At Heart Of Discrimination Case, Priest Takes Fight To Police
By DENISE BUFFA
The Hartford Courant
7:43 PM EST, January 21, 2012
The Rev. James Manship may never be canonized a saint, but some say he's certainly earned the wings of an angel.
The self-proclaimed "French-Canadian, kind of Yankee Catholic" pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in New Haven has stuck his collar out more than once for his overwhelmingly Latino congregation, which includes many undocumented immigrants.
The 48-year-old, who was working as a mechanical engineer when he sensed a calling to the priesthood in his late 20s, has pushed for government-issued ID cards to enable the undocumented to get library cards, driver's licenses and auto insurance.
Manship also has been instrumental in helping churches, temples and mosques join together to fight for social and economic justice in the newly formed non-partisan, interfaith group called CONECT -- Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut.
But perhaps most noteworthy is the fact that Manship heeded the complaints of parishioners who lamented about how they were being treated by East Haven police. Armed with a video camera, the priest filmed a 2009 interaction between cops and minority store owners -- a recording that led to a probe by theU.S. Justice Department, which found last month that the East Haven Police Department had shown a pattern of discrimination, particularly against Latinos. Results of a related federal grand jury investigation are expected soon.
Manship is inarguably courageous.
"I think he is a very courageous man who has responded to oppression and injustice all around him in, I think, conscientious and peaceful ways when others, for years, looked the other way," said Michael Wishnie, director of the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School who represented St. Rose in its call for the DOJ probe and who is helping to represent Manship and other plaintiffs in a pending federal civil rights action against the EHPD.
Not bad for a "gringo," which Manship has been known to jokingly call himself.
"He's especially insightful for a so-called outsider," said Angel Fernandez-Chavero, a member of the St. Rose parish council who said his "claim to fame" is having signed the complaint to the DOJ against the EHPD.
"You know he's not Latino..." Fernandez-Chavero added. "To literally identify himself with the challenges that his parishioners suffer is terrific. It's amazing."
Many more sing Manship's praises.
"In his priestly service to the Archdiocese of Hartford over the past thirteen years, Fr. James Manship has demonstrated his relentless commitment toward helping the economically down trodden, those who are racially discriminated against, and others who strive to achieve an education to better themselves," Hartford Archbishop Henry J. Mansell said in a statement to the Courant.
"It takes courage to fight for the justice of others, and I commend him for his dedication and compassion. I know that the people whom he serves are grateful for his involvement and pray that they will continue to benefit from the goodness in his heart."
Still, Manship -- who was arrested during the videotaping incident and locked up, but then freed and vindicated -- is not too quick to don a halo.
"As a pastor of St. Rose, I did what I had to do," he said, adding, "It comes back to the biblical mandate: Don't oppress the stranger, the alien among you."
Manship insists he's not a social activist, he's simply a parish priest.
"The glue that holds us together is the relationships that we have, that we made a commitment to be, and to know one another by name and by story..." he said.
Manship gives much of the credit for the Department of Justice findings to St. Rose parishioners -- who he said bravely and brilliantly articulated to federal investigators their plight with police.
"I think it was a vindication of the many people who told their stories about what had happened to them at the hands of the East Haven Police Department, that we submitted ourselves to an outside authoritiy, to the federal government, to be able to find the truth.
"So these allegations now have been verified by the DOJ civil rights investigation and hopefully will lead to some substantial change in the policy, procedures, practices, supervision of the East Haven Police Department -- and hopefully serve as a blueprint for other departments that find themselves in similar situations."
Manship is right to credit the congregation, according to Pat Speer, a CONECT organizer. When he became pastor, Manship inherited parishioners who had a history of driving out drug dealers and pounding out prostitution, Speer said. But Manship elevated the engagement, Speer added.
""There's a culture in St. Rose of Lima of engagement, that if you're a Christian, your Christian faith calls you to be a disciple in the public square," Speer said. "I would say he inherited some of that -- and he built a lot more than he inherited at St. Rose."
While a savior to some, Manship seems to be nothing more than a thorn in the side to others.
East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr.'s voice rose a few octaves when asked what he thought of the pastor.
"I have no comment on the priest," Maturo said. "I don't know the man."
"He's suing the town of East Haven. Because of the lawsuit, I have no further comment to make," the mayor added, finally barking, "Don't ask me another question."
The federal probe is far from over. A grand jury is considering lodging criminal charges against several East Haven police officers. East Haven Police Chief Leonard Gallo could not be reached for comment.
Manship -- a man of the faith, but also of the flesh -- admits it's a potentially perilous pilgrimage.
"It does cross my mind," he said, "but I can't let fear paralyze me."
"I'd lie if I said, 'No,' " the pastor added. "But there are just so many good people here at the parish. I think that really sustains me."
Manship's fears are justified based on the history of some members of the East Haven Police Department using excessive force, including Tasering and pepper-spraying individuals, Wishnie charged. He said the pressure was directed at Manship in a different way when the priest acted on behalf of his parishioners.
"He spoke up for his congregation and his community in the face of sometimes brutal intimidation, I think in the best tradition of the church," Wishnie said. "He was falsely arrested, for instance, handcuffed, physically detained."
So, where does Manship get his courage?
"It's not from me," the pastor said. "It comes from our faith, our relationship with the Lord, to stand with Jesus, not just Jesus in heaven, but that Christ that's in my brothers and sisters."
And he has a special way of shaking off stress. Manship is a faithful kayaker -- in a sense, baptizing himself into a new space by spinning in and out of the sound.
"He's a crazy kayaker," said David Carter, a member of New Haven's Church of the Redeemer, United Church of Christ, and once co-chair of Elm City Congregations Organized, a group that grew into CONECT. "His idea of a good time is putting on a wet suit and going out in January in the water in Madison and doing Eskimo rolls."
Manship was reared in East Hartford, a suburban community. Always active in the church, he says he was called to the priesthood in his 20s, but it wasn't like he got a visit from the Archangel Gabriel or anything like that.
"You just kind of feel that this is where God wants you to go," he said. "Not all the answers are going to be given. You're not going to have clear answers. But I think there is a trust that you can step into.
"And I didn't go easy. I went kicking and screaming. But there was a trust."
Manship recalls some influential people in his life, including the late Rev. Thomas Goekler, who he met in seminary.
"He kind of challenged us, challenged me," Manship recalled, "You know, 'Are you going to serve people that look like you or are you going to be open to the whole church?' and that really stuck with me. Anyone who knows Father Tom, anyone who knows Father Tom Goekler, if he liked you, he was very agitational, he would always get under your skin and challenge you to be a better follower of Christ."
As a seminarian, Manship spent a summer with a parish in Puerto Rico, the Church of the Good Shepherd. There, he immersed himself in the Spanish language. When he returned, Manship continued his on-the-job training in the language.
"It's a very different expression than what I was accustomed to," he said, "and rather than being something that was strange, it was different.
"It just opened up the door for me all the more because it opened up people. You go to see and understand life from a whole different perspective by listening to the folks."
Manship, who says Mass in Spanish to more than 1,000 worshipers weekly, freely admits his Spanish isn't perfect.
"He speaks Spanish, but he'll be the first to acknowledge that he struggles with pronunciation," Fernandez-Chavero said. "He'll say, 'What do you want from your gringo priest?' He can be very funny that way."
At 6-foot-3, Manship also jokes about how he towers over much of his flock. But that's only physically.
"Some think of him as our 'big white hope,' but he's not," Fernandez-Chavero added. "He certainly is our hope. But I wouldn't distinguish it in terms of race."
Rather than simply lead, Manship teaches his parishioners to rise to the occasion.
There's an "Iron Rule" at CONECT that, Speer says, Manship follows: "Never ever do for someone what they're able to do for themselves. Teach them."
Carter calls it experiential teaching.
"His work at St. Rose or his call at St. Rose, I think it's a call for him, he doesn't see his parishioners as people in need of help, he sees them as people yearning to take charge of their lives, and he nurtures that quality in people in a very effective way," Carter said. "It's part teaching, part just challenging them to discover their own capabilities."
"It's not about him," Fernandez-Chavero said. "Yes, he has a passion about it, but he is under no delusions that he can do it alone."
"God forbid he gets hit by a bus," Fernandez-Chavero added, "others have to carry on."