Not many priests get death threats. But, then again, not many priests are so often at the center of public controversy as Chicago’s Father Michael Pfleger. He’s defaced billboards, protested against Jerry Springer and Howard Stern, paid prostitutes for their time so that he could minister to them, and fought openly with Chicago Cardinal Francis George. Pfleger made national headlines during the 2008 election, when he openly derided Hillary Clinton from his pulpit, accusing her of feeling “entitled” to the Democratic nomination because she was white. He’s often accused of blurring the line between social activism and being openly political, and he’s the subject of a new book, “Radical Disciple: Father Pfleger, St. Sabina Church, and the Fight For Social Justice” by Chicago author Robert McClory.
McClory seems uniquely qualified to author the book; beyond being a former reporter for the Chicago Reader who profiled Pfleger back in 1989, McClory himself was a former priest at Pfleger’s St. Sabina’s. He was leaving the parish right around the same time that Pfleger was coming on in the late sixties, as the demographics for the neighborhood switched from predominantly white to predominantly black, and church membership shrunk almost nine-tenths. He remembers firsthand the effect Pfleger had on the congregation.
“I thought there was very little likelihood that the church, with its community center, its school, its rectory, could be (financially) supported by a small black Catholic community. I figured it would get sold to a Baptist congregation or something. That’s how it was until he arrived—he got people interested and excited about rejuvenating the community, getting involved in the community. You talk to people out there and they were either going nowhere or to a small storefront church; they stopped in one Sunday and heard him preaching and they got energized, inspirited.”
As far as accusations that Pfleger is too political, McClory is quick to defend.
“You have to tread carefully that you don’t get caught up in the uglier side of politics, but he believes you can work with politicians up to a point, for good. (Look at) his record: he’s rebuilt the community in the blocks around the church. It used to be a mess—abandoned buildings, broken bottles everywhere—now it’s got an eight-story senior citizen home, a Walgreens, a sit-down restaurant, a social service health agency, an employment agency, all these things and many others have come from him working with and through Daley, state representatives and federal representatives. He believes that not only can it be done, it should be done. He thinks too many religious people, clergy people, stay clear of them, because they don’t want to get their hands dirty. You’ve got to take that chance. He’s been very careful, it’s always a balancing act.”
Despite the public grilling he received in 2008 (along with a public rebuke from Cardinal George), McClory doesn’t suspect Pfleger will be out-of-sight for the Chicago mayoral race. “I wouldn’t put it past him to be supportive of a candidate,” McClory says. “If he thought that it was good for the city and good for the issues, he would do it.” (Jonas Simon)
Robert McClory will read from and discuss “Radical Disciple” November 18 at Barbara’s Bookstore-UIC, 1218 South Halsted, at 7pm. Free.