This terrible news found its way to us in an email this afternoon from Stacy Rector, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing (TCASK
Harmon Wray, a tireless crusader to end the death penalty, suffered a massive stroke yesterday and will be removed from life support this afternoon. Harmon was an organizing member of TCASK and has been relentless in his work to end the death penalty in our state.
Harmon was a champion for prison reform and upholding the dignity of those who are incarcerated. As a teacher and author, he educated countless numbers of people concerning the myriad problems with our current criminal justice system. As adjunct faculty of Vanderbilt Divinity School, Harmon created and coordinated a class at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, comprised of both Vanderbilt students and inmates. Harmon was also a founder of the Restorative Justice Coalition of Tennessee, seeking to transform the current criminal justice system from a system primarily focused on punishment to one which facilitates healing and restoration. Most recently, he authored, Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for our Failed Prison System.
I already miss his generosity of spirit and relentless devotion to social justice. (Photo by Karan Simpson.)
UPDATE: John Egerton has written a compelling obituary, which appears in its entirety after the jump.
Prisoner Advocate Harmon Wray Dies at 60
(by John Egerton)
Harmon L. Wray was about to graduate from Southwestern College in Memphis in April 1968 when, a short distance across town, an assassin's bullet took the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the lightning rod of the Civil Rights Movement.
Countless people around the world have been moved to lives of service by the martyrdom of Dr. King. Harmon Wray was one of them. When Mr. Wray died of a massive brain hemorrhage in a Nashville hospital Tuesday (July 24), he was in his 40th year of selfless commitment to a particular class of American outcasts: the more than three million men and women in the nation's prison population.
"He left campus to march with the sanitation workers in Memphis," recalled Mr. Wray's mother, Celeste Wray, "and he was in the audience when Dr. King made his last speech, the night before he was killed. No mother could want a better son than Harmon. He gave his life for others. I was intensely proud of him."
Mr. Wray was born in Memphis on Nov. 10, 1946, the only child of Celeste Hardy and her husband, Harmon Lee Wray. He graduated with honors from Southwestern (now Rhodes College) in 1968 and then earned a master's degree in religion from Duke University in 1970. During that time, he entered the process of ordination into the ministry of the United Methodist Church.
Though he pursued a doctorate in ethics at Vanderbilt Divinity School in the 1970s, Mr. Wray stopped short of completing his dissertation--a study of religious radicals in the 20th-century South--and chose to be an activist rather than a scholar. "I got what I came for," he told friends after he quit. "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."
It was during those years that Mr. Wray began working with two Nashville-based organizations, the Southern Prison Ministry and Tennesseans Against the Death Penalty, both of which had religious motivations but no church affiliation. He was employed from time to time at the state and national levels of the United Methodist Church to work with task forces on various social issues.
"Somewhere along in there," recalled Don Beisswenger, now retired from the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty, "Harmon decided not to seek ordination. It was an act of personal integrity for him, based on his understanding of the radical gospel of Jesus. He said he wanted to practice what Jesus preached, citing Luke 4:16-18, Chapter 8 of the Book of John and Matthew 25 as his marching orders."
In the 1990s, while teaching part-time as an adjunct professor at the divinity school, Mr. Wray developed a course called "Theology and Politics of Criminal Justice." Over time, he inspired others to explore the subject with him--members of the divinity school faculty, professors from elsewhere in Nashville, people from beyond the campuses.
It was Mr. Wray's inspiration to teach classes at Riverbend Prison in Nashville, the main correctional facility in Tennessee, with equal numbers of divinity school students and inmates taking part. He first got clearances to do that in 2003. In every academic term since then, he and some of his colleagues have taught there.
"Harmon gave much of lasting value to this institution and its population," said Riverbend warden Ricky Bell, "and he will be sadly missed." Tennessee Corrections Commissioner George Little said Mr. Wray "touched many lives at Riverbend, staff and prisoners alike. I greatly respected and valued his unique commitment, his passion and compassion. He was a bridge between the inside and the outside, and what he started will not die with him."
Three of Mr. Wray's colleagues--social worker Judy Parks, Lipscomb University historian Richard Goode, and Janet Wolf, a United Methodist minister who also teaches at American Baptist College in Nashville--met late Tuesday at Riverbend with more than a dozen inmates to give them the news of Mr. Wray's death. These were some of the prisoners' reactions:
"He donated a piece of himself to us, and he will be with us always . . . More than a teacher, advocate, friend, he was family, and this is like a death in the family . . . He took upon himself the hardness of prison, and became one with us . . . We're searching for meaning and purpose in our lives, and he gave us a model. He had found his . . . He told us, 'You are my church.'"
A memorial service for Mr. Wray, who donated his organs for transplant, will be Saturday at 10 a.m. in the sanctuary of Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, with former Tennessee Bishop Kenneth Carder and several Nashville UMC ministers presiding. There will be a visitation for family and friends the previous evening from 6 to 8 p.m. at Edgehill UMC, 15th and Edgehill Avenues.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be sent to Edgehill UMC, Box 128258, Nashville 37212, designated to a fund for the continuation of Mr. Wray's work.
Mr. Wray was married for a few years in the early 1970s, but the love of his life was Judy Parks, a career social worker (now retired). Janet Wolf knew them as a couple for more than 30 years. "Harmon had three great loves in his life," she said. "Jesus, Judy, and justice."