When Hugh Hammond walked out of Mecklenburg County Jail-North last week, he was exhilarated, though not because he had been freed from a jail sentence.
For Hammond, the jail is a place where, at age 54, he hopes to begin a term as a full-time community minister working with inmates. That means leaving behind a longtime career as an engineer in the nuclear power industry.
Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church in Charlotte will celebrate his ordination as a minister June 12. In the UU church, ordination is the responsibility and privilege of individual churches.
Hammond has been a member of PUUC since 1992, and he describes ordination there as an "expression of the congregation."
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"I really want to honor that," he said. "I am a product of those I've learned and grown with."
The congregation voted unanimously to ordain him. "I don't think it surprised any of us when he decided to go into the ministry," said PUUC church leader Robin Mara, a longtime friend of Hammond and his family, which includes his wife, Cindy, and sons Nathan, 26, and Devin, 23. "He is a deeply spiritual, very honest person."
Hammond felt the first yearnings to go to seminary in his 20s. He grew up in Clemson, S.C., in a moderate Baptist church. In college, his beliefs leaned more toward Christian fundamentalism before he began questioning to a point where he didn't really believe anything.
Later, he found a place in the UU church, which encourages finding spiritual meaning in personal experience rather than a set of beliefs.
There, he says, he no longer had to figure out what doctrine he believed. He learned that "living from the heart is complete and real."
Hammond got involved in the church's religious education for children program, but he found that he wanted more than the church's adult education classes offered.
In early 2001, he enrolled in Meadville-Lombard Theological School, a UU seminary in Chicago. "I just wanted to go deeper," he said. The calling to full-time community ministry came later.
Hammond stretched out his coursework over almost a decade, which allowed him to stay in Charlotte and continue working as an engineer.
He graduated in May 2010 with a Master of Divinity degree.
During seminary, a required weekend seminar on nonviolent communication struck a chord with Hammond, who said he's always felt a sensitivity to those who were misunderstood or rejected. NVC aims to resolve conflict by helping people work through miscommunication and arrive at a place of empathy and mutual understanding.
"It focuses on relationships rather than fixing people and causes," said Hammond. He now plans to teach NVC methods in local prisons.
Mara said that Hammond has long urged adults and children at church to get involved in the community. She remembers him taking PUUC middle-schoolers to different congregations, including visiting an Islamic center before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, so they could learn about other people's beliefs.
He accompanied the youths to a local government meeting to speak out for human rights, and he took his family on an overseas mission trip and used a Sunday church service to share their experience. He organized a regular Wednesday night church potluck and invited speakers to talk about ways to get involved in the community.
"He motivates other people to act on their beliefs and to watch out for others, for their neighbors," said Mara. "He has ministered to us long before he became an official minister."
Hammond begins NVC classes at Mecklenburg County Jail-North this month, and he will remain rooted in the PUUC congregation.
He hopes his work will help people stop focusing on their differences, the "us vs. them" mentality toward people in prison.
"Ministry for me is to recognize the divine everywhere it shows up," he said, "to recognize the beauty of the people I'm serving, wherever they are."