Father Michael Pfleger, the outspoken Roman Catholic priest from the gritty streets of Chicago’s South Side, traveled to the lush lawns and playing fields of Elmhurst College and issued a fiery call for America’s churches, mosques and synagogues to muster the “conviction and the courage to live dangerously.’’
Warning that too many “of our brothers and sisters’’ are haunted by poverty and crippled by racism for the church to continue playing it safe, Pfleger said the faithful must follow the sometimes dangerous path of the radical Christ, who loved the poor, fed the hungry and threw the moneychangers out of the temple.
“I dare you, make the system nervous,’’ Pfleger told the audience of nearly 400 students, faculty and Elmhurst residents crowded into Founders Lounge at the Frick Center for the Niebuhr Center's Third Annual Sacred Conversation on Social Justice on March 28. “I dare you, like Peter and John, to come in and ask the questions about a country that has seemingly lost its conscience.’’ The talk was part of the College's yearlong focus on religion in public life, Still Speaking: Conversations on Faith.
“When you walk in the room let the Devil get mad,’’ he said. “Change where you’re at and demand it be a place of justice and peace.’’
America’s religious institutions, Pfleger said, have become too mainstream, too comfortable, too confined and defined by what he called “safety rules’’ to be effective in a world of want, worry and war.
Breaking the rules
“Rules don’t offend anybody,’’ he said. “Rules don’t talk about anything controversial. Rules don’t change anything. Rules don’t talk about justice, don’t talk about things that are different. Don’t rock the boat. Just be safe.’’
They are rules that the 61-year-old, blond priest has been breaking for more than 30 years as the hard-charging pastor of St. Sabina, one of the largest African American Catholic parishes in the country. Pfleger has spent more time in the street than in his pulpit, leading crusades against the easy access to guns, the sale of drug paraphernalia and the flood of billboards in black and brown neighborhoods that advertise tobacco and alcohol.
“The courage he shows every day is why I wanted him to come to the College and speak to our community,’’ said Rev. Dr. Ronald K. Beauchamp, director of the Niebuhr Center. “Father Pfleger will tell the truth.’’
How much longer he will be telling the truth from St. Sabina is unclear. Cardinal Francis George has asked Pfleger to leave and assume leadership of a nearby Catholic boy’s high school. Pfleger and his sprawling congregation and many others across black Chicago have asked that he be allowed to stay. No decision has yet been announced.
But Pfleger isn’t toning down his oratory. When the faithful read the Book of Acts, he said, “we find there was nothing safe about the church of Jesus Christ. In fact, it was a dangerous church and every place the apostles went, social revelation and revolution took place.’’
Justice was not an elective
As a result, Pfleger said, lives were changed, communities transformed, and “God was glorified and justice was always proclaimed.’’
“Justice was not an elective of the church,’’ he added. “Justice was the bloodstream of the church.’’
Pfleger said the church must be as brave as the grieving Chicago mother, Mamie Till Mobley. In 1955 her 14-year-old son, Emmett, was lynched in Mississippi and dumped in a river. When his body was shipped home to Chicago, Till-Mobley insisted on an open-casket funeral so the world could see what evil American racism had done to her child.
He said if the United States is to reach its potential for greatness and live up to its ideals of justice and fairness, then “we have to become a dangerous church—dangerous enough to understand that we’ve got to open up the casket’’ to show the ugliness of massive incarceration of our black and brown brothers and sisters, of failing schools and of war-like violence in the nation’s inner cities.
“We have become immune in America,’’ Pfleger said, “to the genocide of black and brown children who are being shot down in the streets of America every single day, and we have a society that doesn’t seem to care.’’
He ended his talk by quoting “one of the great theologians I think that ever lived,’’ soul singer Sam Cooke. “He said, it’s been a long time coming,’’ but “change will come.’’
“And you,’’ Pfleger told the audience “must be the ones to bring it.”