The NJ priest who faced down the federal government — and won

Father Ray Leonard seen at his home in St. Mary's, Ga. (Nancy Reynolds for The Star-Ledger)
The Rev. Ray Leonard seen at his home in St. Mary’s, Ga. (Nancy Reynolds for The Star-Ledger)

The Rev. Ray Leonard knew not to wear the clerical collar identifying him as a Roman Catholic priest. It almost certainly would have gotten him deported.

He knew not to say Mass, hear confession or baptize a child. The acts might have resulted in harassment — or worse, arrest and imprisonment — for the families Leonard cared about.

During a decade spent teaching and helping the needy in some of China’s most impoverished and oppressed regions, the New Jersey priest learned what it was like to live in a land without religious freedom.

It kindled a greater appreciation for his liberties at home.

Which is why Leonard, 51, bristled at the U.S. government when it told him he couldn’t hold services at a Georgia naval base during last month’s government shutdown. Leonard, a civilian contractor on the base since Oct. 1, wasn’t deemed an “essential” employee.

In a case that made headlines across the country, Leonard filed suit against the Department of Defense, contending the directive violated his freedom of speech and his right to religious expression.

“I’ve lived under a system where somebody else dictated to you when, where, how and what type of religious service you can have — or not have — and I’m not going to come home to my country and call it the land of the free and the home of the brave and allow anyone to tell me, ‘You can’t have church this weekend,’” said Leonard, who is on leave from the Diocese of Metuchen. “It has to be resisted immediately.”

The Thomas More Law Center, a conservative Christian advocacy group, filed the suit Oct. 14 on behalf of Leonard and one of his parishioners at the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base. A day later, the Defense Department retreated, allowing Leonard and other priests who work as civilian contractors to return to ministry at bases around the world.

Even so, Leonard is pressing on with the suit, saying he wants to ensure that Catholic service members won’t be barred from attending church or receiving the Sacraments under future shutdowns.

It’s a stand guided by the philosophy of Leonard’s late father, also named Ray, who instilled in his four children the importance of independence and principle.

“He made it clear at a very young age that we should always do what’s right,” Leonard said. “He used examples like slavery, and he said people in our country — our leaders, our courts — made terrible mistakes, and very few people were willing to stand up and say, ‘We’re not going along with this. If someone is doing something wrong, you have to fight it.’ That’s always been very important to me.”

Leonard drew a similar lesson from the Tibetan monks he worked with in China. Their ancestral land annexed, their activism met by brutal reprisals from the government, the monks continue to press for their freedoms, he said.

“The monks taught me that if anyone is infringing on your rights, you better do something about it, or you’ll wake up a slave,” Leonard said. “You’ll have no freedoms.”

From parish priest to missionary

Leonard didn’t set out to be a standard-bearer. Missionary work was more his dream.

Growing up in Bridgewater and Somerville, he attended Immaculata High School for two years before transferring to Divine Word High School, a Bordentown pre-seminary that prepares future priests for work in foreign missions. He continued on the track by graduating from the Society of the Divine Word’s college seminary in Iowa.

The order ran missions in South America and Africa, but Leonard had always been fascinated by China’s culture and history. He said he was especially moved by stories of Christians, a tiny minority in the vast nation, struggling to practice their faith.

“In many ways it was a hostile environment to Christianity under Chairman Mao and under communism,” Leonard said. “It was a very irregular situation for a missionary assignment, but I felt the challenge of doing something that was irregular.”

But there was a roadblock. In the mid-1980s, China largely remained a closed society. Catholic missionaries weren’t welcome, Leonard said.

He chose parish work instead, completing his religious formation at a diocesan seminary, Mount St. Mary, in Maryland. He was ordained in the Diocese of Metuchen.

First an associate pastor at St. James Church in Basking Ridge and then the chaplain at Bishop Ahr High School in Edison, Leonard was named pastor of Sacred Heart Church in New Brunswick in 2000.

There he made a lifelong fan in parishioner Frank Deiner, who said members of the church still miss the priest.

Deiner, 83, of New Brunswick, called Leonard a humble man who reached out to the community’s most troubled residents, helping alcoholics and drug addicts enroll in rehab, counseling them and giving them jobs around the church.

“He’s always been a standup guy,” said Deiner, 83, of New Brunswick. “He doesn’t have ambitions of becoming a monsignor or of being elevated. He’s just an unselfish person who wants to help people.”

Though he enjoyed the pastoral work, Leonard said he felt smothered by the administrative burden of overseeing a church. China, too, continued to tug at him, and by 2000, the country was more accessible to foreigners.

Metuchen Bishop Paul Bootkoski granted Leonard leave from the diocese in 2002.

Three months later, he was studying Mandarin at the University of Beijing, and within 15 months, he found himself in a community of date farmers in Shaanxi Province, in north-central China.

Living in the ‘stone age’

He was the first white man most of the residents had ever seen in person.

“I was quite a spectacle,” he said. “Wherever I went, people would stare and talk to me.”

Living in spare, stone-block quarters, Leonard taught four English classes a day. In the face of crushing poverty, he also coordinated a relief effort with New Jersey churches, arranging for the purchase of winter coats, medical supplies and other goods.

Ray Leonard 1
The Rev. Ray Leonard poses with some of his students in China. (Courtesy Ray Leonard)

Proselytizing was out of the question. The police had made clear it was forbidden.

“I was more teaching religion by my deeds and my life,” Leonard said.

It was during a trip to Beijing, the capital, that Leonard learned of a need for a teacher in an even more remote area thousands of miles to the west.

Qinghai Province sits almost 2 miles above sea level on the Tibetan Plateau. Because of the elevation, trees and crops won’t readily grow. The diet is almost exclusively yak.

Yak meat. Yak milk. Yak butter.

Yak dung provided the only source of fuel for fire.

Leonard had no running water, no cell phone service and spotty electricity. When the fire burned low in deep winter, he’d have to trudge outside — in temperatures that rarely rose above the single digits — to fetch more dung.

“The place was in the stone age,” Leonard said.

It would be his home for four years.

During that period, Leonard developed a special appreciation for the Buddhist monks who worked alongside him. They built the school and sleeping quarters. They taught the children, all ethnic Tibetans, and fed and clothed them.

At the same time, the priest became deeply frustrated by the Chinese government’s treatment of the Tibetans.

The government, he said, forcibly removed some residents, confiscating their yak herds, and relocated them to cities to supplement the labor force. With no real skills, many people ended up begging on the streets, Leonard said.

He watched helplessly as the government began ordering students out of the school, moving them to more “Chinese” institutions that taught atheism and sought to stamp out the Tibetan identity, Leonard said. In time, the government closed down the local monastery.

Following riots in 2008, the police came around more frequently, demanding Leonard’s papers and questioning him. Travel restrictions were imposed on foreigners, and after a visit home in 2009, Leonard had a hard time getting back.

He finally did, but amid a continuing government crackdown, he worried his presence might do more harm than good by inviting police attention.

“The Tibetan area became just too risky,” Leonard said. “As a foreigner, the worst they could do was kick me out, but if they felt their policies had been violated, they could punish the people I was working with very severely.”

Leonard left for good last year.

For a time, he considered another foreign mission, but learning a new language and culture seemed daunting.

Then he heard about the contract position at the naval base in St. Marys, Ga. Because of a shortage of active-duty priests, contractors work at about 50 bases worldwide, he said.

Leonard was just a few days into the assignment when the shutdown kicked in. A sign on the chapel door informed him all Catholic services, including religious education, would be indefinitely suspended.

He offered to work without pay, but the Navy refused.

“I was incredulous,” Leonard said. “It was a slap in the face to all our Catholic service men and women. This is a very important part of their lives.”

He contacted the Archdiocese for the Military, which put him in contact with the Thomas More Law Center.

Within days, Leonard had become the face of the resistance. Through the lawsuit, he hopes to have contract priests recognized as essential personnel or force the military to allow clergy members to volunteer during shutdowns.

Anything less, he said, amounts to tyranny.

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