|Restorative justice advocate Harmon Wray dies|
Restorative justice advocate Harmon Wray created a teaching
project at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Nashville, Tenn.,
bringing together inmates and
students at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Wray died July 24 of a brain hemorrhage.
A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.
By Marta W. Aldrich*
July 30, 2007 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)
Harmon Wray believed that some of the most profound theology shared in the world today takes place within the walls of prison.
So when the lifelong criminal justice advocate died suddenly on July
24, his closest friends and colleagues found it only natural to head to
Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville to share their loss
with Wray's "family" -- the inmates he has ministered to for years, some
The Rev. Janet Wolf, a United Methodist clergywoman who worked with
Wray in prison ministry for 35 years, was among those who went.
"It was an extraordinary thing," she said of the hour-long meeting
with prisoners. "We shared our grief like a family. Everybody was
crying, which is not a common event inside prison."
A United Methodist who dedicated his life to advocating for
restorative justice, crusading against the death penalty and fighting
for prison reform, Wray died at age 60 of a massive brain hemorrhage.
Bishop Kenneth Carder, who served the Nashville area until his
retirement in 2000, remembered Wray as the embodiment of Matthew 25, in
which Christ comes for those who care for "the least of these,"
including those in prison.
"One of the greatest tragedies of his death is that one of the
nation's most articulate, courageous voices on behalf of the vulnerable,
the marginalized, the pushed aside, has been silenced," Carder told
United Methodist News Service. "Harmon was a genuine friend to those
whom society, including the church, too often keeps at an arm's
Inspired to service
Born in Memphis, Tenn., Wray was a student at the former Southwestern
College in Memphis in April 1968 when he heard the Rev. Martin Luther
King Jr. deliver his final speech before he was assassinated. Wray
marched with striking sanitation workers in Memphis and remained
committed throughout his lifetime to nonviolent resistance to advocate
He graduated from Southwestern in 1968 and earned a master's of
divinity from Duke University in 1970. Wray pursued a doctorate in
ethics at Vanderbilt Divinity School in the 1970s but stopped short of
completing his dissertation. "I got what I came for," he told friends
after quitting, according to a profile of Wray by friend and writer John
Egerton. "I got the experience, the knowledge, the personal
associations. The only thing I left behind was the degree itself, and it
meant nothing to me -- and even less to the people I wanted to serve."
“For many of us, Harmon became a conscience that called the church beyond its own preoccupation with itself to a living faith.”
–Bishop Kenneth Carder
Wray was employed from time to time at the regional and
denominational levels of The United Methodist Church to work with task
forces on various social issues, especially restorative justice. He
served as executive director of Restorative Justice Ministries from 1999
through 2001 for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, and
his book Restorative Justice: Moving Beyond Punishment was used
as a resource for the board's 2002-2003 mission study. He worked with
various organizations in Tennessee, including the Southern Prison
Ministry, and helped to create Tennesseans Against the Death Penalty.
In 2003, he received a lifetime achievement award from the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
"If we're serious about our responsibility to the church," Wray said in a 2004 interview with Interpreter
magazine, "we must take a restorative approach to help victims and
offenders instead of a revenge approach that most always hurts everyone
Carder called Wray's work in the restorative justice movement a gift to society and the church.
"One of the things he emphasized was that the criminal justice system
today virtually pushes aside the victims as surely as it does
perpetrators," Carder said. "Crimes are treated as crimes against the
state instead of crimes against persons. He called for restoration of
the community through alternatives to just locking people away."
Tom Porter, executive director of JUSTPEACE, a United Methodist
center for addressing conflict in constructive ways, said: "Harmon
struck me as a person who truly understood the Jesus Way and lived it. …
He will be sorely missed, particularly by those in the restorative
Inside prison walls
Serving as an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Wray
and several associates developed a course that took Vanderbilt students
inside the Riverbend prison to learn alongside inmates about "Theology
and Politics of Crime and Justice in America." The course has continued
"Issues of theology -- even how you hear the Bible -- are
dramatically altered when sitting inside locked prison gates every day,"
said Wolf. "We kept thinking what a difference it would make if people
from the outside could come inside the prisons to talk -- instead of
learning about it on the outside.
"Part of our mission was to redefine prison ministry from the inside
out. Instead of church folks thinking that somehow we have God and we're
taking God inside the prison, this ministry acknowledges that God has
been there all along."
When he died, Wray was in the process of expanding the classroom model to other seminaries, including Duke Divinity School.
At a July 28 memorial service at Belmont United Methodist Church in
Nashville, a rose was placed on the altar at the request of Tennessee
Death Row inmate William Groseclose, whom Wray visited over the last 20
years and who now is incarcerated at West Tennessee State Penitentiary.
Carder, who eulogized Wray, said the rose stood for "all of those unable
to be present for his funeral because of their imprisonment."
Another memorial service was planned for the evening of July 30 at
the Riverbend prison, where Vanderbilt students and Riverbend inmates
enrolled in Wray's class were to gather for the last session of the
summer. Friends said it was a fitting way to say goodbye.
"Harmon's loyalty transcended commitment to the institutional church
and its processes," said Carder. "While he participated faithfully in
the congregation of Edgehill United Methodist Church and worked with the
structures of the Board of Global Ministries and the Tennessee
Conference, his ultimate commitment was to the kingdom of God and the
reign of justice, generosity and compassion.
"He often challenged the institutions of the church. For many of us,
Harmon became a conscience that called the church beyond its own
preoccupation with itself to a living faith."
*Aldrich is news editor of United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com .
2002 Video Interview with Harmon Wray
"I think the term pacifism is misleading."
"Massive non-violent resistance ends up costing fewer lives."
"Americans are engaged in idolatry of…violence."
Death penalty opponent Wray dies
Harmon Wray: Fights the Death Penalty
Longtime death penalty opponent optimistic about change
The death penalty - what would Jesus do?
Church workers tackle strategies for fighting drug abuse, violence
Board urged to tackle justice issues; seeks change in death sentences
Death Penalty: Related Articles
Civil Rights: Related Articles
Criminal Justice and Restorative Justice
Vanderbilt Divinity School
Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killings
Board of Global Ministries