News & Politics » Feature

The Holy Terror of Saint Sabina's

What's a white boy like Mike Pfleger doing in a parish like this?

by

comment
"The first time I heard him, I had to look twice to make sure what was happening. Most white preachers, you know, don't have a lot of spirit and emotionalism. But this boy, he can whoop!"—the Reverend Willie Barrow, president, Operation PUSH

It is 11 o'clock on Sunday morning at Saint Sabina Catholic Church on the south side, and the old place vibrates with a kind of electric energy. The large, neo-Gothic structure is full of worshipers, many in their best finery, others in modest attire. They are attuned to the words of a priest wearing a long, green, African-style vestment, who sounds for all the world like a black Baptist minister. He teaches, he consoles, he scolds, he cajoles. He jokes, he hallelujahs, he praises the Lord, his voice rising or falling or halting for a pregnant pause as the moment demands. And he is loud! Behind him, where the ornate spires of the high altar used to reach up toward the vaulted ceiling, there is a huge mural portraying two great, outstretched hands, and between the hands, standing tall and proud, like a gift from a generous God, is a black Jesus.

Everything about Saint Sabina is black these days: the music, the worship style, the art, and 99 percent of the parishioners. Everything except the pastor, Father Michael Pfleger, the priest who whoops. But nobody around this church seems to notice that; they are pondering more important considerations.

"I'm trying to tell you something this morning, church," he says. "The world has given us a vision of stereotypes, of falsity, of outright lies. When Dan Rather says that's the way it is, that's garbage! That's the way Dan Rather wants you to see the world. That's not the way it is . . . That ain't got nothin' to do with nothin'!"

The congregation ripples with applause and shouts of "That's right" and "Tell it!" Pfleger is well into a favorite topic—defective vision: appearance isn't reality; the easy answer is probably the wrong answer; the popular road is the wrong road. And before he finishes 25 minutes later, he has lambasted gossip, marital infidelity, homelessness, inferior schools, abortion, and his best-known target: drugs. "We can't be satisfied!" he says, "just because things are better than they were 50 or 30 or 20 years ago. If somebody says things are better than they used to be, it ain't good enough for me—and my God!"

Unlike some preachers, Mike Pfleger carries his Sunday message about making things better out of the pulpit, out of the church, and into the community that surrounds his parish. He has done it with flair and determination and no small amount of public attention. For many, who know only what they see on television, Pfleger is dwarfed by the imposing, familiar presence of his friend and cocampaigner against drugs, Father George Clements. At a press conference or demonstration, the camera usually pans in on Clements, the easily recognized spokesman. Clements is Batman, and Pfleger, at his side but a deferential step back, is Robin. The press is a bit uncomfortable with Pfleger, who looks too young, too fresh-faced, and too white to be a spokesman in his own right, especially on issues that directly affect the black community.

But that view is not shared by the people of Saint Sabina or community leaders who have worked with him. "I'll tell you something," says Cook County Circuit Court Judge R. Eugene Pincham. "Black people's survival has depended on our ability to detect bigotry and bias. It's a skill we've sharpened and honed over the years. And Mike Pfleger is one of those rare persons who down in the marrow of his bones not only has no racial prejudice, he's got no racial awareness!"

"At first we had to wonder where he was coming from," says Len Richardson, who moved into Saint Sabina parish 24 years ago. "Was his energy and zest just a facade? In time we came to see everything was real. There was a time when being Catholic and being black were two separate things in my life. Catholicism was mainly performing certain duties, accepting rules from up above. I've been awakened to how my religion and my culture fit together. . . . He's done a lot of that for us—empowered us."

When Pfleger told parishioners to come up with their own ideas of how a parish should be run, they tentatively proposed a more democratic council, more contact with inspirational black leaders, a worship service more attuned to their culture. "Good," he said, "you put it together; I'll support you all the way." And he has.

When Pfleger asked his people last summer to come out in the streets to help halt the sale of drug paraphernalia, they came—a handful at first, 300 or more later.

When he proposed in September that Saint Sabina School should begin testing students for drug use, 200 parents indicated immediate approval (with only four objecting). At a recent meeting the program was approved by a unanimous vote of the parish school board.

According to his friend Giles Conwell, a black priest from Nashville and an authority on black religion, "Mike Pfleger is a prophet in the tradition of Jeremiah and John the Baptist, someone in whose head God's word dances, plays, and sizzles, and who's got to speak even though he knows speaking out can get you in a lot of trouble."

"He does what all churches ought to do," says Illinois Representative Monique Davis, a sponsor of the bill passed last August that made the selling of drug accessories a felony. "He's a leader, a person without color. He's just for everyone. Blacks love him and white people ought to."

Not everyone loves Pfleger, of course. Like Father Clements, he has received hundreds of anonymous, threatening phone calls and scrawled notes since he dared to put a crimp in the drug business. "We're gonna off you!" said a typical caller one morning at 3 AM. "Watch your back," said another. Someone threw a brick through a window of the church with a note attached that read, "Up with drugs!" Since early summer, Pfleger and Clements have each had police guards accompanying them everywhere. Pfleger didn't ask for the protection, and he finds it a little embarrassing, especially when he's taking his 16-year-old adopted son out for pizza or bowling.

More than a few black Catholics have abandoned Saint Sabina for other Catholic churches precisely because of its heavy emphasis on black identity and culture. They want a church that is more sedate and dignified.

Support for Pfleger's efforts has not been outstanding from either his peers or church superiors. Some regard him as a publicity hound, others as a sincere but misguided zealot who is in well beyond his depth. One priest told him he is a disgrace to the clergy and ought to resign. "I just don't think it's appropriate for a priest to be closing down stores and getting arrested," said one high-ranking Chicago church official. "That's the realm of the layperson and the responsibility of the police."

Clearly, Pfleger's notion of realm is somewhat different: spiritual and temporal are not separate entities; neither are the church and the world, or private morality and public policy. Above all, neither are black and white.

The walls of his room at Saint Sabina rectory are lined with photos, most personally signed, of the notables who have made formal visits to the church in recent years: Coretta Scott King; all the King children; Jesse Jackson; Shirley Chisholm; Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma; Zenani Mandela, daughter of Nelson; and Rosa Parks, the lady who would not sit in the back of the bus, to name just a few. They all came because Pfleger invited them and because the parish has become a symbol of creative black Catholicism.

But when he sits down for a one-on-one interview, Father Pfleger, 40, who looks a little like a clerical version of Barry Manilow, shows no evidence of self-importance. He is outgoing, unassuming, earthy, and often very funny. His demeanor contradicts any image of the old-time, patronizing pastor, although his intense schedule (he never takes a day off) is reminiscent of the workaholic clerics of days past. Like him, the rectory in which he lives is ever abuzz with meetings and discussions. Every square foot of the old place is the designated turf of some organization or institution, and the phones keep ringing well into the night.

You can blame it on his parents or on Martin Luther King or maybe on the rebellious streak he's always had. But Mike Pfleger just didn't turn out like most of the kids he grew up with in the early 1960s in the south-side neighborhood of Auburn, near Western and 79th, less than two miles from Saint Sabina Church. The area was all white, and racist beliefs were as common and accepted as the Catholic faith. "'Nigger' was an everyday word," says Pfleger. "It was taken for granted that blacks were inferior. It was a fact and no one ever argued about that."

It was also taken for granted that blacks posed a threat; they were gradually approaching from the north and east, and whites were fleeing Englewood and Grand Crossing as from an invasion of army ants. Pfleger remembers going with two friends to a movie at the Capitol Theater at 80th and Halsted and discovering that, because the boundary line between the races had shifted since they last attended, they were the only whites in the audience. They never went back.

But there were some other influences in those formative years. Although he doesn't recall his parents lecturing him and his sister (11 years his senior) about racial prejudice, it was made clear that "nigger" was not an acceptable word in the Pfleger home. Besides that, Louis and Marian Pfleger tried to deflate any delusions of grandeur in their children. "Whenever I'd get an A or an award in school, they'd always remind me that everyone is equal, that I shouldn't think I was better than anyone else," Pfleger says. "To tell you the truth, sometimes that really pissed me off."

After he graduated from the parish school, he entered Quigley South, a preparatory high school for future priests. Priesthood was hardly foremost in his mind, but Quigley was a good school, it was right in the neighborhood, and 15 of his classmates also enrolled there. What clinched his choice of Quigley, however, was the insistence by his eighth-grade nun that he go somewhere else. "She thought I was a little wild," says Pfleger, "and she said I might embarrass the parish. Well, that really motivated me! I've never liked to be told no."

During his high school years, Pfleger spent two summers working at an Indian reservation in Oklahoma, and strangely enough it was there, 800 miles from Chicago, that he had his first conscious awareness of racial discrimination. "The situation was mind-boggling," he says. "The little Indian kids couldn't even go into the white man's store to buy candy. I had to do it for them." He was so incensed that he told his parents later he wanted to transfer to a school in Oklahoma in order to tackle oppression head-on. Said his mother, "If you want to fight injustice, Mike, you don't need to move to Oklahoma; we've got plenty of it right here in Chicago."

He found out what she meant one summer day in 1966 when, at the age of 16, he stood on a sidewalk in the Marquette Park neighborhood, adjacent to his own, and watched Martin Luther King and his entourage march down the street in support of open housing. Twenty-three years later that watershed event still stirs his soul. "I saw the people I went to church with, the parents of the kids I played with, screaming 'Nigger!' and throwing rocks and dirt at King—these nice people I knew all my life. I couldn't believe it! And I saw Dr. King saying, 'We love you.' Man, I said to myself, either he's crazy or he's got a strength I want to know about."

Dr. King became a kind of obsession for young Pfleger. He put up King posters in his bedroom, read King books and speeches, and tracked his activities around the country. He also decided definitely that he wanted to be a priest—"because, as I saw it, the church can be the element for change."

While continuing his education at Niles College, a seminary affiliated with Loyola University, Pfleger became more radicalized. He was assigned to get some real-life ministerial experience at Precious Blood parish, in a poor, black and Hispanic west-side neighborhood overlooking the Eisenhower Expressway. There he encountered Father Jerry Maloney, a soft-spoken pastor who firmly believed the church existed for the people. He had opened the doors of Precious Blood to community groups including the Black Panthers, who ran a free breakfast program for the kids from the nearby Henry Horner public housing project. Pfleger was overwhelmed by "the gentle strength" of Maloney, as well as by the genuine commitment of people like Fred Hampton, the young Panther leader who was to meet an early death at the hands of a raiding party composed of state's attorney's police.

"I learned firsthand about poverty and violence," says Pfleger. "I saw what people could do if they worked together. I also saw how damned unresponsive the city and people in power can be."

Meanwhile, he was less than overwhelmed by his course of studies at Niles. American history, for example, made short work of the Indians, and social studies seemed to be talking about cultures—or planets—far removed from what he was seeing on the west side. Math, Latin, and Greek he could tolerate, but his mind was often at Precious Blood, and far more often than seminary authorities thought appropriate, so too was his body. A low point occurred in 1968, when Dr. King was assassinated and huge sections of black Chicago were set afire in an orgy of grief. "I realized then the Catholic church wasn't relating to the black community in any serious way," he says, "and the seminary wasn't preparing us to make much difference." Still, he stayed in the seminary, largely because Jerry Maloney, his mentor, insisted that even a small difference was worth the effort.

1973 brought a stiffer jolt. By then Pfleger was enrolled in the major seminary, Saint Mary of the Lake, a sprawling, tree-studded campus in Mundelein, some 40 miles from Chicago. Pfleger preferred to continue his training at gritty Precious Blood: he worked with the youth and community organizations, visited homes, even sat in at storefront church services in order to understand the black experience and soak up the black preaching style. So he lived on the west side, and drove back and forth to Mundelein for classes. The rector disapproved. He called in Pfleger, charged him with failing to have "a significant presence" on the campus, and ordered him to move into seminary quarters immediately or depart forever.

"That broke me," says Pfleger. "I was hooked on ministry, on faith, on the church as a way to better people's lives. I didn't know what to do." Maloney intervened on his behalf, and his fellow seminarians protested the ultimatum. Though few of his classmates shared Pfleger's obsessive zeal, many appreciated his sincerity. For the first time in seminary history, the student government voted to censure the rector. While the issue was boiling the school year ended and the rector quietly resigned. But although Pfleger escaped expulsion, few at that point gave him much chance of making it all the way to the priesthood. He would have to be approved by a screening committee of priests, many of whom saw him as hopelessly out of the mainstream. He had even aroused the notice of Cardinal John Cody, never one to coddle mavericks or independent thinkers.

Pfleger had in fact picketed the cardinal's home on North State Parkway at various times in his seminary career to protest the closing of inner-city schools. In one grand gesture of indignation, he had placed a letter under the door of every student and faculty member at the Mundelein seminary. "I decided I had to do it," he says, "when they asked us to vote on whether the seminary's new set of ciboria [the cups used to hold communion wafers] should be plated with ceramic or gold. That got to me. I had to do something or I woulda bust!"

The letter contrasted the struggles of inner-city residents with the relative luxury at the seminary on the lake, with its "newly carpeted chapel and freshly painted walls . . . the newly furnished faculty rooms, new offices and new faculty lounge. . . . I drive past many empty buildings that exist there, heated, cleaned, and maintained for what? I drive around the grounds and find its many workers plowing the snow, raking the leaves or cutting its massive lawns. . . . I experience the delivery of new sofa beds for many of the students. I look at the practically nonexistent Apostolate Fund [donations for inner-city work] and observe the rooms of some students turned into hotel suites . . . " And all the while, he noted, programs to attract minority students and courses to sensitize students to life in the real world "remain in oblivion."

"We have watched many disturbed people pacified," he concluded. "We have watched questions drift into silence. My fear is that if we don't stop now, words like "poverty" and "injustice" will escape our vocabulary . . . and perhaps we will even lose our touch with reality itself."

That such an anguished plea would come from a 23-year-old seminarian, whose future hung on the approval of his seminary superiors and his bishop, indicates the extent of Pfleger's frustration and his lack of concern about consequences. To this day, he is convinced that he would have soon thereafter been dismissed but for the unexpected intercession of the seminary's new rector, Father Thomas Murphy. A decision had to be made about Pfleger's ordination as deacon (the last step before priesthood), and many members of the approval committee insisted that because of his many absences from seminary functions, not to mention his unorthodox ways, they could not affirm that he had received "proper formation." Murphy listened to the objections, then said he personally found Pfleger fully qualified, asked for an immediate vote, and raised his own hand in approval. One by one, the other members of the committee raised their hands. "Such," Murphy later told Pfleger, "is the power of the rector." (Murphy has since become coadjutor archbishop in Seattle, Washington.)

Cardinal Cody did not veto the committee's decision, but in his first interview with Pfleger, he made it clear who was in charge. "I was wearing a ring when I talked to him," recalls Pfleger. "He told me, 'Take that off right now! I alone wear the ring in this archdiocese.'" Cody fretted that the young man had been unduly influenced by Jerry Maloney, and hoped that his extremism would be tempered under the authoritarian pastor who had just taken over at Precious Blood.

He was mistaken. Pfleger and the new pastor found each other intolerable. The pastor called the police one morning and demanded that they remove Pfleger from the rectory. "I couldn't believe it," says Pfleger, who had just finished shaving when the police arrived. "We hadn't even been arguing. I called the vicar general and he said, 'You better leave; the pastor's in charge.' Well, I had it at that point. I said, OK, I quit the church, the seminary, the diocese, the whole thing! I drove home to my parents." An hour later, the doorbell rang. It was Father Thomas Murphy, who had driven in from Mundelein in what turned out to be a successful attempt to persuade him to reconsider. Pfleger's mother was so upset, she threatened to file defamation of character charges against the pastor.

In what Pfleger assumed was an attempt to punish him for gross impudence, the authorities assigned him for further ministerial training to a large, all-white parish in Glenview, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, which was not only affluent but a prominent gathering place for the John Birch Society. The experience turned out to be extremely positive. Although the Birchers shunned him, the parish teens found this energetic, idealistic young deacon fascinating. He spent much of his time acquainting suburban kids with the people and problems of the inner city, introducing them to the Audy Home, the county courts, his friends from the west-side ghetto.

Pfleger's introduction to the priesthood proved no less traumatic than his earlier education. His mother died just two months before his ordination in April 1985. And Father Henry Pehler, the pastor of Saint Sabina, the parish to which he was being assigned, suffered a heart attack on the very day of Pfleger's ordination. While Pehler recuperated, the new priest, reeling from the accumulated blows, acclimated himself to his surroundings. The Gresham neighborhood around 79th and Racine was mostly middle-class, with well-kept bungalows and apartment buildings—and relatively little gang activity. Unlike many south-side Catholic pastors, an earlier Saint Sabina pastor, John McMahon, had gone out of his way to welcome black families when the great real estate transition hit the neighborhood in the mid-1960s. Although the number of parishioners had shrunk appreciably (from 2,000 white families in the early 60s to fewer than 400 families, almost all of them black), there was nevertheless a foundation of goodwill toward the church in the community. Still, Pfleger was immediately distressed that Saint Sabina retained most of the trappings of its white ethnic past. The music, the pictures and statues, the parish organizations—all echoed white culture and values. "There was no sense of ownership or celebration of the people who were here now," says Pfleger. "We had this big institution sort of divorced from the people."

He tried to remedy that by promoting black music and art. An accomplished pianist, he introduced gospel music to the Sunday Mass. On Easter, he displayed in the church a picture of a black Jesus dressed in slave attire, wearing broken-open manacles on his wrists and ankles. Father Pehler, back in action, didn't like many of the innovations, and neither did some black parish members. "If I wanted all this black Jesus stuff, I would have stayed in my old church," complained one woman.

But most parishioners delighted in Pfleger's promotion of their culture. Elbert Johnson, a veteran parish leader, gripped him on the shoulder one night and said, "We've been watching you and we're convinced you're genuine. What you're trying to do here is what I've been hungering for all my life." Pastor Pehler, however, remained the man in charge, and he squelched many of Pfleger's ideas. He could not conceive of his parish operating in such unfamiliar ways.

By 1980, five years after his ordination, Mike Pfleger ran out of gas again. "I just couldn't find myself in this church," he says. "I got tired of butting my head against a wall. So I planned to leave. I even rented an apartment. I didn't know what I was gonna do."

A few days before the planned departure, Father Pehler was struck with a second heart attack while eating breakfast and died at the table. Cardinal Cody called Pfleger and appointed him temporary administrator. The emphasis was on temporary. Says Pfleger, "He told me to make absolutely no changes and no plans for change of any kind. I wasn't to do anything except pay the bills." But Pfleger managed to get into trouble before the deceased pastor was even laid to rest. He scheduled the funeral Mass for a weekday evening, as that had become a customary time for such services at the parish. When Pehler's priest friends objected that an evening service was inconvenient for them and insisted the Mass be held in the morning, Pfleger asked, "Who's the funeral for—a bunch of priests or the people of the community?" A furious Cardinal Cody then phoned and said the funeral would be held in the morning and he would tolerate no defiance. Pfleger said OK.

So he arranged two funeral Masses: one in the evening, celebrated by a black bishop from Cleveland, which found the church packed with the families of the parish; and another the following morning, when the church was cavernously empty except for visiting priests and Cardinal Cody. The cardinal came to the rectory afterward to inform Pfleger he would not forget this crafty affront. "The whole incident ended up kind of funny," recalls Pfleger. "Cody asked to use the bathroom and somehow he got locked inside, so I had to pry him out. I took it as a sign from the Lord—I wasn't sure what!"

Shortly after, the wheels of the bureaucracy turned and the process of selecting a new pastor began. A committee of priests from the personnel board convened an open parish meeting to hear what qualities the people wanted in their next leader. They wanted Mike Pfleger. "I have never seen such an outpouring of genuine support for one man," said Father Michael Nallen, a personnel board member at the meeting. "Young, old, rich, and poor, everybody was unanimous—it had to be Mike."

But that seemed impossible. At 31 he was too young, and he was certainly not a favorite in Cody's eyes. As fate would have it, however, the cardinal's options were limited at the time. He had recently alienated a large segment of the south-side black community by closing down several inner-city schools without consultation. He could ignore the clear wishes of another segment only at the risk of provoking a nasty confrontation. So he sought a middle course: he named the young priest "permanent administrator" of Saint Sabina, though no such title existed in church protocol. What it meant to Cody (as he explained to a priest in a letter) was that Pfleger would be yanked out as soon as the storm blew over. What it meant to Pfleger was that he was in charge--no strings attached. And so the new era began.

"A lot of people said the plant at Saint Sabina was too big and too expensive to operate, that we couldn't make it with a small congregation," he says. "I decided we had to make it, and we only could if the people took ownership." A decision-making parish cabinet was formed, with emphasis on social service in the community, leadership training, programs on black theology, a yearly black-style revival, and the development of a gospel choir. Gradually word got around, and the parish rolls began to grow—to about 750 families today. In addition, the church has become a kind of haven for many non-Catholics attracted by the energy of the place and the involvement of the people. After Cody's death in 1982, Pfleger became pastor in name as well as in fact; but he has managed to remain, as always, on the edge of controversy.

The contrast between the reasonably well-kept homes on the residential streets around Saint Sabina and the devastation along its commercial thoroughfare, 79th Street, was obvious to everyone. Though many stores were boarded up and others barely eked out an existence, the street was nevertheless alive night and day with the business of illegal drugs. "Everything was out in the open," says Pfleger. "You could drive along and see the sales being made right on the sidewalk or at the curb—marijuana, heroin, crack—you name it. Everyone in our parish knew someone who was in trouble with the stuff."

After he conducted a funeral service for a 17-year-old boy shot in a narcotics altercation last year, Pfleger sponsored a Save-Our-Children Mass one Sunday and invited Father Clements, who was similarly concerned, to attend. The outpouring convinced them that the church might have an impact where law enforcement had failed. Hundreds of interested citizens were deputized by the two priests to put a dent in the drug business.

Community legitimacy was provided the drug operations, Clements and Pfleger realized, by the widespread availability of drug paraphernalia in food stores, gas stations, and other small businesses. "I started going into stores and looking around," says Pfleger. "They'd have all these items—little pipes and scales to weigh the stuff, and syringes, and some would have these hollow canes and fake cans and bottles to stash it in, and packages for dealers to wrap it up—it was all there, often for sale beside the bread or candy the kids bought."

When he and others urged store owners to get rid of the accessories, some agreed, others pleaded for time, and some just laughed in their faces. "One guy on Ashland told me, 'Hell, no!'" says Pfleger. "He said he made $5,000 a month on sales of these things, and he wouldn't torpedo his business for us." On another occasion, Pfleger sat outside a local gas station for 45 minutes and watched a stream of customers going in and out, "but nobody was buying any gas!"

A series of marches in May and June, with Clements and Pfleger in the lead, aroused the media and the public. "When we got the crowds out, we realized what a powerful tool we had," says Pfleger. "We were using the media instead of the media using us."

Storekeepers told the marchers the major paraphernalia provider was the Good Deal-One Stop Distributing Company on 79th near Damen, and this became in June and July a prime target for the campaign. The owner refused to discuss the situation with anyone, so the marchers descended on Good Deal one Monday afternoon, banged on the door, rang the bell, and swore to stay until they got a response. When none was forthcoming, Clements, in a momentary departure from his nonviolent beliefs, kicked the door down. He and Pfleger walked in, as employees scattered in several directions. The two were arrested and charged with illegal trespassing and criminal damage to property. The hassle sparked unprecedented awareness of the paraphernalia phenomenon, prompting even an article on the crusading clerics in People magazine.

In August Pfleger was arrested again when he and three others staged a sit-in at Jimmy's Records and Variety Stop at Ashland and 87th. The store contained a large glass case (next to the ice cream freezer) with an extraordinary variety of drug accessories, and owner Jimmy Dorsey, according to Pfleger, had welched on a promise to remove it. Dorsey was so incensed he attempted to have the preliminary trespassing charges raised to felony level, but the charges (along with those filed by Good Deal) were subsequently dropped.

An immediate upshot of this antidrug activity was a barrage of threatening calls and notes. Clements's car was stolen—in retaliation, according to an anonymous caller—and Pfleger's sleep is frequently interrupted by callers who assure him his days are numbered. At one point the calls came in three or four a night, usually around 3 AM; now it's down to two or three a week. "I'm not really afraid," he says. "I don't want the drug dealers to think I'm scared." What he tries to do is to "remove" himself—annihilate his ego, Buddhist fashion—and put all his energy into the issue at hand. "If you're in a leadership position, you've got to lead," he declares. "When parishioners call and say they're afraid for my safety, I tell them, 'OK, then you better come on out, stand by me, and march with me.'"

A far more encouraging result of the campaign is the decreasing number of overt drug sales along 79th Street. Pfleger says dealers are not as arrogant and storekeepers aren't laughing anymore when they see the marchers coming.

The most significant result, however, was the vote by the Illinois legislature last August to make the sale of drug paraphernalia illegal everywhere in the state. Early last spring, Pfleger and other leaders began meeting with Representative Monique Davis and Senator Howard Brookins, both of whose districts include parts of Saint Sabina parish. Previous efforts to beef up the law had died of neglect, explains Davis, largely because legislators were fearful of angering segments of the business community that profited from the sale of drug items. The church-sponsored antidrug activity convinced them that further inaction could hurt them politically, says Davis, "so we had the votes at last." A push is now on for a federal law barring the sale of drug accessories. Pfleger and Clements have both testified before a congressional committee studying the matter, as the drug peril is increasingly viewed as a national epidemic.

In October, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, flanked by Clements and Pfleger and backed by another 138 priests, announced at a press conference that the Chicago Catholic church would be part of a citywide campaign against drugs. The cardinal was quickly upstaged, however, when Pfleger and Clements used the occasion to call for a lot more than that: the National Conference of Catholic Bishops should immediately establish an action agenda on the drug threat; the Chicago church should inaugurate a comprehensive drug education program in all parishes; empty convents and other church properties ought to be turned into drug treatment centers. And then the zinger—mandatory drug testing should begin in all Catholic schools. "The public doesn't yet comprehend the destruction drugs are causing in our community," charged Pfleger. "This [mandatory testing] may be a drastic solution, but I think we need this kind of solution right now. We have a drastic problem!" With the agreement of the parents, he announced, Saint Sabina children would be tested soon. A bemused Bernardin said only that he would take the recommendations under advisement, and even Clements declined to make immediate plans for testing in his school.

Jay Miller, director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Illinois, complained to the press that "we're supposed to be teaching citizens rights in our schools, not telling them they have no rights" and called the plan an "admission of moral bankruptcy." But he acknowledged that the ACLU could take no action, since Catholic schools are private institutions. A spokesman for the archdiocesan schools also criticized the idea, saying, "We're convinced that educating is more important than policing"; but he added that the central office would not interfere. Undaunted by the criticism, the Saint Sabina school board approved the plan in late October and preparations for testing are under way.

Of course Pfleger is not content with this limited victory. "If tomorrow every church in Chicago decided to get serious about drug sales in their own neighborhoods, and if the school authorities decided to crack down, they could stop this waste of human life overnight. I'm convinced tremendous things can be accomplished by nonviolent people who get serious."

Every morning about 7:30 Mike Pfleger cooks breakfast for his son, Lamar, a student at Leo High School: grits or pancakes or french toast and coffee. He has made breakfast ever since 1981, when he adopted Lamar, then a seven-year-old ward of the state living at a foster home in Rockford. "It's something my mom always did for me," says Pfleger. "It's a kind of tradition. You know, we're not a typical family and the place is so busy. So I try to be here for him as much as I can. I make it a point, too, to be around when he comes home from school and for dinner every evening." Traditions, he thinks, help build self-confidence and a sense of belonging. Every night before going to bed, Pfleger and his son hug and bless each other.

Being a parent, the priest has learned, "is the most difficult vocation in life. But it's given me a perspective, helped me see what's important and what isn't. People have said I'm a better priest because of Lamar, and I believe that."

When Father Clements adopted a son in 1980 amid national publicity, Pfleger says, "it stirred something in me. If you grow up in a broken home, it's hard to make it; if you're black too, the odds are doubled." Catholic Charities of Chicago would not even consider Pfleger's request for adoption, so he approached the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which put him through its regular home investigation and training programs. After many trips to and from Rockford, he and Lamar, a shy little kid of mixed racial parentage who had bounced around the system for much of his life, agreed to form a team. Adjusting to life in a rectory was not easy. Lamar had known so much rejection, he found it difficult to settle down, and Pfleger has had to revamp his parental approach and expectations several times.

"I wanted him to be a good, well-mannered student," says Pfleger. "But he hates school, always has, so I came to realize the important thing is to be a good, caring person, someone who's open, sincere, who respects others. And I really think he's handled our situation fantastically." Pfleger is particularly pleased by the close relationship between his son and his own father, Louis Pfleger, whom Lamar knows as "grandpa."

When asked how he likes having a priest for a father, Lamar, still shy, laughs and says, "It's all right, he's a pretty good guy."

On November 9, Pfleger and the Saint Sabina gospel choir returned from a well-publicized trip to the Vatican, where, by special invitation, they sang for Pope John Paul II. Three days later, on November 12, Saint Sabina parishioners turned out in large numbers to hear the most recent guest invited by Pfleger: Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan, a strident critic of the white race and its institutions.

The two incidents reflect two facets of black Catholicism represented at Saint Sabina: a firm affiliation with an ancient, worldwide religious tradition; and an outspoken criticism of the people and organizations that impede the progress of African Americans today—including elements of that ancient tradition. Judge Farrakhan by what he says, Pfleger urged in a letter to his people, adding, "Most people who feel negative about him have never heard even one entire speech by him, which shows . . . that the media continues to do a biased, dangerous, and well-plotted approach to their news reports."

Is the Catholic church really one of those racist institutions that impede blacks? Father George Stallings, a Washington, D.C., priest who has formed a splinter group to protest racism in the church, says it is. And Father Michael Pfleger was one of a handful of fellow clergy who recently greeted him in Chicago and concurred that the church, his church, is indeed racist. Pfleger's comments on the occasion precipitated a meeting with Cardinal Bernardin, which did not soften his views.

"Racism is institutionalized in our structure," he says. "Just look around. Sure there are 13 black bishops in the U.S. now, but only two actually run a diocese. Check out the six floors at the chancery office [the Chicago archdiocesan downtown headquarters] and see how many blacks are in leadership positions there; I know of only one. Of some 60 all-black Catholic schools in Chicago, only 17 have black principals. Are there any black teachers in our all-white schools? When do church authorities ever address matters of consequence in the black community—like housing and welfare reform and contracts for minority firms and drugs. It's like George [Clements] and I are the only ones who ever say anything."

Stallings's schism has triggered reaction among apologists of the Catholic church's racial policy. John McDermott, former editor of the Chicago Reporter, contends that the vast amount of money and human resources poured into inner-city schools by the church should forever demolish any hint of racism. But Pfleger is not impressed. "Have we taught self-respect and self-pride in these schools? Have we taught black history and enabled people to feel ownership of their parishes? A lot of black Catholic schools don't relate to the black community. That's why black Catholics are often reluctant to invite their friends to their church, because they're embarrassed by what it is and how it worships. For centuries, blacks have had to eat off every other menu but their own. And they still do because it's a white church!"

Stallings has argued that black Catholics should be allowed to form their own rite—within the larger Catholic church, just as some Eastern Catholics have for centuries had their own non-Roman rite—with their own worship styles and disciplinary regulations.

"Why not?" says Pfleger. "An African-American rite! It would be a great opportunity. If we don't move ahead with something like this, more and more blacks will just leave the church." He's not optimistic that a separate rite will happen soon, since he views most bishops as career-minded conservatives who are "brain dead" and terribly threatened by anything new. He has told friends—in jest, but with an intended twist—that if he is ever found murdered, the police would be well advised to look for suspects at the local chancery office before checking out dope dealers.

So why does he stay? In part, he says, because so many good black people stay; in part because he believes the Catholic church through its message reveals Jesus in a deep, important way; and in part because he still thinks—just as he did when he saw Martin Luther King withstand the rage in Marquette Park—that "the church can be an element for change."

It's Sunday morning and Pfleger's whooping again, the frustrations and burdens of a difficult life thrown aside. You'd think he didn't have a care in the world. "You know how loud I am," he tells the congregation. "If I go before you, step outta your house and listen! You gonna hear me in heaven praisin' Jesus all the day long. I'm gonna be praisin' my Lord. You gonna hear my voice. If you think I'm loud now, wait till I get to glory. I'm just gettin' this voice ready!"

Everyone laughs and claps, including the white Chicago police bodyguard who is sitting alone in a pew on the side aisle.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow.

Add a comment