A caucasian man walks into an African-American church. It sounds like the beginning of a bad, potentially insensitive joke. Yet, this man is a welcome presence every Sunday morning. He is Rev. Dr. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Parish, the largest African-American Catholic Church in Chicago. This charismatic, Southside priest has drawn national attention and controversy for his strong social activism including campaigns against drug-sale, gang activity, and gun violence in St. Sabina’s Auburn Gersham neighborhood.
Michael Pfleger graduated from Loyola University Chicago, completed his seminary studies at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, and received postgraduate degrees from Mundelein College and the Catholic Theological Union. He was ordained in the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1975. And, in 1981, when Fr. Pfleger was just 31, Fr. Pfleger became the youngest pastor of St. Sabina’s parish. Since then, Fr. Pfleger has remained a powerhouse in the African-American community, delivering fiery hour-long sermons in the style of black preaching that many Roman Catholics would find uncommon, leading peace marches across Chicago, and most recently taking to twitter to protest President Trump’s inaccurate statements about Chicago’s violence. A figure beloved by more than just his own community, Pfleger has won many awards including the ‘Distinguished Service Award’ from the Nation of Islam, the ‘Rosa Parks Award’ from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the ‘Thurgood Marshall Award’ from the National Black Prosecutors Association. He has ongoing (albeit controversial) relationships with President Barack Obama and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
As this blog is dedicated to creatives and their creative products, we have to look at Fr. Pfleger’s creative “product.” Unlike an artist or inventor, Fr. Pfleger’s achievements are not tied to specific, tangible products. Instead, his creativity is found in the community of St. Sabina’s parish. As mentioned, Fr. Pfleger has adapted his style of preaching from a typical four to eight minute homily to fifty to ninety minute sermons every Sunday in order to appeal to his community. Liturgies at the parish also move away from common Roman Catholic Eucharistic celebrations to include a large band, a full gospel choir, and a stronger emphasis on praise and worship. Moreover, as pastor of St. Sabina, he adapted the interior of the large church to fit to the African American community, with a large altar in the shape of an African drum, black depictions of Mary and Joseph, and a large portrait of Jesus as a black man in the sanctuary. Apart from these innovations to the liturgy and architecture of St. Sabina’s, Fr. Pfleger has also mobilized the parish to become a safe cultural hub in the city. He founded the parish’s Employment Resource Center, the Ark Youth Center, Saint Sabina Social Service Center, and the Samaritan House for the Homeless. He has also put the parish in the national spotlight, with figures such as Chance the Rapper, Common, and other African-American celebrities drawn to the church’s explicit support of the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Fr. Pfleger embodies the principle of Satyagraha, a movement started by Gandhi during his activism in India. Gardner describes this principle as active, nonviolent resistance to unjust laws. It loosely translates to “insistence on justice.” As a controversial social activist, Fr. Pfleger has been arrested and threatened multiple occasions for his nonviolent protest of injustice in his community. He has also withstood official suspension from the Archdiocese and controversy for his support of Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential Campaign. Despite these obstacles, Fr. Pfleger remains committed to justice just as Gandhi was. He promotes peaceful, active resistance to tyranny and violence and has mobilized his community to reach out to prostitutes, report gang violence, inspect local stores for poor conditions, and advocate for stronger gun control. Fr. Pfleger embodies the same kind of creativity that inspired Gandhi to lead his country out of oppression.
Watch Fr. Pfleger talking about Chicago's gun violence recently on CNN:
Watch a short video explaining more about Fr. Pfleger and the Faith Community of Saint Sabina: