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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 for decades.

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 distance."

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 for justice.

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 involved."

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 justice community."

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 since 2003.

"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 newsdesk@umcom.org .

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."

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