Rev. Michael Pfleger’s anger fueled by injustice
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The Rev. Michael Louis Pfleger.
Priest. Activist. Dragon slayer.
Who is this guy?
What makes him tick?
Where in the heck does a 69-year-old white priest of German-Irish-French descent, who heads St. Sabina Church — the city’s largest African-American Catholic congregation — get the nerve to shut down the Dan Ryan Expressway?
Why is he so angry, logging thousands of protest marches fueled by a furor over inequity, social injustice and gun violence?
How does he do it?
Well, for one thing Pfleger has a secret pacifier — a little dog named “Justice,” who needs to be patted daily and “helps settle things down,” chuckled Pfleger, a Chicagoan who describes himself as a guy from the neighborhood.
“And at least 10 times a day I am forced to cry out ‘Justice!’
“Look, I am a fighter,” he said.
“I had a quiet but determined father; a mother who thought she knew everything and told you so; and the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King.”
“And I learned at an early age about injustice,” he said.
“I’ve given some thought to the sources of my anger . . . and I realized awhile back it must have begun watching my sister, Joan, who was 10 years older and mentally challenged, being laughed at and pointed at and made fun of while I was growing up in the 1950s.
“She was one of the most generous and sweetest people in the world, my only sibling. To watch her treated that way and called names was horrible.
“Then during my first and second years in high school, I’d go down in the summer to work with Native Americans in Oklahoma. And I’d see the prejudice they’d have to endure, and learned about the genocide and their terrible problems.
“How could this be American?
“My mother would laugh and say: ‘Well, welcome to America!’
“Then in my junior year of high school, I took a bike ride to Marquette Park when Dr. Martin Luther King was marching through . . . and I saw all the hate and name-calling from people that I knew lived in my neighborhood and went to my church, and I was horrified and overwhelmed by all that hate.
“But I was also overwhelmed by Dr. King not responding to all that hate and anger.
“So I remember thinking while riding my bike that this man was either crazy or had some kind of wonderful power inside him.
“So I started studying everything I could about Dr.King. I studied his speeches and his writings and his lifestyle. I became obsessed with him; he became my mentor.
“I plastered my wall in my bedroom with everything about him.
“Then, of course, while I’m in college, Dr. King gets killed, and my life goes up for grabs. He was my hero.”
The product of a “very strong family who was very involved in our neighborhood church,” Pfleger decided to enter the seminary “but was kicked out for not spending enough time there,” he said.
“They later took me back, but I had gotten very involved in the West Side of Chicago and developed a great admiration for what the Black Panthers were doing to serve the community — although I was never brought into the violence part.
“It helped develop my skills as a community organizer.
“But my mission was to get ordained; I wanted to create the kind of church Dr. King modeled. I grew up with nuns and priests who were very involved in the civil rights movement.
“I wanted to be a part of the church of the New Testament. An authentic Christian church. Not the kind of church modeled after what you did when you went to church on Sunday — but what you did every day after you left church on Sunday to build God’s kingdom.”
Emboldened by the demonstrations in the 1960s, Pfleger said he fought against the Vietnam War and helped close down Lake Shore Drive; protested the 1968 Democratic National Convention; got tear gassed on Michigan Avenue; and got arrested in front of the South African consulate protesting apartheid.
“Cardinal [Francis] George felt I was not fitting in to what the Catholic Church stands for, but I felt the church had changed. The church of the ’60s was on the front lines of justice. I hadn’t changed.
“That’s one reason I love Pope Francis and Cardinal Cupich; they are trying to bring the church back to the voice of the poor and the disenfranchised.
“We need to bring the American church back to that.”
Pfleger credits Dr. King’s family for “allowing me into their friendship and sharing so much about the movement; his speeches gave me a voice.
“My dad encouraged me; so did my mother who taught me to think for myself.
“They all helped teach me that to be a man of God was to be an activist against injustice. I believe only the faith community can change the heart. That’s the job of the church and synagogue and mosque.
“But I believe one of our most failed communities in America is the faith community, because we have forgotten our calling.
“We have become business and Fortune 500 companies.”
“God help us.”