Author of “Radical Disciple” thanks Chicago Defender for shaping his career

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pfleger‘Pfleger like Dr. King, a Prophet Setting the Captives Free’

By Chinta Strausberg

When Robert McClory graduated from Northwestern’s School of Journalism in 1971, he unknowingly began a rollercoaster life that saw him leaving the priesthood, marrying a nun, becoming a father, and launching a career as a reporter at the Chicago Defender newspaper all within a two-year period and culminating in the writing of a book called the “Radical Disciple.”
From 1971 to 1978, McClory, who is white, was surprised at the amount of respect and admiration he received from the black community he covered especially from Louis E. Martin, Jr., a well-known newspaper publisher, activist and adviser to several presidents.
McClory praised Martin for teaching him how to write and how to be a good reporter. McClory was proud to be able to interview people like the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. and other black elected officials including the late Mayor Harold Washington.
But, while African Americans befriended him and praised his work, McClory said whites had a different attitude. “They would ask me, ‘What are you working for them for’”? McClory said he was proud to have worked for the Chicago Defender and for the African American community.
However, because he and his wife just had a baby, McClory, who had been promoted to associate editor, had to leave to enhance his salary. However, he took with him an improved writing ability and a number of well-recognized sources.
For 20-years, McClory wrote for the Chicago Reader and the Sepia Magazine while teaching part-time at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism from 1983 to 1988. He later taught full-time at Medill from 1988 to 2003. McClory began writing books on Catholic Church history and ultimately wrote the “Radical Priest” a story about his friend, Father Michael L. Pfleger.
For years, McClory had stood on the sidelines watching Pfleger get arrested for defacing alcohol billboards, taking on drug dealers and demanding neighborhood stores cease selling drug paraphernalia to children.
A sometimes-nervous McClory said someone had to record what Pfleger was doing. “He could have gone to jail, said McClory who likened the actions of his friend to that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights activism calling them both social agents for change.
Ironically, Father Pfleger is a priest today because of Dr. King, his mentor. When Pfleger was a teen, he watched in horror the neighbors he thought he knew hurling racial epithets and stones at a seemingly calm and peaceful King who sang songs like “We Shall Overcome.” It was King’s non-violent demeanor and his strength that impressed young Pfleger the most. His neighbors and friends’ behavior was shocking and repulsive to him.
But it was a shock when Pfleger’s parents opened his bedroom door one day to find Dr. King’s pictures plastered all over the walls. This was during the days where blacks could not live in Marquette Park. They found their son listening to King’s speeches. His parents were racially tolerant people.
McClory, then a priest, had time to watch Pfleger grow into his priesthood having been assigned to Saint Sabina in 1964 just 11-years before Pfleger, then 31, became the youngest ordained full priest to be appointed by the Archdiocese.

When the first black families arrived, the people panicked, recalled McClory who blamed the realtors for allegedly engaging in blockbusting tactics. “They encouraged whites to move and bought their houses for less than they were worth but sold them for more. People were very upset.”
McClory said when blacks began to move into the community, it “brought out the latent” racist tendencies of white church members and likened the anti-black sentiment to a “virus, which spread throughout the parish.” “Before the changing, there were 3,000 to 3500 families that attended Saint Sabina.
“There were 13 masses on Sunday with some held in McMahon Hall. There would be a 10 a.m. mass upstairs and a 10:30 a.m. mass downstairs. We had a whole team of seven priests living in the rectory at the time.
“They used to bring in some priests from some of the other religious orders, the Augustinians, retired priest to help say mass on Sunday’s. The crew there was not able to handle the whole thing…. Saint Sabina was one of the largest Catholic parishes in the city at the time. “
“I got there in 1964. There were one or two black families in the parish at that time. The Knox family was the first black family to move in. People were worried and upset about their taking over our parish just like they’ve taken over the others ones to the North and the East of them. They said it was a patterned. Some of the whites had moved from the North and East. They felt they were being pushed. They thought they were safe at Saint Sabina but when the blacks came they felt it is going to happen again.
“The pastor, John McMahon, had good intentions. He hoped and worked for an integrated parish. “Nobody’s got to move,” said McMahon. “These are good people. We welcome them. There is no reason to panic.”
McMahon formed the Organization for the Southwest Community designed to keep peace and hired Saul Alinsky to run the organization. In the early days, there were hopes that it would work but in the end the blockbusting tactics of the realtors won, McClory reflected.
Change was in the air. McClory left the priesthood and married a nun who taught at the Saint Sabina Academy. He left Saint Sabina Church in 1971 to enter journalism. Back then, there were still hundreds of white families but most of them were getting ready to leave. Four-years later, Father Pfleger came and nothing’s been the same ever since.
ERSE he said there were about 150 white families left and 150 black families compared to 3,000 just a few years earlier but just four-years later in comes Father Pfleger and Saint Sabina has never been the same since.
Pfleger came to Saint Sabina in 1975, but though young, he was far from being inexperienced. Pfleger brought with him his experience of working at black West Side churches, of living with a black family of 10 in the Cabrini Green CHA developments, of working with Native American Indians in Oklahoma, and being a Chaplin at the Cook County Jail.
Young Pfleger knew his mission – to follow the path of his mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to “help set the captives free,” and he refused to be sidetracked by any distractions planted by the Satan’s of the world.
McClory, now a retired Northwestern journalism professor, remembers Pfleger’s coming to Saint Sabina as if it were yesterday. At that time, McClory said there were about 150 members white and 150 black members.
The church was sustained by bingo and subsidies from the Archdiocese. “A lot of those (Catholic) black churches are still maintained by money coming from downtown,” he said.
McClory credited Pfleger with persuading his members to not rely on handouts from the Archdiocese but rather to tithe one-tenth of their income and sustain Saint Sabina themselves…. It was a gamble. He hated bingo. It was a waste of money…old women coming in and spending their welfare money on this stupid game and he despised it.
“He told the people we’re not going to have bingo. We’re not going to have spaghetti suppers. We’re not going to have any of this stuff. We’re going to make this stuff work. We’re going to pay our own way, and he persuaded them,” McClory recalled of Pfleger’s vows.
Saint Sabina, McClory may have the largest Sunday collection in Chicago and credited that to Pfleger’s challenges to his flock.
But, in comparison between 1971 and now, McClory said Saint Sabina is an “incredibly different place.” Explaining, he said, “The church building and the inside is so much cleaner than what it was when I was there. It’s so well maintained. Everything is classy. Everything is done with a flair…the choir, the dancers…everything is so well prepared.
“In the old days, there were so many masses, funerals, weddings and stuff going on that you could not just sit back and enjoy yourself,” said McClory. “Now, you have all of these people in charge of ministries who can carry their own rate some of whom took huge cuts in salaries…. It’s a different culture than it was” in the 1970’s.
“It seems to me that this is kind of authentically Catholic black culture like you will find in very few places elsewhere, very few. When you go into some black parishes, they wanted to be an imitation of a white parish.
“A number of black people who came to Saint Sabina in the early days left after awhile when the worship became more active and they felt they want a nice quiet mass,” he mused, “and you’re not going to get that here.” “On the other hand, there has been such an attraction to so many black people, young people….
“The Catholic church has always been solemn and quiet. You go to mass to do your duty and you can go home as soon as possible, but that is not the way it functions at Saint Sabina, and I don’t think white people understand that at all,” McClory said. However, McClory said the current Saint Sabina mass has been an attraction to others. It is not your traditional Catholic mass.
Commenting on Pfleger’s very public battles with the alcohol and tobacco billboard executives, marching on stores many times with Father George Clements by his side to protest the selling of drug paraphernalia, McClory said, “I would have counseled him at the time (and told him) that he had gone way over the line, gone way over the top at the time he started doing that.
“In retrospect, my gosh, that takes a lot of nerve. That’s really putting your neck out. He could have gone to prison for five-years for what he did particularly his painting those billboards,” recalled McClory.
“But, that is what a prophet does. He’s out ahead the rest of us…. The prophet is the one who says he hears another voice and says, ‘this is the thing that the situation calls for at this moment and that’s been a part of Mike’s career. He sees in ways most people don’t. God bless him for being faithful to the call that he hears,” said McClory and God bless him for taking on issues most religious leaders avoid.
When asked about Pfleger creating a national stir when he paid money to prostitutes who were working the Gresham/Auburn community, McClory said, “That’s another one of those courageous things that he does. He got a lot of flack for that—‘Saint Sabina Pays for Prostitutes’ was one headline.
Pfleger paid the women money to come to church and hear the word. He said Pastor had explained to him, “What do people do when people see prostitutes standing at the corner in their neighborhood? They call the police. What did Jesus do when he saw prostitutes hanging around? He went and talked to them. He had dinner with them,” said McClory. “They became his friends. They quit prostituting.”
McClory said of Pfleger’s paying the prostitutes money to hear the word, “That was his motivation. His life has been founded on what would Jesus do. How does he handle the sinners, the prostitutes…? He was criticized for that. He spends his time with sinners and the kinds of people respectable people don’t hang around with…. He certainly got the prostitutes out of the neighborhood and some of them were converted.” “That has been his life.”
Pfleger has had even more crosses to bear including his taking on Jerry Springer he says glorified violence and projected negative images of blacks on his TV show. Pfleger marched on Springer and Howard Stern, a radio jock who ticked off Pfleger when he erected a billboard that promoted his satellite radio show.
Stern had a picture of a black man with raised black power fist that said, “Let freedom ring and let it be rung by a stripper” Pfleger believed Stern took from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
And, who can forget his fiercest battle with Cardinal George who evicted him from the Saint Sabina Church after Pfleger, who on May 25, 2008 spoke at President Obama’s old church, Trinity United Church of Christ, where he mocked President Clinton’s wife, Hillary. Pfleger was trying to illustrate white entitlement by saying, “I really believe she just thought, ‘This is mine. I’m Bill’s wife. I’m white, and this is mine…. ‘Then out of nowhere came, ‘Hey, I’m Barack Obama,’ and she said, ‘Oh, damn! Where did you come from? I’m white! I’m entitled!’
Pfleger’s remarks had the entire church in tears and laughter. He took a handkerchief and wiped away mock tears some say was a swipe at Hillary’s very emotional speech during the New Hampshire primary. Pfleger said, “She wasn’t the only one crying. There were a whole lot of white people crying, too.”
Pfleger weathered that storm with the Cardinal and returned more determined than ever to finish Dr. King’s unfinished agenda including violence that continues to infest and invade the black community.
On April 7, 2010, Cardinal George presented Pfleger with the “Lifetime Achievement Award” during a ceremony held at the Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory School. The two seem to have made peace; however, Pfleger will never stop marching and yelling about injustices especially against African Americans.
In his way of trying to raise the issue of violence, the latest plague in the black community, Pfleger recently asked Loop businessmen to light up their buildings in blue as a symbol of peace and to recognize Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. week.
They agreed, and though the wind chill factor dipped well below zero, Pfleger held a peace vigil Tuesday, January 18, 2011, at the Daley Plaza ending the march in front of City Hall where Mayor Richard M. Daley had displayed blue lights for peace. Next year, his blue for peace campaign will be a national campaign.
While he continues to get thousands of hate e-mails a month, Pfleger remains committed to the black community and has started a little league team, developed 33 ministries that range from employment, social services, drug and alcohol addictions, book clubs, sisterhoods, youth programs, communications, and the establishment of the Shekhinah clinic in Ghana.
And, he continues to sprint down King’s unfinished highway carrying a similar civil and human rights load once born by Dr. King. While it is heavy, Father Pfleger remains committed, un-bought and un-bossed to the cause of social justice and equality for all.

Chinta Strausberg is a Journalist of more than 33-years, a former political reporter and a current PCC Network talk show host.

Photo: By Chinta Strausberg

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