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An Austin civil rights attorney turned Episcopal priest reflects on his journey from law to the clergy

Harrington stands in front of protesters, speaking
Julia Reihs/KUT
Former civil rights lawyer Jim Harrington speaks at a press conference with community leaders to voice demands to improve education in East Austin schools.

From Texas Standard:

The Rev. James Harrington became an Episcopal priest in January 2020.

Harrington is the director of Proyecto Santiago, a Christian outreach mission for Austin's Hispanic community, at Saint James Episcopal Church. Before that, he founded the Texas Civil Rights Project. Before that, he spent over a decade as a lawyer the Rio Grande Valley, representing farm workers on cases related to living and working conditions.

That is an abridged version of his resume – but evidence enough of a career centered around seeking peace and justice for other people. Harrington spoke with Texas Standard about his journey from the law to the priesthood.

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: You were on your way to being a priest earlier in your life and then you became a lawyer instead. How did you find your way back to the clergy? 

The Rev. James Harrington: It's sort of like a circle in a sense, right? I started off in high school and college, in the old days when you could go to seminary that early. By the end of college, I figured I would be able to do what I wanted to do in terms of justice work within the structures of the church. I went to law school and ended up with a career in Texas, eventually founding the Texas Civil Rights Project. When it came time to retire, I thought, 'Hey, you know, this is what I started off doing, it's the kind of work that's motivated me in my life, and this is a good way to continue working with the Latino community.'

What are the similarities and differences between your work as a civil rights attorney and your life as a priest?

What's really interesting about this is coming at issues from different perspectives. As a lawyer, I spent a lot of time trying to change the system, trying to make the structures work better for people. And now I'm on the other side of it and working with people, and I see how these structures really, really adversely impact them in their day to day lives. It's given me quite an insight and a lot of compassion for what people go through, particularly in the immigrant community that I serve.

What's your view on the current trajectory of civil rights and liberties here in Texas? 

I think it's not very good. It's really sort of depressing to watch what the courts are doing and the impact the appointments of President Trump had on the judicial system. It's kind of dismal. And of course, our political leaders could care less about civil rights.

Do you see progress compared to the injustices you fought against in your career as an attorney? 

The way I look at it is that this is sort of a trajectory that goes on – we move forward a few steps and then we move back and then we move forward again. So, I'm hopeful. But I think this is certainly a period of time where we are moving back a few steps, but we need to keep fighting and keep pushing, just as the people who went before us did.

It sounds like your work as a priest means getting to know the people who are affected by some of these things you talk about as an attorney in a more academic sense.

Yeah, you hit the nail right on the head. That said, perhaps the thing that struck me the most is that my approach to the problems that people face is different – different as a lawyer, and in dealing in the day to day with people, because now I really am very intimately involved with their problems. I see the difficulties and the pain that people go through in our system, particularly with immigrants in the community that I serve, and how little recourse there is for people and how much discrimination there is against these folks.

A lot of people are thinking about Halloween coming up over the weekend, but this is also the Thanksgiving season we're moving into. What do you find yourself being grateful for these days?

I am really grateful to have had the privilege and the honor of working with the people that I've worked with over the years. All of the clients that I've worked with, the people I'm working with now, I'm just always struck by their dignity and their own compassion and the support that people have for each other. So I'm really grateful that I've had all these opportunities in my life. One of my jobs is to try to help people understand what they can be grateful for and what they bring to our society.