Recently I was invited to a service at Grace Place, a small non-denominational fellowship that meets in the Athens Hampton Inn every Sunday at 11 am. In the last 40 plus years that I have been a believer, I have been a part of everything from a 3,500-member mega church, to a small inner city church, to bi-lingual churches in two countries, military chapels and Bible studies in Iraq, and home fellowships here in the South. Because God is big, there is always a “signature” to any of these different venues, and if people really want Him, He shows up wherever they are.
Grace Place is a “come as you are church,” but that doesn’t mean you won’t be challenged by bold preaching from the Word. It is one of those fellowships where the phrase, “God loves you just where you are, but too much to leave you there,” is the word of the day, as well as their compass.
Gene and Kathy Woodard are the shepherds of this growing flock, and will be quick to tell you that heading up a fellowship was not how they planned to spend their years as senior citizens. However, they have a story that will resonate with many, and that is what makes Grace Place so special. By all accounts, they were living the successful American Dream. At that time, they had two beautiful children and “lots of stuff,” as Gene says, but he was, by his own public admission, a captive to drugs, alcohol, and straight up selfishness. Their marriage was headed for disaster. But then God…
…and it was that intervention on the part of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and His Son, that proved to be a “Damascus road” experience that changed their lives about 30 years ago. Gene is very transparent when it comes to how awful he was prior to finding Christ, as well as the fact that he knows he would have driven his marriage to the divorce court. He pulls no punches, and he has no secrets. Without any apology, during the service he looked heavenward and said, “Thank you for saving my wretched soul.” He also will tell you that the good that came out of being such a wretch is that he has compassion for others who have been ensnared in the same trap. “I’ve been there and done that,” he said, “and it keeps me from having a ‘holier than thou’ attitude.” Also, the Woodards are now the blessed grandparents of seven beautiful grandchildren.
I spoke with Gene’s wife Kathy, and asked her, “If I were looking for a fellowship in the area, why should I come to Grace Place?” She thought for awhile, and said, “It’s the people. Everyone there is a disciple, a follower. Sometimes it takes a more intimate situation for people to the feel the presence of God. New Christians need individual attention, and they feel free to come and ask any question.” She also is very firm about the fact that she knows God called Gene to lead Grace Place. “I’ve been a Christian most of my life,” she says, “and I would never get between a person and God. I knew he, (that is, Gene,) could do it, no question.” I then asked her, “Do you think this is a true calling?” And with a firmness of conviction that simply cannot be faked, she replied, “Yes.”
So, I was an observer as well as a participant during the service, and several things touched me. The first was how this scrappy little band of believers was quick to fulfill the scripture that commands us to “bear one another’s burdens.” One family had been profoundly impacted by a recent fatal industrial accident, and one of the couple’s adult children had been there when it happened. While their emotions were understandably still raw, they had a testimony of what good had come out of the tragedy. People who had been away from the Lord had turned back to Him. And, it was the support from the folks at Grace Place that had been a huge strength to this family during such a rough time.
While prayer requests were being taken, I asked for prayer, as I was on my way to a funeral in another town where a client’s adult child had committed suicide. My prayer was for a way to minister in the most heartbreaking of all situations, and for comfort for the family, and that prayer was most definitely answered right there that afternoon.
We worshipped in song, using some songs that were contemporary, and some that were traditional hymns. As many times as I have heard and sung, “I Went Down To The River To Pray,” the recurring phrase, “Good Lord, show me the way,” was most definitely anointed to my heart. How we need to know the way in times like these!
I don’t think there is any other way for Gene to preach other than straight, and he did that without apology. His text was Acts 17:6, and the subject was idols. “Some are obvious,” he said, “and some are subtle. A huge one in our country is materialism, and when I was on my deathbed last year, let me tell you, the ‘stuff’ I have didn’t mean anything.” Then he added a good qualifier, “A dollar bill is neither good nor bad, it’s what you do with it.” He also said something that was a “good-type-of-ouch.” He illustrated the fact that for many of us, our biggest idol is ourselves by saying, “Your worst one is the one that is looking back at you from your mirror.”
I got a chance to talk to a few of the members, asking what had drawn them to Grace Place. One man said, “I like the people and the fellowship. It is ‘come as you are;’ we don’t label anybody, we are just a down home country church.”
Gene is assisted in caring for the flock by Jerry Woodruff, who was home sick the day I visited. We chatted over the phone, and he told me that his “favorite thing about Grace Place is the feeling you get of being loved.” Then he asked me, “When you visited, did anybody hug your neck?” “Oh, yes,” I said, “lots of folks.” He has ministered elsewhere, and is impressed by the fact that “the people are so honest, and loving. They are sincere in their beliefs, and their love for God.”
A woman told me she liked it because, “You are not judged by money, race, or what you wear.” Then she added, “We really like Brother Gene.” So, if you are looking for a small, but growing home-style fellowship, then Grace Place may be the place for you. And they aren’t kidding when they say it’s like a “weekly family reunion.”
Grace Place (held at the Hampton Inn in Athens)
1222 Kelli Drive, Athens, AL 35613
Time: Every Sunday, 11am
Phone: Gene Woodard 931-510-2306
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner