‘Now is the time for action,’ says activist Chicago priest
By Anthony D. Alonzo
Northwest Indiana Catholic
GARY – Father Michael Louis Pfleger’s message was summed up in simple terms, softly spoken at the beginning of his speech to local interfaith religious leaders at an awards brunch in Gary.
“The Book of Proverbs 31st chapter says to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, speak up for the rights of the destitute,” said Father Pfleger, who is pastor of St. Sabina Church in Chicago. “Speak up and judge fairly, defend the rights of the poor and the rights of the needy.”
At the Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations’ annual Martin Luther King-Cesar Chavez Social Justice Awards and Benefit Brunch on Aug. 23, Father Pfleger had Genesis Convention Center audience members on their feet, vocalizing their support throughout his message of social justice.
The federation, that has for 21 years fought for “justice and equal opportunity for all races and ethnic groups,” gathered in downtown Gary to present five service awards to non-denominational and Baptist churches leaders, a Lutheran pastor and a representative of the Gary Muslim Center.
Reflecting the group’s 2014 theme “Who Dropped the Ball? Exposing the Sham of Justice and Organizing for Real Action,” local ministers called for residents to “stay focused on their charge,” and not settle for “band-aid solutions” to urban violence, high unemployment and poor-performing public schools.
Father Pfleger, dressed in his Roman collar and a T-shirt reading ‘Demand Peace’ and ‘Blessed Are the Peacemakers’ quietly approached the podium.
After his opening remarks, Father Pfleger addressed his concerns about living in a “serious and dysfunctional time in this world and in America.” With his voice growing in volume, he spoke of crises overseas, at our southern border and in the nation’s cities. He spoke of people who had been injured or killed by alleged police wrongdoing, including the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
“The outburst in Ferguson is not just about Michael Brown but it’s about years of anger and rage of those who feel neglected and abandoned and broke and put in communities of neglect, of racism, injustice and poverty,” said the 65-year old Chicago native.
The Catholic priest said that while people falling in sinkholes have recently made headlines in the media, “whole communities have fallen into sinkholes in America and nobody has done anything to bring them back out. We have hundreds and thousands of brothers and sisters all around this country who’ve been left on the side of America’s Jerico Road.”
Father Pfleger decried three popular “illusions” or attitudes – a “just wait,” a “surrender to hopelessness” and an “it just won’t come to my house” – that debilitate people. The “lies,” he said, from politicians to corporate leaders “usually come about because of false prophets who make false promises just to keep the natives quiet.”
All of these outlooks are unacceptable, he said. “They are not in the tradition of Jesus Christ.”
He explained: “We forgot that the real power is not in the government but in the (neighborhood) block.”
Churches, Father Pfleger said, should keep “religiousness” in check and encourage those in the pews to exit the churches like “Mary of Bethany and break open their alabaster jars wherever they are and change atmospheres.”
“We can pray and we can fast, and that’s good,” Father Pfleger said, echoing James 2:26. “But then get up and do something for God’s sake.”
From St. Sabina on Chicago’s South South, Father Pfleger is known nationally and internationally for his decades of ministry to the same parish, firebrand speeches and activism on issues affecting distressed neighborhoods. He is no stranger to controversy, having attracted criticism from inside and outside the Church for some of his provocative statements and bold tactics.
Father Pfleger built up to his last remarks asking, “Who dropped the ball?” and then answered, “we dropped the ball.”
“We represent the throne of God, we represent righteousness, we represent truth, we don’t compromise, we won’t shut up until everything is right,” Father Pfleger said.