Radical Activism for Social Justice

On October 7, 2018, Father Pfleger bellowed from the pulpit about violence, the end of the van Dyke trial, and the midterm elections, somehow rounding it back to Jesus’ love and what he calls for Christians to do in the world. I have attended very few Catholic masses, yet from my experience in protestant churches, and limited days in mass, I have never witnessed a sermon so political, yet so relevant to the events of the day. I believe that Father Pfleger’s unwillingness to shy away from the political crusades of the time, including while preaching on Sunday morning, has led to his success and respect among the black community at St. Sabina.

Father Pfleger’s activism has two sides, the radical that often makes the news, and the more subtle attempts to bring support and care for the neglected community. For example he holds voter registration drives every Sunday, as well as regularly preaching on voting as he did last Sunday, as well as fighting for economic support to open businesses and improve schools in the community. However, “in 1991, he faced five years on felony charges” because “Pfleger and members of his church splattered red paint on billboards” in response to a study that found that there were drastically higher numbers of alcohol and tobacco advertisements in minority neighborhoods in Chicago than white neighborhoods (Osnos). Activism of this grain harks back to Berrigan and his willingness to face prison in his fight for justice. Furthermore, there are reflections to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, post- Vatican II, when more Catholic clergy joined the marches and other non-violent movements led by Martin Luther King Jr. to fight for racial equality. At a time when some bishops and cardinals ordered their dioceses to stand down, and in a time of segregated parishes, “priests from fifty different dioceses, lay people, and nuns flocked to Alabama to join in the marches” (McGreevy).

Furthermore, there are difficulties in growing and maintaining African-American Catholics, and much of the Catholic Church is still segregated, albeit not by law anymore. Some clergy took it upon themselves to grow the black congregation, particularly in places where white Catholics had moved out, yet numerous Catholic parishes and schools remained. As the number of activist clergy increased in the 1960s, “the definition of a successful parish became its ability to address social justice issues. The conference “The Catholic Church and the Negro” concluded that, “If the priest is not present [at protests], no amount of preaching will ever convince the Negro that the Catholic Church is his church”” (McGreevy). There were more visibly Catholic religious at racial justice marches in the 1960s than in previous eras, as many priests, nuns, and other clergy began to participate. This was useful as a platform to increase black interest in the Catholic Church, yet many difficulties remained due to segregated communities, and thus Churches. However, it was slowly realized that the Catholic Church had to take a stand for racial equality or it would be unsuccessful in growing among the black community in America.

Father Pfleger embodies the spirit of the 1960s activism, today. He calls for an overhaul of the system that has created this inequality. With the community surrounding St. Sabina as a platform, he has included “a food pantry, a job-training center, and apartments for low-income residents and the elderly” (Osnos). He consistently demands transformation for neglected Chicago communities, both through his actions as well as on from the pulpit on Sunday mornings. On the Sunday of October 7, Father Pfleger used most of his time to speak on social justice issues. His voice rang out as he preached on the victory in the Laquan McDonald, yet the necessity that the community and the Church demand that Officer van Dyke’s conviction of 2nd degree murder won’t end in a low sentence, but that he will get an acceptable sentencing equal to the murder that he committed. He spoke of the upcoming midterm elections and the importance of voting for candidates whose policies line up, not voting due to their race or gender. He called out specific politicians, such as Mitch McConnell, for their supremacy and voiced his opinion on the Kavanaugh hearings. He tied in past movements for social justice, such as the Montgomery boycotts, and how economics can and should be used as a weapon. I had never seen a sermon so politicized, yet simultaneously Father Pfleger succeeded in interweaving Jesus’ words and teachings to his demands for radical activism and his calls for transformation of the corrupt system. I can understand why African-American Christians would find a community in St. Sabina’s, while the Catholic Church in America remains quite segregated and the leadership predominately white. To watch Father Pfleger speak on a panel regarding nonviolence action and what the communities need: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LeNOKYpgHc .

A recent radical action led by Father Pfleger was shutting down the Dan Ryan Expressway in protest of gun violence. He argued with the police until they allowed the protesters to stop the traffic by closing down two inbound lanes of traffic. Speaking after the march, “Pfleger said now the youth want meetings “with the governor, the mayor, and all candidates running for those two offices to hear the plans to equal the unequal playing fields of the South and West sides of Chicago”” (Hinton and Ramos). To hear Father Pfleger discuss the importance of inconveniencing people in order to make change in regards to shutting down the Dan Ryan Expressway: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haDOU1CFdzQ . This rhetoric is echoed in Pfleger’s sermons in which he often talks of the radical transformation necessary to change the unequal playing fields. This is also familiar in Father Lippert’s actions in Memphis in the 1960s who fought for integration of Catholic Churches as well as parish schools. Because of his actions, Little Flower became a multicultural church and began to address issues of racial justice and poverty. Other so called radical actions at the time, included members of the Catholic Human Rights Council (CHRC) “attending Mass together as a council at various churches where the pastors were resistant to integration” (DeLong). This seemingly small action forced white Catholics to confront their own prejudice and helped promote racial understanding.

Father Pfleger’s activism in St. Sabina’s largely stems from his upbringing. The discrimination that his sister faced from being disabled as well as his interest in the actions of Martin Luther King Jr., both greatly influence his work today. To read more about Father Pfleger’s childhood: https://chicago.suntimes.com/news/michael-pfleger-fueled-injustice/ . He took radical action to confront drugs in the community, even going so far as to call out gang members by their nicknames during an antiviolence march in 2012. For this he received death threats. Although Father Pfleger has a great influence in the community, not all agree with his activism and vocal opposition to certain political issues, especially some white Catholics in the hierarchy. This reflects in Memphis during the 1960s when many white, lay Catholics disagreed with Lippert’s efforts to integrate the parishes as well as in San Francisco during the Proposition 14 fight. While weariness about the Catholic role in the civil rights movement was always apparent, the Prop 14 issue is a prime example. In January 31, 1964, Father James Gaffrey wrote an Op-Ed that “criticized the church hierarchy because they had “preached, but not lead” in the racial justice campaign” (Issel and Wold). However, in October of the same year, a poll of local Catholics revealed that “18 percent of respondents believed that civil rights and race relations was an “improper subject” for the church” and 20 percent felt that church conduct in racial matters was “too strong” (Issel and Wold). Although this shows that many Catholics still supported the Church’s involvement in racial justice, a significant number of lay Catholics would have preferred, and likely still prefer, that the Catholic Church remain more impartial and less radically political.

Father Pfleger is a continuum of the activism by Father Lippert, Father Gaffrey, and the thousands of nuns, priests, and lay Catholics who have practiced radical activism to fight for racial justice. He has confronted President Obama about gun policy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akgBEsV6WEM . Father Pfleger aggressively advocates for nonviolence action in the way of MLK, through his sermons, especially following the Laquan McDonald case, and through his peaceful marches. Throughout American history, Catholics have stood on all range of the racial justice issue, from lay people and priests who support segregation to those who actively integrate their own parishes and participate in marches and peaceful demonstrations. Father Pfleger has greatly increased St. Sabina’s relevance and capabilities in the community, so that the impact is far greater than just a sermon on Sunday morning. He is actively and radically working to lift up the community just as many have done before him in Memphis, San Francisco, and Chicago.


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