Chicago Priest Blends Faith and Activism

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Father Michael Pfleger is a prominent activist in Chicago. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Olson/Getty Images

Father Michael Pfleger grabbed the world's attention this year when a video of him sarcastically criticizing Sen. Hillary Clinton made its way through the Internet and cable news. In a newsmaker interview, Father Pfleger talks about what this exposure taught him about his role as a religious leader and an activist.

: I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We're in Chicago this week for the Unity Convention of Journalists of Color and we're exploring the city. A little later in the program, we'll open our mail bag and hear what you have to say about our broadcast this week. But right now, we're going to continue with our Faith Matters conversation with Father Michael Pfleger. Father Pfleger, there's been some interesting conversation about what role the church should play in our society. Some people say the church should be a place where people can hear their pain spoken out loud. Some people say the church should just be there to comfort. And I'm just wondering if there's a point at which - just some pains cannot be spoken because people just don't want to hear it, or just the cost is too high.

PFLEGER: I think we have to speak. I think it's all that. I think we have to be encouraging to people and I think we have to speak the pain of people. We have to be the voice that cries in the wilderness. The Bible says in season and out of season, when it's convenient and when it's not convenient. I can't be silent when people eat out of garbage cans in my neighborhood, when people are living without lights or living without gas, when people, you know, are living on a day to day poverty, working poor, who one car break down, one problem of sickness in the family can throw them into the depths of society. That's how vulnerable their lives are.

Something is wrong in the richest country in the world where there's homeless, where there's children who go to school and can't get educated. I think the problem is, is that the voice of prophetic preaching and teaching and liberation is silent in today's society, that we become a very comfortable church and make people feel good and they come to church to escape rather than to deal with the issues, and I think that we have to regain the activism. You know, look at the civil rights movement. I used to watch priests and nuns marching in the civil rights, there were ministries around the country that were marching with Dr. King of all denominations, all races. Today, we're almost lulled into a sleep.

: As I just mentioned, you are coming to us straight from a service, a demonstration, that you mount every time a teenager is killed in the city, and I'm just going to play a short clip.


PFLEGER: Save our kids!

GROUP: Save our kids!

PFLEGER: Let them grow up!

GROUP: Let them grow up!

PFLEGER: Put the guns down!

GROUP: Put the guns down!

PFLEGER: Put the guns down!

GROUP: Put the guns down!

: Father Pfleger, what do you hope these demonstrations will accomplish?

PFLEGER: Well, I hope it will continue to raise the issue, put it in the face of legislators because while they fail to pass common sense gun laws, blood is on their hands, and they cannot just become immune or turn their backs or close their eyes to children dying. They, nor any citizen in the city.

: You're having a gun buy-back program at the church over the weekend. You're offering a hundred-dollar gift certificate to people who turn in a gun.


: Do you - you know, you can imagine - say gosh, you know, I'm drinking out of a fire hose here. Do you really think that makes a difference?

PFLEGER: Yeah, a lot of people say it's a joke and it's crazy, and all, but I'll tell you what. We've done this gun buy-back program with the city for the last three years, but also we've done on our own before the city had even started it. And when you see one young person come in and say you know what, I don't want to do this anymore and turn it in, it's worth it. When a grandmother or an auntie or a mother come in and say I found this is in my son's room or I found this in my grandson's room. I want to get this gun out of the house. So if we can get one gun out of the house that could have been used to hurt somebody or hurt themselves, it's worth the whole program to me. I'm not worried about numbers.

It's just every week, four months ago, we said every time a child gets killed, we're going to be back down at the Center of Illinois - Center of State Legislators in order to put this back, and say we want stricter gun laws, we want to deal with this gun issue, we want to deal with the violence for our children. We've been down there every week and sometimes twice a week because it's continued not just in Chicago, but across this country. Thirty thousand people a year die from gun violence in America. Fifty-five percent of the homicides - of suicides, are from those who have guns in the home.

: Do you have faith that some time in your lifetime, if you and I get back together, we won't be having this conversation?

PFLEGER: I do. If I - you know...

: Why?

PFLEGER: I still believe, you know...

: I mean you've been doing this for a long time. Why?

PFLEGER: I've been doing it for a long time and I mean - you know, heaven is heaven. This is earth. And we're always going to have problems here, evil is a reality, and there's always going to be a battle. You know, when God called the people to the promised land, they entered the promised land, in this promise land, there are still giants there. There are still giants here that we got to deal with - of racism, of violence, of poverty, of classism, of sexism. If we're not willing to keep fighting the giants, then the promised land doesn't mean enough to us. So I believe, you know, we look to the days, we say whenever David won't have any giants to fight, there's always going to be some giants. Our job is to keep fighting while we got breath.

: Father Michael Pfleger leads the faith community of Saint Sabina on the south side of Chicago, who's kind enough to join us here at WBEZ in Chicago. Thank you so much for stopping by.

PFLEGER: Thank you, Michel. Pleasure to be with you.

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