Death penalty foe Harmon Wray dead at 60

Harmon L. Wray, an instructor at Vanderbilt Divinity School and a longtime anti-death penalty activist and proponent of restorative justice, died Tuesday at Saint Thomas Hospital, a day after suffering a brain hemorrhage. He was 60.

“Harmon Wray was a gifted teacher whose clear-eyed analysis of criminal and restorative justice issues inspired several generations of students, prisoners and faculty – myself included,” said James Hudnut-Beumler, the Anne Potter Wilson Distinguished Professor of American Religious History and dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School. “Harmon believed that the mark of a society’s compassion was how well it treated the incarcerated and the victims of crime. Harmon lived that belief every day and helped us live it too by his teaching and example.”

Wray, a lecturer in church and ministries at Vanderbilt, helped devise a program that places Vanderbilt students and inmates at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution together in classes at Riverbend.

“Harmon spoke eloquently of human sin and of our tendency to condemn others rather than recognize our own shortcomings,” said Amy-Jill Levine, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School. “He found in scripture a combination of compassion, challenge, humor and a profound sense of social justice.”

Wray was a graduate of Rhodes College in Memphis and earned master’s degrees in divinity (Duke University Divinity School) and religion (Vanderbilt Divinity School). He was active in the Nashville and Tennessee community for decades including volunteer work for the Nashville Justice Network, Penuel Ridge Retreat Center, Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing, Restorative Justice Coalition of Tennessee, Coalition for the Defense of Battered Women, Tennesseans for Handgun Control, Tennessee Hunger Coalition and Dismas House of Nashville. A member of Edgehill United Methodist Church since 1971, Wray worked in United Methodist posts as the executive director of restorative justice ministries (1999-2001) and coordinator for ministries with the poor and marginalized (1995-98).

Wray lectured, preached and led workshops on criminal and restorative justice, economic justice and Southern religion and society throughout his career. He was the author of Restorative Justice: Moving Beyond Punishment and co-author with Laura Magnani of Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Justice System.

“He lived his convictions, embracing a life of near poverty to serve God and care for the oppressed,” said Vanderbilt Divinity School student Patricia Lynn Myrick.

George Little, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Corrections, said 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.”

The funeral will be 10 a.m. Saturday at Belmont United Methodist Church. Visitation will be Friday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Edgehill United Methodist Church. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Edgehill United Methodist Church, P.O. Box 128258, Nashville, TN, 37212.

Survivors include longtime partner Judy Parks, of Nashville, and mother Celeste Wray, of Memphis.

Media Contact: Jim Patterson, (615) 322-NEWS