In 2007, Rev. Diane Harrison began planting Grace Place United Methodist Church at what is now the Women’s Therapeutic Residential Center (WTRC) near Henning, Tennessee. Grace Place remains one of only two United Methodist congregations in the world located within a penitentiary.

A former teacher and nurse, Diane graduated from MTS in 1998 with her Master of Divinity and pastored for a while in more typical settings before embarking upon the opportunity to help start Grace Place, and she credits MTS with providing some crucial steps along the journey. One is when a fellow student at MTS spoke at her church about ministry in prisons. Others came about through her studies. She credits Dr. Paul Blankenship’s classes for getting her thinking about the wide invitation of the gospel and about those whom society–and the church–marginalize and overlook. Her single greatest influence, she says, was her classes on the New Testament with Dr. Mitzi Minor, and in particular the discussions about the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God when the last will be first and the first will be last (cf. Matthew 19:30). 

Having a prior connection to Diane and to Grace Place through my prior work in church missions, I knew I wanted to feature Diane in an alumni story at some point but I wasn’t sure if now would be the ideal time. After all, Grace Place involves the contributions of not only Diane but also a number of other people on the outside–none of whom have been allowed to access the prison since the pandemic began.

When I contacted Diane to see what she thought, she immediately invited me over (masks on) to see the ministry’s new, renovated office space located in Bartlett, Tennessee. This space (which feels more like a cozy cottage than an office) has housed Diane’s office and has provided a sort of showcase of this unique ministry for those on the outside since it opened in 2018.

As she showed me around and we settled in her office, Diane had plenty to say about the lives impacted through Grace Place over the past year–even in this time of pandemic. Indeed, while many ministries and outreach efforts elsewhere may be “on hold” to some degree until conditions improve, Grace Place has not ceased in providing a space for worship, community, forgiveness, redemption, and restoration for WTRC’s residents.

After all, anyone who hears Diane talk about her church will come away with an understanding that Grace Place is not a typical “prison ministry.” That is, it is not an effort by those on the outside to go in and preach at or minister to those on the inside; it is simply a congregation, albeit one in an uncommon setting. It is a church just like any other church, and as Diane says, “Church is not a person preaching a sermon–it’s a community to love and serve each other.”

Even apart from Diane’s physical presence (which she makes up for as best she can through letters), the members of Grace Place are still able to gather in person in ways that may not be feasible for most churches currently. They are still holding worship services for each other and maintaining their identity as the church in their part of the world.

So, instead of the pandemic being a time in which the church is on hold, the pandemic has been  revelatory of the special kind of community that Grace Place is, and of how the broader church might follow their example.
 Nathan Brasfield
Coordinator of Academic and Alumni Affairs