'Family' of St. Sabina march at cardinal's home to protest Pfleger's removalBy Ryan Haggerty, Dahleen Glanton, Dawn Rhodes and Liam Ford
3:20 PM CDT, April 28, 2011
The parishioners and residents of the Auburn Gresham neighborhood gathered at St. Sabina this morning before boarding two school buses that took them to the cardinal's Gold Coast mansion, where they marched and demanded that Pfleger's suspension be lifted.
Neighborhood resident April Lawson said she's concerned about whether St. Sabina could continue to play such a crucial role in its community if Pfleger is forced to leave.
"He's the fabric of the neighborhood," said Lawson, 43, who doesn't belong to the parish but gathered with parishioners outside the church this morning. "If he's not in my neighborhood, there's going to be something missing, something different about it."
The parish leadership issued a statement questioning several points in the letter from the cardinal that was given to Pfleger on Wednesday, including the cardinal's statement that Pfleger had said in a recent radio interview that he would leave the Catholic Church if he were removed from St. Sabina.
Parish leaders said the cardinal had taken Pfleger's comments out of context, but a transcript of the radio interview provided by the parish quoted Pfleger as saying: "I want to try to stay in the Catholic Church. If they say you either take this principalship of a high school or a pastorship there or leave, then I have to look outside the church."
Parish leaders also accused the archdiocese of undermining a succession plan they claimed was put in place when St. Sabina's associate pastor, the Rev. Thulani Magwaza, came to the church from South Africa in 2009.
Magwaza arrived with the understanding that he would succeed Pfleger as pastor in three to four years, a plan that the parish leaders said was suggested by Pfleger and arranged by George.
"This is totally a shock to the faith community of St. Sabina," parish council chairman Isadore Glover Jr. said during the protest in front of the cardinal's mansion. "We feel really disrespected because there have been some things stated that are really not true."
After the protest, Glover said he would likely remain in the parish even if Pfleger leaves, as long as Pfleger is treated with respect and Magwaza is allowed to take over, but he said he would probably leave the parish and perhaps the church if Pfleger left and Magwaza was not allowed to become pastor.
"That's a whole different ballgame," Glover said of the possibility of someone other than Magwaza succeeding Pfleger. If that occurs, "I would definitely follow Father Mike wherever he went, let's put it that way."
Patricia Johnson, a parishioner for 15 years, also said her decision on whether to stay in the parish depends largely on how she feels Pfleger is treated by the archdiocese.
She said most parishioners have always assumed that Pfleger would eventually leave the parish, likely through retirement, but not against his will.
"To abruptly suspend Father Pfleger, none of us agree with that," Johnson, 69, said after the protest. "That's the No. 1 thing, to treat Father Pfleger with respect, because he is definitely respected in the community. You cannot just throw him to the side, because we care about him."
Johnson said she's not sure what she would do if Pfleger left the Church, saying she is focusing for now on trying to keep him at St. Sabina.
"We're sticking with Father Pfleger and we're sticking with St. Sabina, because we are a family," she said.
Glover said the parish's leaders have requested a meeting with the cardinal.
Vince A. Clark, an assistant to Pfleger, said the cardinal's decision to suspend the priest has left his parishioners "shocked, devastated, hurt (and) angry."
"We were totally blindsided by that," Clark said, standing in front of the cardinal's home on the Near North Side. "We did not see that decision coming."
The parishioners left after about an hour.
On Wednesday, the tension that has simmered for decades between Pfleger and the Archdiocese of Chicago came to a head when George suspended the outspoken priest from St. Sabina, the South Side parish he has led for nearly 30 years.
In a sternly written letter to Pfleger, the cardinal said the priest's public remarks that he would leave the Catholic Church if he were removed from St. Sabina had "short-circuited" efforts that have been under way for weeks to reach an agreement on his possible move to Leo Catholic High School.
"If that is your attitude, you have already left the Catholic Church and are therefore not able to pastor a Catholic parish," the cardinal wrote.
The cardinal named the Rev. Thulani Magwaza, the associate pastor at St. Sabina, as administrator during the suspension, and the Rev. Andrew Smith, a priest at St. Ailbe Parish, as his assistant.
Throughout his tenure, Pfleger's political activism and outspokenness have often placed him at odds with cardinals, even before George. But the cardinal's suggestion in March to name Pfleger president of Leo quickly escalated into a standoff that pitted his African-American congregation and other South Side supporters against the archdiocese.
Pfleger chose not to speak about the suspension publicly Wednesday but directed a staff member to address the media.
Associate minister Kimberly Lymore said Pfleger had been called to a 4:30 p.m. meeting Wednesday with the cardinal at the archdiocese's pastoral center. When he arrived, she said, Pfleger was given a letter stating that he was suspended and was told the cardinal would not discuss it further.
"That's a lack of respect," Lymore said. "He was ambushed. He's spent the last (three decades) in this archdiocese, given his life to this community, to the church. To be treated like this is unfair."
As the news spread, some parishioners were furious at the cardinal's decision.
Wendy Wade, who said she has been at the church for almost 20 years, was in tears as she discussed the possibility of Pfleger leaving.
"He has done too much for this neighborhood. Please, Cardinal George, don't do this to him!" she said. "What has he done wrong but enhance the neighborhood, enhance the community to help people?"
Parishioner Seannie Woodson said that replacing Pfleger simply wasn't possible.
"It took that man too long to get this area to trust him. How can you bring somebody else and think that they can take his place?"
Smith, an African-American priest who was ordained in 2009, said he had "mixed emotions" about going to St. Sabina under such "awkward" circumstances. He said he learned of the assignment Wednesday when he received a brief phone call from the cardinal.
He said the cardinal provided no details, including how long he would be at St. Sabina.
"It's very complicated. The situation with Father Pfleger has been brewing a long time, and I don't really know what is going on between them," Smith said in a telephone interview. "But when the cardinal tells me to go, I go. It's part of my vow."
Priests generally remain at a parish for 12 years, but occasional exceptions are made in African-American parishes, where some parents went to the church because their children went to the parochial schools.
Smith said it is unfortunate that the African-American community views Pfleger's reassignment in a negative way. He said he is hopeful that the parish will eventually be receptive to hearing the gospel from someone else.
"I would say he's been there too long and that's why there's this situation of bickering and misunderstanding. That's why rules are in place to prevent things like that from happening," Smith said.
He tried to call Pfleger on Wednesday evening but was unable to reach him, Smith said.
"Father Pfleger has done a lot of good things, but there is a certain level of obedience that we all adhere to," Smith said.
In the letter, George said he had offered Pfleger the position at Leo, a parochial school near St. Sabina, because the archdiocese needed him there. He said it also would allow Pfleger to continue his advocacy work for gun control, education and service to the poor. The cardinal said it was not a demand, but a proposal, which he urged Pfleger to accept.
But according to Lymore, a week after that meeting, Pfleger sent a letter to the cardinal saying he was neither qualified nor experienced to be president of a high school, but that he was willing to help the school in any way he could. She said the cardinal did not respond.
This month, Pfleger appeared on a nationally broadcast radio show hosted by Tavis Smiley and scholar Cornel West and said he would look outside the Catholic Church if they offered no alternative to going to Leo. He also blamed his recent clash with the cardinal on pressure from conservative Catholics and the National Rifle Association. The archdiocese denied any outside pressure in its decision.
Robert McClory, an emeritus professor at Northwestern's Medill School who has written a biography of Pfleger, said Pfleger's recent statements about not remaining in the church if he is reassigned from St. Sabina are nothing new. McClory pointed to similar statements Pfleger made in 2002, when he and George previously came into conflict regarding his appointment at the parish.
But the issue of obedience has been at the center of the conflict between Pfleger and the church, said Dwight Hopkins, a professor of theology at the University of Chicago. At the core, he said, is the Roman Catholic belief that there is a link between the pope and Jesus Christ.
"If a priest disobeys the cardinal, the highest representative up to the pope, they disobey a direct line back to Jesus Christ," Hopkins said. "The cardinal is saying that Father Pfleger has removed himself from the Catholic Church because he refuses to obey."
The result, Hopkins said, is a showdown between the archdiocese and Pfleger, the congregation and the larger South Side community.
"The people at St. Sabina love him and there are people on the South Side of Chicago who love him as well, both church and non-church people," Hopkins said. "In the end, it's these people who will suffer most."¿