Harmon L. Wray, a man who while working on a doctorate at Vanderbilt Divinity School after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. suddenly chose to be an activist rather than a scholar, died Tuesday in a Nashville hospital.
Wray, 60, was in his 40th year of commitment to American outcasts —the 3 million men and women in U.S. prisons — when he was felled by a massive brain hemorrhage.
In his hometown of Memphis, Wray was set to graduate from Southwestern College in April 1968 when just a short distance across town, an assassin’s bullet took the life of the Rev. King. Countless people around the world were moved to lives of service after King’s death and Wray was one of them.
“No mother could want a better son than Harmon,” said Celeste Wray. “He gave his life for others. I was intensely proud of him.”
Wray 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.
Although he pursued a doctorate in ethics at Vanderbilt Divinity School in the 1970s, 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 left. “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 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.
Wray 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.”
Wray also was inspired to teach classes at Riverbend Prison in Nashville, beginning in 2003 with equal numbers of divinity school students and inmates taking part.
A memorial service is planned for 10 a.m. Saturday in the sanctuary of Belmont United Methodist Church, Nashville, with former Tennessee Bishop Kenneth Carder and several Nashville UMC ministers presiding.
There will be a visitation for family and friends from 6-8 p.m. on Friday at the church, 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 Wray’s work.
Wray was married briefly in the early 1970s, but the love of his life was Judy Parks, a career social worker (now retired).
“Harmon had three great loves in his life — Jesus, Judy, and justice, ” said friend Janet Wolf, who’s known Wray for more than 30 years.