
  • $100 to United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR)
  • $240 to Operation Smile
  • $500 to Highland Heights UMC (meals for hungry and benevolent fund)
  • $200 to FirstWorks
  • $100 to Perea Preschool
  • $200 for Thanksgiving and Christmas giving
  • $110 to Asbury District administration, according to the Memphis Conference Treasurer’s Office
  • $744 to missional & Advance Special contributions, according to the Memphis Conference Treasurer’s Office
“I understand (Grace Place UMC) won’t revitalize the (Memphis) conference, said Harrison, but it is a revitalizing influence on the larger church.”
Reed said everyone he meets who comes in contact with Grace Place UMC is deeply touched by its service and witness. “Everyone who works with (the) ministry is passionate. They are making a difference. The ladies inside are passionate, as well. Their freedom comes from their church.”
Congregational Life
In addition to worship services that average about 60 in attendance, Grace Place UMC offers a variety of small group activities during the week: exercise classes, choir, Bible study, book club, and crochet group called “Touch of Grace.”
During Holy Week this year, the congregation organized a Passover Seder meal on Monday and, Stations of the Cross on Good Friday and a sunrise service on Easter Sunday.
Harrison does not live at the prison, but travels back and forth from her home in Memphis to serve her congregation.
“We are all there on a daily basis and we have a community,” she says. “We leave the judgment to God.”
Spirit of God
After Easter this year, Pastor Margie Briggs and Billie VanSlyke of the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church visited Grace Place UMC. Briggs is a certified lay minister of Calhoun UMC in Calhoun, Mo., and Drake’s Chapel UMC in Clinton, Mo., while VanSlyke is chair of finance for one of what Briggs calls her “two rural churches.”
“There have only been a few times in my life when I have felt the Spirit as strongly as I did when I worshipped with the women of Grace Place UMC,” said Briggs. 
“I was dry from going too long without a time apart when I came to Grace Place. In less than two hours I was refreshed and renewed. If only all the churches in Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri could be as vibrant and as much a church in mission!” 
VanSlyke, who had never been inside prison walls before her visit to Grace Place, commented, “I had to no idea what to expect so I tried to approach my experience with an open heart and mind.
“It was so humbling to worship with these ladies. I was introduced to grandmothers, mothers, daughters and friends. I am sure there were many stories behinds the smiles and the tears of those I met. It was very emotional for me. The Spirit of God was everywhere … I was blessed to meet these new sisters in Christ.”

To make a gift to Grace Place UMC’s endowment or leave a planned gift in one's estate to Grace Place UMC, contact David R. Reed at 731-431-5654 or
Aug. 14, 2012: Bishop and cabinets approve prison's Grace Place Ministries as 'mission congregation'
Feb. 25, 2013: Bishop McAlilly visits prison-based Grace Place UMC for 'a service of organizing'