Rev. Michael Pfleger, the outspoken pastor of Chicago’s St. Sabina Catholic Church, didn’t offer any new information to the crowd gathered at Elmhurst College Monday on whether he’ll remain at the South Side church he’s led for 30 years.
But Pfleger, who confirmed in recent weeks that Cardinal Francis George and the Chicago Archdiocese want to reassign him even though he has indicated he wants to stay at St. Sabina, had plenty to say about social justice. His address was part of Elmhurst College’s third annual Sacred Conversation on Social Justice.
Pfleger chastised the church for becoming complacent in the face of increasing gun violence, poverty, homelessness, unemployment, hunger and declining high school graduation rates among inner-city youth.
“I’ve been at St. Sabina’s, as you’ve probably read lately, for quite a number of years,” said Pfleger, which drew laughter from the audience. “But I’ve never seen so many hungry people in my life. I’ve never seen so many people unemployed and saying, ‘Just give me a job. I’ll do anything. Just let me take care of my family.’ ”
The church, he said, “Has created a golden calf in place of the church of Jesus Christ.”
“We don’t offend anybody,” he told the crowd at the college’s Frick Center Founders Lounge. “We don’t talk about anything controversial. We don’t talk about justice. This ought to be the church’s finest hour to give people hope.”
Pfleger challenged those who attended the lecture, whether they’re Christian, Muslim or Jewish, to get out of their comfort zone “and go where the pain is; go where the injustice is.”
“I beg you: Be an unpaid lobbyist for the poor,” he said. “Be an unpaid lobbyist for those who feel like nobody even cares (whether) they live or die.”
Pfleger used the case of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 and became a catalyst for the civil rights movement, as a backdrop for his address.
Noting that Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted on keeping the boy’s casket open so the public could view his mutilated corpse, Pfleger said “we have to open the casket” on the evils of violence, racism, militarism, sexism, classism, the increasing number of incarcerated young black men and the celebration of celebrity lifestyles and pop culture.
“I’m so sick and tired of hearing about the drug habits of Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen and the wedding of (Kate Middleton and Prince William of England) and we’re ignoring sisters and brothers dying all around us every single day,” Pfleger said.
Pfleger wondered if the carnage from the January shooting near Tucson that killed six people and seriously wounded Arizona Democratic U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords could have been reduced had the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, enacted by the Clinton Administration in 1994, not expired in 2004. He called not only for the ban to be renewed, but for legislation that would put more responsibility on firearms manufacturers.
“Our country banned assault weapons in Iraq, but never banned them here,” he said. “If people want to own a gun, that’s fine. Why can’t we title guns straight from the manufacturer? We’ve got to make people accountable.”
Pfleger also asked why children who are dying from violence in the inner cities don’t receive national attention comparable to the shootings in Arizona.
“Do we understand that the new landmarks in urban America are becoming yellow police tape and balloons and teddy bears where people have been shot and killed?” he said. “It used to be, ‘Father Michael, can you pray for me? I’ve got a test (in school) on Friday.’ Now it’s, ‘Father Michael, will you pray that I don’t get killed in school this year?’ ”
Brandon Smith, a junior at Elmhurst College majoring in religious studies and theology, said Pfleger, who is white, brings plenty of credibility to the discussion of social justice because he runs a predominantly black inner-city parish.
“I thought it was really, really good,” Smith said. “I thought it was refreshing to hear from a Caucasian man that’s actually interested in that because I feel a lot of times it does get swept under the rug—social justice and caring for African Americans and the inner city.”
Robert Pine, a 30-year Elmhurst resident, also attended Monday’s speech. Pine, who is active in community organizations, concurred with Pfleger’s remarks from the standpoint of individuals needing to take a more active role to help achieve social justice.
“The churches in America do have a certain line to walk because of the fact there is the separation of church and state,” Pine explained. “But what I think he’s trying to say, is (for churches to) motivate their membership to do more. Because, really, the church is nothing more than its membership.
“The membership will move the church, but there is some responsibility of the church, itself, to turn around and try to move its members. But a lot of his remarks are social remarks. Even if you’re an atheist or a Buddhist or any of the eastern religions, it’s the individual who needs to take action.”