Reporter’s Notebook: Conn. Priest Shows How to Earn the Trust of an Immigrant Community

FI2W reporter Aswini Anburajan produced a radio piece for NPR’s Latino USA on Father James Manship, a Roman Catholic priest in New Haven, Conn., who teaches his immigrant parishioners how to stand up for their civil rights, and who has been in the news in the past for being arrested in a confrontation with local police officers. Here, Aswini narrates how she managed to produce the piece, which aired on Latino USA and which you can listen to below.

[audio:http://latinousa.kut.org/wp-content/lusaaudio/856seg01.mp3]
By Aswini Anburajan, FI2W contributor

If you think that ethnic reporting isn’t critical to knowing a community, read on. This is the first piece I’ve done for Feet in 2 Worlds that hasn’t been on Indian Americans. The basis of FI2W is to get reporters to write about their own communities, but even I didn’t realize why this is so important until I delved into a project for Latino USA.

My piece was originally supposed to be on the economic life of a day laborer or someone new to the country, undocumented and trying to establish a life in the U.S. That piece remains undone. Being an Indian American with some high school Spanish under my belt, I thought it would be a cake walk. Call some social service agencies, reach out to immigrant coalitions, and I could “break in.”

Manship in 2008 visited with family and friends of his Connecticut parishioners, in the province of Morena Santiago, in the rainforest regions of Ecuador. (Photo: Courtesy J. Manship)

Manship in 2008 visited with family and friends of his Connecticut parishioners, in the province of Morena Santiago, in the rainforest regions of Ecuador. (Photo: Courtesy J. Manship - Click for more images)

Four months later, I had to think again. Without truly knowing a community, or having cultural or language associations with them, I found it impossible to get through and talk to individuals who were undocumented. It wasn’t that every door I knock on was slammed in my face. Most of the time, people pretended they weren’t home. This ranged from individuals I knew with ties to the Latino community to social service agencies.

I was reminded of the New York Times reporter, Andrea Elliottt, who had joked about her 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning series on “An Imam in America” that she was on the, “No-one-will-talk-to-me beat.”

As an outsider, building trust in a community is difficult, and this is why the story of Father James Manship is so remarkable. Raised in a comfortable middle class family, he has the trust of individuals who live in fear, on the margins of society because of their immigration status and unfamiliarity with the new country they live in.

I met Father Manship because I was desperate for a lead for my story on the economic lives of new immigrants. I pleaded with him on the phone that I needed a break, and he took pity on me. I went to St. Rose of Lima Church in early February, and received stares of bewilderment from the congregants as I held my microphone in the air to capture the sound of their singing. Towards the end of the service, someone came and whispered in my ear. The Father was going to introduce me. I went up to the front and stood nervously behind the towering six foot priest, who spoke in Spanish that I half understood. He basically said, “This girl’s okay. Talk to her.”

At the end of the mass, eight people crowded into a room at the parish house to tell me about their lives. They were undocumented, struggling, and their stories where painful to hear. But what I took with me as I left the interview two hours later was that the common bond holding them together was the St. Rose Church and Father Manship.

In Tetlanohcan, in the state of Tlaxcala, Mexico, in 2009, the mayor presented Manship with the key to the town. (Photo: Courtesy J. Manship)

In Tetlanohcan, in the state of Tlaxcala, Mexico, in 2009, the mayor presented Manship with the key to the town. (Photo: Courtesy J. Manship)

We changed our story to write about the man who had become a figure of respect, trust, and activism for a community that felt hidden, ostracized and powerless.

As a reporter, I could relate to Father Manship learning to navigate the differences between himself and his congregants, and admire the trust they placed in him. The events that unfolded with Father Manship after we did our story reaffirmed for me that I’d picked the right story. And like a good reporter, I had built trust within this community and with the subject, which allowed me to go in-depth in a way that many news outlets that covered the events at St. Rose this past winter and spring could not.

3 comments

  1. Pingback: :: Latino USA

  2. John Crawford

    Fr Manship is a remarkable man who stands up for what he believes in. We need more people like him working within the church.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *