Former inmate Bessie 'Doll' Dodd is keynote speaker for ten-year anniversary celebration of prison congregation 'Grace Place United Methodist Church'


Bessie "Doll" Dodd was the keynote speaker at an Aug. 5 event that celebrated the 10-year anniversary of Grace Place United Methodist Church, a prison congregation in Fort Pillow, Tennessee. Dodd was a member of the church while she was in prison and talked about what it meant to her while incarcerated and after her release. Click on link at the top of the story to see more photos from the event.


Story and photos by Lane Gardner Camp, Director of Communications, Memphis Conference of The United Methodist Church

Bessie “Doll” Dodd was released from prison on June 27, 2016.

While she said she was “glad to get out of there” after 35 years of confinement, she added it was “the hardest thing to walk out of those gates and leave my church behind.”

The church Dodd is referring to is Grace Place United Methodist Church, one of two United Methodist Churches located inside U.S. prisons.

The congregation began life at what is now called the Mark Luttrell Transition Center in Memphis, Tennessee, but relocated in August, 2016, when the Tennessee Department of Correction moved the medium-security women prisoners to a different facility 60 miles north in Fort Pillow, Tennessee.

The congregation's new prison, called the Women’s Therapeutic Residential Center at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary, currently houses more than 1,000 women (with that number expected to grow to 1,500) while 330 was the approximate number of women inmates at the Memphis prison.

Dodd was the keynote speaker at a Grace Place celebration that took place Saturday, Aug. 5, at Covington First United Methodist Church in Covington, Tennessee. More than 200 friends and supporters were in attendance.

“Journey of Grace” was the theme for the event that celebrated Grace Place’s ten years as a United Methodist Church and five years as a chartered United Methodist congregation.

Grace Place is pastored by Rev. Diane Harrison, who started the congregation in the face of many obstacles and setbacks, but has persevered and followed her congregation to its new location.

Dodd told the celebration crowd how "Pastor Diane" came into her life and “turned it upside down” by bringing her to Jesus Christ.

Even though she was physically in prison, Dodd said Grace Place and her new-found faith provided her another kind of “freedom” inside the walls of her prison home.

Dodd was baptized by Memphis Conference Bishop Bill McAlilly when he visited the prison in February, 2013. Click here to read story about McAlilly's visit.

Dodd said Grace Place became a place for her and other imprisoned women to go for worship, Bible study, exercise, craft classes and more. She called it her “home” and said, while choking with emotion, it “transformed” her life.

Dodd complimented the room full of Grace Place supporters she was addressing by calling them “life changers.”

Not only did Grace Place sustain Dodd while she was in prison, but it supported her after her release, first helping set her up in a halfway house and then an apartment in Nashville. Grace Place and its supporters also provided Dodd assorted material things she needed for her new life outside prison.

(Dodd works at a Nashville area restaurant where she has been employed for more than a year, according to Harrison. She has checking and savings accounts and is saving money to buy a car.)

One item Dodd talked about that she received as a gift last year on Oct. 27 was a Christmas tree. Elated to have her very own tree, she told how she promptly put it up and decorated it. Then she described how Halloween trick or treaters on Oct. 31 were slightly stunned to encounter a Christmas tree.

Dodd enjoyed their confusion. She said she plans to erect her Christmas tree on Oct. 27 every year as her own personal reminder of Christ’s love.

Dodd’s first news about her release from prison, she said, came as a “total shock.” She said she was “scared” and “felt” her “whole world was coming apart,” mostly because she knew she would be leaving her prison “sisters.”

“I never knew what lonely was until I had to leave them there,” she said. 

After 35 years in prison, the inmates were Dodd's only family, Harrison reminded.

Close to the time of her release, Dodd was transferred to the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville where she helped start Circle of Grace, a branch of Grace Place. Harrison calls Dodd a missionary.

When Harrison introduced Dodd as the keynote speaker for the celebration event, she told how Dodd served as the chair of the church’s “inside council,” helping initiate and organize a broad range of Christian mission and outreach projects – inside and outside the prison.

The list of ministries by the women of Grace Place is long, according to Harrison, who mentioned a recent $400 gift by the church to an officer at the prison who lost her home and all its contents in a fire.

The women wanted to help the officer with a financial contribution, explained Harrison.

Monies the women of Grace Place use for missions come from sales outside the prison of their many arts and crafts. Of the $5,400 raised at the celebration event, $1,000 came from merchandise sales. Click here to read more about how Grace Place uses its income to serve others beyond the walls of their prison.

During the invocation and blessing for the anniversary celebration event, Rev. Dr. Virginia Jones Finzel, a long-time Grace Place supporter and volunteer, described the church’s birth and growth “within the walls of a prison” as something that “couldn’t be done, but for God.”

A video message to the women of Grace Place that was recorded in early 2017 by Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, Missouri, was played during the celebration event.

Hamilton learned about Grace Place and that its members had read and studied more than one of his books. Grace Place also sent Hamilton’s church a gift -- a “crown of thorns” made by one of Grace Place’s members.

Hamilton talked about the crown in a 2016 Palm Sunday message to his congregation. Click here to read about the crown of thorns.  

In the video played at the celebration, Hamilton calls Grace Place a “profound witness” for “sharing Jesus Christ inside and outside the prison.” Click here and advance to 1:43 to view Hamilton's video message.

Justin Hanson, mayor of Covington and a member of Covington First United Methodist Church, served as emcee for the celebration event that, in addition to Dodd’s message, incorporated a heartfelt testimony and liturgical dance by Nadia Ballou, another former member of Grace Place now out of prison.

Ballou called Grace Place “vital” and told how its volunteers were and are “considerate” of the “dignity” of the women prisoners. She said they knew what she needed while she was in prison and when she left prison.

“I am a part of Grace Place,” she said.

Ballou received a standing ovation for her dance, as did Dodd after her message.

The Grace Place celebration also included time for honoring volunteers, remembering supporters who have recently died, and sharing by guests Mary Mortenson, executive director of Prison Congregations of Americaa (PCA), based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Rev. Margie Briggs, a certified lay minister to two churches in the Missouri Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Briggs is the author of a book that devotes a chapter to Grace Place. The book is titled, Can You Just Get Them Through Until Christmas?: The Turnaround Story of One Lay Minister and Two Small, Rural Churches.

Mortenson’s PCA organization, which serves 31 other worshipping prison congregations, has been a consistent and reliable resource of ideas and encouragement for Harrison.

“As long as there are prisoners,” said Mortenson, “our work will continue.”

Grace Place, she said, is “what a healthy prison congregation should look like. ... (It) has touched people on both sides of the razor wire."


Learn More about Grace Place United Methodist ChurchCLICK HERE to read about another book (released in 2016) with a whole chapter devoted to Grace Place United Methodist Church. Flipping Church is the title of the book. "Churches Go Into Prisons, They Aren't In Prisons," is the title of the chapter written by Rev. Diane Harrison.