On a windy day in February 2021, Michael joined the friends, family, and church members of Marjorie Coe at an outdoor memorial service.
Just eight days earlier, Michael had completed his prison term and a mandatory two-week pandemic quarantine period. He had served 28 years behind bars.
"It was truly meaningful for me to have the huge privilege of attending her memorial service and meeting her family and to say thank you," Michael recalls. "I was joined by my family, as they were visiting, and it was moving for them to see how my church family was embracing me, having just stepped out of prison."
'HUNGRY FOR GOD'
Michael and "Marji" had met at the Soledad State Prison in Salinas County, California, through the TUMI program.
TUMI—The Urban Ministry Institute—is an intensive biblical studies course offered by Prison Fellowship® in conjunction with World Impact. It teaches and equips prisoners to become Christian leaders in prisons and in the urban communities to which many of them return.
A passionate follower of Christ, Marji had been happily leading Bible studies, preaching, and serving at women's retreats before becoming an in-prison TUMI volunteer. When her pastors suggested she get involved with the program, she gave it a try. And loved it.
"[Marji] came back home, and she just couldn't stop talking about that," remembers Conway, Marji’s husband of 40 years. "She said, 'Those people are just so hungry for God. So hungry, and they want to know more,' and she couldn't wait to go back."
In fact, Marji went twice a week, facilitating classes, grading participants' papers, and sharing her love of Jesus. Her pastor, John Bosic, shared drives to Soledad and Marji’s TUMI work there. At the memorial, he recalled her "incredible ability to teach God’s Word" and spread its hope.
She served as a TUMI instructor at Soledad from 2014 to 2018.
"You could be around Marji for a grand total of two seconds, and you could be filled with hope," Pastor John said. "When we arrived at the prison, the 'men in blue' as we called them, would be impacted by Jesus Christ and the incredible hope that He has for them and in them."
'You could be around Marji for a grand total of two seconds, and you could be filled with hope.'
– Pastor John Bosic
CHICKENS AND BEES: A MINISTRY OF HOPE
A lover of nature, Marji was known to bask in the sunsets she witnessed from her home in California's Prunedale hills. She had a special affinity for her dogs, cats, horses—and chickens.
"I remember her as 'the chicken lady,'" says Michael, whose undergraduate coursework in agricultural science led him to dream of keeping bees and raising chickens as a returning citizen.
"Marji and I had many discussions about her chickens and my bees," he says, noting he holds a degree in economics. "I thought she might give me some insight into the egg business, and instead I learned that her egg venture was really a ministry outreach project for her. Of course, that got me thinking about bees and ministry opportunities."
Marji stopped volunteering following her cancer diagnosis in July 2018. But the impact of her teaching and influence continued, as Michael and many of her TUMI students can attest.
On Good Friday 2021, Michael and two other formerly incarcerated men launched New Hope Honey Makers with 12 honeybee colonies. And he says they plan to add chickens to their venture, which they hope will provide jobs for returning citizens like themselves.
"New Hope Honey Makers is all about the hope we have as men stepping out of prison," he explains, "the bigger hope we all have in Jesus, and sharing that same hope with the world around us."
Michael credits TUMI and Marji for New Hope. "Simply put, this opportunity would have not been possible for me without my TUMI experience, and Marji had a definite impact on what I am currently doing."
Conway met Michael for the first time at the memorial service. "I was so glad [Michael] came, and he says, 'Oh, you don't know how much Marji meant to me.'"
'Oh, you don't know how much Marji meant to me.'
During Marji's memorial service, the chaplain from the Soledad facility gave Conway letters from TUMI participants acknowledging Marji's legacy in their lives.
"Many of us got to know Marji through her ministry visits as a Prison Fellowship volunteer. She was an important part of that wonderful team," one TUMI participant wrote in a letter to Conway.
The prisoner added:
When I learned of her passing, my heart quickly saddened. I wanted to ask, How could God let this happen? Difficult moments do that.
Then I thought, What would Marji say? She would remind us that if we are trusting in Christ, then we never need to ask why … that God may or may not reveal His answers. And finally, … that He never makes mistakes.
Yes, godly wisdom. And sometimes motherly wisdom. Often, it was hard to tell the difference. She was just like that.
'[Marji] would remind us that if we are trusting in Christ, then we never need to ask why … He never makes mistakes.'
– TUMI Student
'IT WAS OBVIOUS SHE LOVED THE LORD'
The letters were a sweet reminder of Marji's dedication to the ministry she shared through TUMI. So many prisoners wrote to express their love and appreciation for Marji—even though years had passed since she had served.
Another TUMI student wrote,
We greatly appreciate anyone from the outside world who volunteers their precious time from their lives and loved ones to serve us in prison. Sister Marji did more than that for us. While volunteers come and go with a brief period, Sister Marji was the constant and faithful servant of our Lord we could rely on to always show up for classes and events.
[Sister Marji] treated us with love and dignity like we were family. She was a force of energy no one could miss or ignore. She was strong, assertive, and made sure we heard her loud and clear when necessary.
[Sister Marji] was supremely kind, generous, and understanding. … a wonderful teacher who shared her biblical knowledge from lived experience. She regaled us with stories of her fond animals. Her wonderful sense of humor and happy disposition made her a joy to be around. Her infectious smile and laughter brightened our world.
To say we missed her warmth, vibrant energy, and presence would be an understatement. It was obvious she loved the Lord, her fellow humans, and the life she was blessed with.
'It was obvious she loved the Lord, her fellow humans, and the life she was blessed with.'
– TUMI Student
THE ETERNAL HOPE
Conway found his own solace in a letter from Marji herself. Written before their marriage, her words reveal the hope she always lived by.
In one of the letters … she says, 'If this is not God's will, you will be out of my life. I will be sad, I'll be lost. But you are not the center of my life. Christ is. And I took that, I said, 'That is right. Marji is not the center of my life even though she was so important to me. God should be the most important.' And so when that idea finally sunk in, I was able to move forward—and with the gratitude that God gave her to me. He shared Marji with me for the last 40 years. All I could say was, 'Thank you, Lord.'
'If this is not God's will, you will be out of my life. I will be sad, I'll be lost. But you are not the center of my life. Christ is.'
– Marjorie Coe