Long Island native John Bingham, advocate for Catholic charities, has died
John Bingham was 29 years old and on his way to a golden life as vice president of a major Wall Street investment firm.
But the Rockville Center native, who died July 26 at age 64, wanted something more. One day, decades ago, the corporate lawyer walked into his boss’s office and quit. He was heading to Thailand, to work as a $248-a-month Catholic Church volunteer with refugees from Cambodia’s “Killing Fields.”
“John said to me, ‘You know, I looked at my life, and here I am, being sped up into the fancy Connecticut house with the stone wall, and I didn’t want it,'” recalls Richard Koubek, a former Bingham colleague at Catholic Charities on Long Island, “He gave up everything.”
Bingham arrived at a dusty, bug-infested camp surrounded by barbed wire and landmines, home to 240,000 refugees on the Cambodia-Thailand border. There was no electricity, running water, or decent hospital. Raw sewage trickled down open ditches.
After eight years in the camp, Bingham returned to his native Long Island, where he went to work for the Catholic Church and became a major figure in the advocacy of Hispanic immigrant rights. He then moved to France, his wife’s native country, and became a notorious figure on immigration issues, speaking at the United Nations and working for a Vatican-backed advocacy group in Geneva.
One of his sisters, Mary Bingham-Johnsen of Rockville Centre, called him “the ultimate Christian.”
Bingham, 64, died suddenly at a family country home in France, relatives said.
His work wasn’t just on a political level – he brought it home, literally. Bingham has more than once hosted refugees at his home on Long Island for the Christmas holidays, said the Reverend John Gilmartin, who first hired him at Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Rockville Center.
“I don’t think there’s anyone I’ve ever met who was holier,” Gilmartin said.
Besides his knowledge of social justice issues, Bingham had a passion and ability to influence people, Gilmartin and others said. Gilmartin recalled that once after Bingham talked about immigration to a parish on Long Island, a devotee came and gave him a check for $90,000.
“I want this to go for migrants because I’ve never heard anyone make such a call,” Gilmartin said.
After graduating from St. John’s University, Bingham landed a job with Kidder Peabody and progressed rapidly while earning a law degree at evening Fordham Law School.
But he eventually felt another calling, joining an uncle who was a Jesuit priest working at the refugee camp.
“I was terrified to get out of this formula that already seemed to be working,” Bingham told Newsday in 2002. “I was scared to death, but I just felt drawn” to Cambodia.
He stirred things up in the camp, where temperatures soared to 117 degrees and pomegranates sold for the equivalent of $1. He taught refugees about law, democracy and justice.
This soon had shocking consequences. A powerful judge in the camp’s fledgling justice system raped the fiancée of one of Bingham’s award-winning students, Run Saray. Run wanted to press charges. Bingham wanted justice, but also feared that Run would be killed. The judge was protected by armed and dangerous men.
Run and his fiancée continued. The judge – a serial rapist – was convicted. The refugees in the camp could hardly believe it.
The judge later escaped from prison, ran for president and – still hot on the case – denounced Bingham on national television as a CIA spy.
Bingham brought his passion for justice when he returned to Long Island and became head of immigrant and refugee services for Catholic Charities. He has also served as chair of the New York Immigration Coalition and a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration Advisory Group.
He led the church’s fight in the early 2000s to establish a recruiting hall in Farmingville to ease communal tensions by removing hundreds of day laborers from the streets and places where they would wait for work.
The hall was never built, but Bingham gained a reputation as a visionary advocate for immigrants.
“John was an extraordinary leader in our immigration and refugee services,” said Laura Cassell, longtime CEO of Catholic Charities.
He had met his wife, Agnès Dupré la Tour, in the refugee camp, where she also worked as a volunteer. In 2005, they moved to France. Bingham eventually went to work as head of policy at the Vatican-backed International Catholic Migration Commission in Geneva. The group assists and defends refugees and migrants worldwide.
“Every major advancement in our movement over the past decade and more bore John’s fingerprints, and most were primarily driven by him,” the group said in a statement. “We have lost a steadfast champion and leader of migrant rights and global civil society.
He left the group in 2018 and worked as a consultant on immigration issues. He served as Geneva’s volunteer representative on the executive committee of the NGO Committee on Migration in New York, which has consultative status with the United Nations.
As news of his death spread, online tributes poured in from around the world: Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, Bangladesh, Korea, the Philippines.
He is also survived by four sons, Jérémy, John, Matthias and Thomas, and siblings Claire Bingham Darroch, of Seaford, Charles C. Bingham, Jr., of Tinton Falls, NJ, Joseph M. Bingham, of Clifton , NJ, Richard F. Bingham, of Asbury Park, NJ and James C. Bingham, of Rockville Center.
A funeral mass and burial were held Monday in Bercenay-en-Othe, France.