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Featured: She planted a church ... inside a women’s prison

The Rev. Diane Harrison (seated) and two of her parishioners display handmade items members of Grace Place United Methodist Church make and sell to raise money for mission – and a tithe to the Memphis Conference.

Photo courtesy of Diane Harrison

The Rev. Diane Harrison (seated) and two of her parishioners display handmade items members of Grace Place United Methodist Church make and sell to raise money for mission – and a tithe to the Memphis Conference.

Photo by Lane Gardner Camp

Nashville Area Bishop William T. McAlilly baptizes an inmate during the same service in which Grace Place was chartered as a United Methodist church.

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She planted a church ... inside a women’s prison

The Rev. Diane Harrison is a church planter. But hers is no ordinary church.

Harrison, who grew up in St. Stephen United Methodist Church, Memphis, Tenn., is the founding pastor of Grace Place United Methodist Church — located inside the Mark Luttrell Correctional Center (state prison for women) in Memphis.

She is in her eighth year at Grace Place, which was officially chartered as a United Methodist church in 2012.

Along with weekly worship with Holy Communion at every service, Grace Place has a bevy of small groups that gather for Bible study, book clubs, choir, crocheting and exercise classes. The church council, composed of Grace Place members and Harrison, meets weekly, and an outside council supports their work.

Acceptance and open Communion are new experiences for many Grace Place worshippers.

"Many women who come to Grace Place have never felt welcome to come to the (Communion) table," Harrison explains. "When the church speaks in prison, it is often words of condemnation."

The biggest struggles for Harrison's congregation are finding "ways to be the church in a prison, to build community in a place that often works against that, to build a community where trust is difficult and literally risky, and to do outreach mission/ministry when you have no money."

Harrison is understandably proud of her congregants. Her passion is empowering women to reach out beyond the prison walls.

"You would be astounded at what our women are doing," she says. "The members of my congregation are talented." The women raise money for mission by selling handmade items and recently published a cookbook, A Taste of Grace Place."

Because of their generosity in 2013, a Costa Rican family received a year's supply of rice and beans ($144), and someone in the Dominican Republic gained the gift of mobility through Personal Energy Transportation ($250). The women also sent money to help build a home for a United Methodist bishop in the Congo ($250), furnished dry goods for five Thanksgiving baskets in Memphis and contributed to Operation Smile ($240).

Although Grace Place receives no financial support from the Memphis Conference, the women "send 10 percent of their profits to the conference as an apportionment," Harrison says.

Harrison would love to see The United Methodist Church responding in faith to the needs of all of God's children.

"We often fail to respond to the needs of those [who are] right under our noses," she asserts.

"I hope the church will be brave and courageous and regain her reputation as an advocate for social justice and allow all people equal access to the church in all capacities."

Harrison is eager for others to become involved.

"As a member of the prison community," she says, "I interact with other agencies and churches and am involved in helping churches from other denominations explore ways they can become engaged in prison ministry."

Barbara Dunlap-Berg is associate editor of Interpreter and general church content editor for United Methodist Communications.

Barbara Dunlap-Berg