The Rev. Leon Finney Jr., “an organizer’s organizer” lauded for being “on the frontline of change throughout the land” died Friday morning. He was 82.
A longtime power player in Chicago politics, Dr., Rev. Finney died at the University of Chicago Medical Center after a “long-term illness,” N’DIGO publisher Hermene Hartman, a close friend, confirmed to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., called Rev. Finney “an organizer’s organizer who was on the frontline of change throughout the land.” The pastor’s fingerprints were “on the throttle of change in our city,” Rush said.
“He was my close confidant, colleague, and confederate, and was also my professor at the McCormick Theological Seminary, where he founded the African American Leadership Program, which was responsible for the training of innumerable African American Pastors in receiving their Master Degrees,” Rush said in a statement. “We have remained very close throughout the years and in recent times, especially as he was undergoing these health challenges. He was an absolute friend and an inspiration.”
Last year, a spokesman for Rev. Finney said the reverend suffered “critical cardiovascular disease” in 2016. He had open heart surgery in June 2017. He had a “health care emergency” in October 2018 and was admitted to the University of Chicago for a “critical life threatening [infection],” the spokesman said at the time.
Civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson lauded Rev. Finney’s work in The Woodlawn Organization, often abbreviated as TWO, which “brought new houses, big developments and businesses to the area.”
“A tall tree in the forest has fallen,” Jackson said. “He was an organizer for my 1988 presidential campaign, and for Carol Moseley Braun and Barack Obama. Leon also had an entrepreneurial spirit, following in his father’s footsteps.”
Born in Louise, Mississippi, Rev. Finney is the son of Leon Finney Sr., creator of the famed Leon’s Bar-B-Q.
Leon Finney Jr. followed a different path.
He joined TWO in the 1960s under the mentorship of the legendary organizer Saul Alinsky — revered as the father of modern community organizing — and Bishop Arthur Brazier, who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and built the Apostolic Church of God in Woodlawn.
Rev. Finney founded Christ Apostolic Church and served as its pastor until that church merged with Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church, 4100 S. Dr. Martin Luther King Dr., where he served as senior pastor, according to a post on the church’s Facebook page announcing his death.
Rev. Michael Pfleger, senior pastor of St. Sabina Church, said Rev. Finney was “one of the few pastors who still understood that justice was the DNA of the gospel.”
“Dr. Finney’s rich history with TWO and the Woodlawn area, along with Bishop Brazier left a deep imprint in that area,” Pfleger said. “He tried to be vocal about issues that affected the South Side and poor people.”
He also built a real estate empire on Chicago’s South Side and amassed political power while hobnobbing with politicians like Obama, Rahm Emanuel, Richard M. Daley and Toni Preckwinkle.
He cut his teeth fighting slumlords and the University of Chicago’s expansion plans in the 1960s.
He once garnered praise from politicians and appointments to powerful government boards, including spots on the Chicago Plan Commission, Chicago State University and the CHA.
Secretary of State Jesse White called Rev. Finney a “good man who made a great contribution to making Chicago a better place.
“He was a strong voice for the disadvantaged and I am sorry to hear of his passing. It is a major loss for the people of Chicago,” White said in a statement.
Though Rev. Finney gained the respect of some peers, he had also been dogged for decades by investigations into allegations of wrongdoing and mismanagement.
His nonprofit, the Woodlawn Community Development Corp, filed for bankruptcy two years ago.
Last year, the judge in that bankruptcy case said she was “appalled” by Rev. Finney’s conduct at Woodlawn as she began to unravel its tangled finances and what Rev. Finney knew about them. At a hearing in February 2019, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Carol A. Doyle accused the organization in one instance of “at least malfeasance.”
“He was one of the stalwarts of the community. He was always there to help people out, and not just as a minister,” political commentator Cliff Kelley said.
“I worked with Leon for years, politically. He was one of the greatest folks at resolving problems,” Kelley added. “We used to have meetings long before he had the church, and he wanted to put things together for the betterment of everyone. I was surprised he became a minister; he was always a businessman and politically active. And don’t forget when you’re talking about business, the new Leon’s on 63rd was very successful. At times you couldn’t get in because the lines were out the door.”
The Rev. Ira Acree, of Greater St. John Bible Church and Leaders Network of Chicago, said: “It’s a tall oak in the forest that has fallen. There’s a side to Pastor Leon Finney that many people don’t know; he was a great mentor. There was a time in the ’90s when he pulled together a plethora of pastors he personally mentored and got them more theological training. Someone now must step up to the plate and try to continue mentoring others.”
Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill., called Rev. Finney “a mainstay in African American Life in Chicago and throughout America for the past 50 years” and “a brilliant organizer who helped to build The Woodlawn Organization into a Community Powerhouse.”
Davis added that Rev. Finney “excelled in many careers: he was a successful businessman, studied theology and became a minister, organized and developed a successful Church, and taught theology at the McCormick Theological Seminary. He was politically active and involved and could always be counted on to bring crowds to a rally or meeting.”
Otis Monroe, of The Monroe Foundation, called him a “great friend.”
“I’ll miss physically talking to him, but [he] will continue in my heart and in spirit. He was a community organizer who kept our conversations raw and real, and made sure I was getting the message,” Monroe said.
“During a talk we had a month ago about the demonstrations going on, he asked, ‘What’s the strategy going forward? Is a voter registrar marching with you next time?’ He was also looking ahead and wanted others to see that it’s not just about marching.”
The Rev. Marshall Hatch, senior pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, attributed much of his success to the African American Leadership Partnership, a theological education program created by Rev. Finney.
“Truly, Dr. Finney’s impact will be ongoing,” Hatch said in a statement.
“We are well aware that Dr. Finney had fault lines along the way. Very few of our long distance runners in community development and social justice make it through life without scars and detractors. ... A great man has fallen indeed, but we as his living legacy are left with the task to carry on the work.”
Survivors include: daughter and son-in-law, Kristin Finney-Cooke and Dr. Gerald Cooke; three grandchildren. Arrangements are pending.
Contributing: Maudlyne Iherijika, Kathy Chaney, Manny Ramos