Bishop McAlilly visits prison-based Grace Place UMC in Memphis for 'a service for organizing'
Bishop Bill McAlilly baptised one of the charter members of Grace Place UMC. Photo by Lane Gardner Camp
One female inmate sat with her Bible during the Feb. 16 organizing service of Grace Place UMC. Photo by Lane Gardner Camp
By Lane Gardner Camp, Director of Communications
“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.
Grace Place UMC, realize, is located inside a female prison – the Mark H. Luttrell Correctional Center (MLCC), part of the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC).
Only McAlilly wasn’t referring to being pursued by law enforcement. He was talking about being pursued by God.
McAlilly illuminated his question with a sermon based on what he called the “familiar and friendly words” of the 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 McAlilly, who described the God of Psalm 23 as the One who “pursues us so we might not walk alone.”
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 McAlilly’s message, as well as music, liturgy, prayer, baptisms, communion and more.
Grace Place UMC is the first prison-based mission congregation in the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church and the second in the country, after Women at the Well UMC in Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, IA.
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 United Methodist 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 many 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 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 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 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, 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 Townsend’s emotional response, noting, “And Lena is not one to cry!”
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.
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.
Welcome and Membership
With the 15-member choir seated at the base of a large cross draped in purple for Lent and everyone else looking on, Harrison welcomed Bishop McAlilly and his wife, Lynn, from Nashville, along with Asbury District Superintendent Sandra Clay of Memphis and others from inside and outside the prison.
“We’ve come together to form a new congregation,” said 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,” McAlilly told the 12 who reaffirmed their faith as he threw handfuls of holy water in their direction.
More may join in time, said 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 Shawl for the Bishop
Early in the Saturday evening service, prayer shawls were presented, one each, to Bishop and Mrs. McAlilly, who wore the shawls for the remainder of the service.
Prayer shawls, often hand-made, 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, 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.
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.
Many Components of Worship
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 (American Sign Language) the recorded song, “Lord, You Are Holy.”
Communion and Closing
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.”
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.”
Charter members of Grace Place UMC are Janice Haines Baltimore, Annie Lee Brennan, Rebecca Marie Budd, Heather LeAnn Collins, Bessie Lauren Dodd, Rhonda Shannon Ferguson, Vernita Lynn Freeman, Deborah Ann Graham, Ella Ann King, Susan Kaye Looney, Andrea Denise Richardson, Sarah Katherine Richardson, Lena Dianne Townsend and Tonjala Shamecka Woodears.
Grace Place UMC Inside Council members are President Bessie Dodd, Secretary Lena Townsend, Sarah Richardson, Angie Miles, Tonjala Woodears, Rebecca Budd, Latisha Jones, Michelle Shoemaker, Janalee Wilson and Rev. Diane Harrison.
Grace Place UMC Outside Council members are Lauren Enzor (chair) of Covington First UMC in Covington, Tenn.; Rev. Dr. Virginia Jones Finzel of the Grand Junction Circuit (Grand Junction, LaGrange and Homes Memorial UMCs); Sara Jane Tice of Faith UMC in Frayser, Tenn.; Carol Avens of Covenant UMC in Cordova, Tenn.; Mary Nelle Cook of Christ UMC in Memphis, Tenn.; Annie Laura Jennings of Ripley First UMC in Ripley, Tenn.; Ellen Markwell of Colonial Park UMC in Memphis, Tenn.; Caroline Hamilton of Hope Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tenn.; Cayce Harrison Judge (Harrison Family representative); and Rev. Diane Harrison, pastor of Grace Place UMC.
To learn more about the history and work of Grace Place UMC, read this Aug. 14, 2012 story.