Author’s note: Between July 2010 and February 2011, I wrote a series of posts for the old Underblog of the Chicago Underground Library, now the Read/Write Library.“From the CUL Stacks: Radical Disciple” was published February 21, 2011.
Kathleen Whalen FitzGerald observed that “Chicago priests are like no other priests in the world.” If so, Father Michael Pfleger is truly in a class by himself. He is like no other priest in Chicago.
Pfleger is probably the only white man to be the undisputed leader of an African-American religious community. His legendary preaching style, often jarring to outsiders, is black Pentecostal far more than traditional Catholic. A tireless neighborhood activist, he is never far from the public eye. And there has never been a book about him…until now.
In Radical Disciple, Robert McClory tells the story of the controversial South Side pastor and his equally controversial parish, St. Sabina’s in Auburn Gresham. McClory, a former priest who served at St. Sabina’s in the 1960s, brings an insider’s perceptiveness to the project.
Pfleger, 61, embarked on his path early. As a little kid in Ashburn, he donned a sheet and celebrated “Mass” at an altar of orange crates. As a teenager, Pfleger watched in awe as Martin Luther King marched through Marquette Park: “I decided then I wanted to be a priest because the church can be an element for change.”
In seminary, Pfleger interned at Precious Blood, a predominantly black and Latino church on the West Side, and made it his life. He spent so much time off campus that his superiors almost refused to graduate him. Conflict with authority would remain a theme of his ministry.
Ordained in 1975, Pfleger was made associate pastor of St. Sabina’s, a historically Irish parish with membership rolls gutted by “white flight,” at 79th and Racine. He believed the church’s future lay with African-Americans in the surrounding community. However, serving under a resolutely old-fashioned pastor, he could do little until 1980, when the pastor died and Pfleger succeeded him.
He took off at a gallop, immediately introducing tithing to deal with a debt problem and aggressively cultivating new parish leadership. He pointedly refurbished St. Sabina’s interior, removing the big crucifix with its “dead white Jesus” and commissioning a mural with a very alive black Jesus.
The Mass, traditionally a staid, hour-long ritual, became three hours of praise-and-worship with a gospel choir, liturgical dancers, and Pfleger’s signature homilies. “If Pfleger has not mastered the art of black preaching, he has come close to it, as veteran preachers visiting St. Sabina often acknowledge,” McClory writes. People responded to Pfleger’s dynamism. St. Sabina grew into one of the biggest black Catholic parishes in the country.
Preaching aside, many new parishioners joined because of Pfleger’s relentless focus on social justice. Under his leadership, a significant portion of the congregation marches, protests, and otherwise agitates against a swath of local ills: poverty, gangs, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, gun violence. St. Sabina, unique among churches, has a PR office that brings reporters running to such events.
Billboards made St. Sabina and Pfleger famous. He was arrested for painting over those that advertised alcohol and tobacco, and national media outlets picked it up. Acquitted of vandalism charges in 1991, Pfleger inspired a nationwide wave of ordinances limiting such billboards. But gun violence is closest to his heart: his adopted son Jarvis was shot to death in 1998.
Pfleger also guided the rehabilitation of the 79th Street corridor, known for its drug dealers and prostitutes. Today restaurants, community centers and a retirement home anchor the immediate St. Sabina neighborhood. The difference is obvious to anyone who was there before Pfleger came.
However, McClory doesn’t neglect the times when the priest is wrong. A passionate, guileless man with a tendency to say whatever pops into his head, Pfleger became notorious during the 2008 election season for mocking Hillary Clinton in a sermon that went viral on YouTube. An attempt to speak prophetically about white privilege, it degenerated into bad taste.
Meanwhile, Pfleger and his parishioners struggle to live their vision of church while in a cold war with the hierarchy. Three cardinal-archbishops in a row—John Cody, Joseph Bernardin, and Francis George—have been openly leery of the Auburn Gresham mavericks.
Michael Pfleger emerges as a complex, contradictory figure: a micromanager with a sixth sense about how to delegate; a crackerjack community builder who is isolated from his fellow priests; and a surprisingly vulnerable man with supreme self-confidence. It is to McClory’s credit that he can seamlessly fuse it all into the narrative.
“Don’t come to church for me,” Pfleger tells his congregation, “because I will let you down. But he [Jesus] will never let you down.” Pfleger’s genius is to make them believe it, and believe also in their own capacity to transform an unjust world. McClory’s genius is to capture Pfleger’s genius in fewer than 200 pages.