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CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Activist priest reignites debate

Father Michael Pfleger, who mocked Clinton at Obama's church, has a history of stirring controversy.

May 31, 2008|Manya A. Brachear and John McCormick | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Father Michael Pfleger's face is well known in these parts, one of the many iconoclastic characters who inhabit a city with a long history of racial division and political activism.

Pfleger, a white priest who has had numerous run-ins with Chicago's Catholic archdiocese involving his political activism, mocked Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton from the pulpit of Trinity United Church of Christ last weekend.

As a guest speaker at Sen. Barack Obama's church, the priest suggested that the former first lady is a white elitist who felt entitled to the Democratic presidential nomination.

In doing so, the priest reignited a debate about Obama's church that had nearly quieted down after controversial remarks by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. surfaced this spring.

Chicago's top Catholic leader condemned Pfleger's comments. Cardinal Francis George said in a statement that Pfleger had promised him not to publicly mention any candidate by name this summer and fall and that he would abide by the "discipline common to all Catholic priests."

George said Pfleger's words crossed a line. "Racial issues are both political and moral and are also highly charged," he said. "Words can be differently interpreted, but Father Pfleger's remarks about Sen. Clinton are both partisan and amount to a personal attack. I regret that deeply."

Pfleger's maverick style has set him apart from Chicago's Catholic clergy dating to his seminary days, when he protested the Vietnam War and befriended Black Panthers.

But it also helped the priest turn a dwindling South Side congregation at St. Sabina into a thriving, predominantly African American parish. More than 2,100 parishioners call the church their spiritual home. In his three decades of ministry, it has been Pfleger's first and only assignment.

He turned things around at St. Sabina by highlighting black church traditions, hanging African art on the walls and featuring a black Jesus with his hands outstretched above the altar.

He has said his mission is to follow in the footsteps of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

King "gave us the greatest and best blueprint for ministry," Pfleger said in a 2007 interview with the Chicago Tribune. "He taught from the pulpit to do action in the community."

Pfleger has protested police brutality, marched against gang violence and defaced alcohol and tobacco billboards in black neighborhoods.

He was arrested last year for criminal trespassing during a gun control rally outside a suburban gun shop, but prosecutors dropped the charges.

In 1981, he defied the late Cardinal John Patrick Cody by adopting the first of three foster children, including one who was killed in gang crossfire near the church in 1998.

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