* Pastor of Saint Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago from 1981-2021
* Views America as a deeply racist nation
* Longtime friend and supporter of Barrack Obama, Jeremiah Wright, and Louis Farrakhan
* Collaborated with Jesse Jackson to lead a 2007 campaign to close down a Chicago-area gun store
Michael Louis Pfleger was born on May 22, 1949 in Chicago. After earning a B.A. in Theology from Loyola University and a Master of Divinity from the University of St. Mary of the Lake, he was ordained as a Catholic priest on May 14, 1975. Pfleger also holds an honorary Doctor of Divinity from North Park Theological Seminary. In 1981 he began a 40-year stint as the pastor of Saint Sabina’s Roman Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side. Pfleger is white, and his congregation was composed mostly of African Americans.
In 1981 as well, Pfleger adopted an eight-year-old black boy named Lamar. In 1992 he adopted a 13-year-old boy of black and Korean heritage named Beronti Simms, who would later die of natural causes in 2012. And in 1997 Pfleger became a foster father to a 17-year-old African American named Jarvis Franklin, who was subsequently killed by crossfire in a gang-related shooting on May 30, 1998.
In 1991 Pfleger led a church campaign to remove billboard ads for tobacco and alcohol products from his parishioners’ Chicago neighborhood. When local billboard owners refused to take down the offending ads, Pfleger and some fellow activists personally climbed up ladders and defaced the signs. Pfleger was charged with destruction of private property but was later acquitted by a jury. When the Chicago City Council in 1997 voted to eliminate tobacco and alcohol ads from billboards in certain areas of the city, Pfleger celebrated the decision as “a tremendous victory for the children of Chicago, for our neighborhoods, especially black and Hispanic neighborhoods.”
In 1991 Pfleger led a picketing campaign outside the Chicago studio where The Jerry Springer Show was filmed. Complaining of the program’s excessive violence and crude language, Pfleger in 1998 organized a formal boycott of the show’s advertisers.
In 2000 Pfleger encouraged his parishioners to purchase time from local prostitutes and drug dealers, and to use that time to try to persuade the payees to attend counseling and job-training sessions. When the Chicago Archdiocese distanced itself from Pfleger’s tactics, he responded, “How is what I’m doing not part of the Gospel? The church leaders talk about evangelization. Well, if this isn’t evangelization, I don’t know what is.”
In 2001 Pfleger objected when a mostly white elementary-school athletic league, the Southside Catholic Conference, refused to admit Saint Sabina’s parish school. League officials explained that the white players and their families said they would feel unsafe in Saint Sabina’s largely black neighborhood. “Racism continues to be alive and well both inside society and inside the church,” said Pfleger in response. “To be denied admission on the sole premise that certain coaches and parishes feared for the safety of their children is illegitimate, ridiculous and insulting. It is very troubling that the conference would insinuate that we would place their children in harm’s way.”
In January 2003 Pfleger invited singer Harry Belafonte to be a guest speaker at a Sunday Mass at Saint Sabina. During his talk, Belafonte blamed America for the events of 9/11: “We [Americans] move about the world arrogantly, calling wars when we want, overthrowing governments when we want. There is a price to be paid for it — look at 9/11. [That] wasn’t just bin Laden. Bin Laden didn’t come from the abstract. He came from somewhere, and if you look where … you’ll see America’s hand of villainy.” Belafonte also used the occasion to criticize President George W. Bush for allegedly threatening every “woman’s right to abortion.” (It should be noted that the Chicago Archdiocese has had a longstanding policy explicitly forbidding the use of Church property, under any circumstances, by pro-abortion advocates. Moreover, the Church’s canon law requires that only Catholic clergy be permitted to preach during Catholic Mass. Pfleger’s invitation to Belafonte violated both of these restrictions.)
Other pro-choice (vis a vis abortion) advocates whom Pfleger (who describes himself as “pro-life”) has invited to be guest speakers at his church include Louis Farrakhan, Barack Obama, Al Sharpton, and Cornel West.
On Martin Luther King Day — January 20, 2003 — Pfleger delivered a sermon replete with condemnations of America as a nation of racism and injustice. Some excerpts:
Pfleger invited Kareem Irfan, former chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, to speak at Saint Sabina on the fourth anniversary of 9/11. A member of the Islamic Society of North America, Irfan has characterized Islamic beheadings of non-Muslims not as acts of evil, but rather as manifestations of “a primordial sense of retaliation and revenge.”
In 2004 Pfleger joined the Alliance for Diversity in Programming, a coalition of more than 200 activists who demanded that Congress and the Federal Communications Commission compel television networks to increase on-camera representation of blacks and Hispanics. Other members of this Alliance included James Zogby of the Arab American Institute, as well as representatives of such organizations as the League of United Latin American Citizens, the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, the National Urban League, and the Rainbow / PUSH Coalition.
Pfleger has had a longstanding friendly relationship (since the late 1980s) with Barack Obama and has played a significant role as a spiritual advisor for the latter. Between 1995 and 2001, Pfleger contributed a total of $1,500 to Obama’s state senate campaigns — including a $200 donation in April 2001, approximately three months after Obama (who was then an Illinois State Senator) had helped steer $225,000 in grants to St. Sabina programs. (After Obama’s 2004 election to the U.S. Senate, he would earmark an additional $100,000 in federal tax money for Pfleger’s work.)
In January 2007 Pfleger said that Obama, who had recently announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency, “is the best thing to come across the political scene since Bobby Kennedy.” “I think Barack Obama is in a class of his own,” Pfleger added. “… When anybody comes with that much hope, whether it’s a Bobby Kennedy or whether it’s a Martin Luther King Jr., they do become vulnerable. They become vulnerable because they tell the country and the world that we can be better and we don’t have to accept what is. And unfortunately, we live in a world where not everybody wants it to be different.” Obama’s campaign would later feature Pfleger’s enthusiastic endorsement on its website.
Pfleger’s support for Obama consisted not only of words, but also of action. He hosted a number of faith forums for the candidate, and in 2007-08 he donated $1,500 to Obama’s presidential campaign.
In 2007 Pfleger and Jesse Jackson spearheaded a campaign to shut down Chuck’s Gun Shop, a firearms dealer in Riverdale, Illinois. As Jackson explained their rationale: “The suburbs have surrounded the city with these gun shops. Jobs are going out, guns are coming in.” “Chuck’s becomes the poster boy for this issue,” Pfleger added. “We need tougher gun laws so the kids are not dying in the streets.” Pfleger and Jackson led weekly demonstrations in front of the store. During one particular rally in May 2007, Pfleger warned that he and his followers were prepared to “drag” the store’s owner, John Riggio, from his shop “like a rat” and “snuff [him] out” him — a common slang term for murder. Pfleger then proceeded to tell the crowd that legislators who failed to support gun-control legislation should be “snuffed” as well. Jackson and Pfleger ignored police warnings that they would be arrested if they continued to block the store’s entrance; both were taken into custody and charged with criminal trespass to property.
On June 6, 2015, Pfleger led an anti-gun rally outside of the aforementioned Chuck’s Gun Shop along with Jesse Jackson and Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Said Pfleger at the event:
“I’m not a gun grabber, I’m a life lover. And I love life more than the death that they are perpetrating. I’m just tired, tired of the NRA. Tired of them prostituting themselves and buying politicians in this country. I’m tired of gun manufacturers and John Riggio from Chuck’s making money off the blood running down our streets, and our children laying in cemeteries. While they live in gated communities where there are no gun shops like Chuck’s. I’m tired of funerals of babies, while [the] NRA, manufacturers, and Chuck’s, run to the bank making profits from death…. And finally, NRA, understand: At the end of the day you can argue with us [and] you can call us names, but you got to deal with God. And the blood of our children is on your hands. And you will pay for the murder of our children.”
A publicity photo of Pfleger that was shared on Saint Sabina’s website in 2020 showed him speaking at a rally against firearms ownership.
In March 2008 Pfleger invited Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s longtime pastor, to deliver a blessing at Saint Sabina Church during a visit by the poet Maya Angelou. Wright at the time was embroiled in controversy over a host of virulently anti-American remarks he had made in numerous sermons. “I invited Dr. Wright because he is a friend, mentor and hero of mine and because he is someone for whom I have great respect,” said Pfleger. “I also invited him to feel and see the great love and respect people have for him…. Dr. Wright is one of the great biblical scholars of our country and the best of preachers in the prophetic tradition. Dr. Wright has been shamefully demonized by 30-second sound bites that have tried to re-define him into someone other than who he is.” Pfleger’s congregation greeted Wright with a standing ovation.
According to Pfleger, “[Wright is] not bigoted. He’s not anti-American. He’s not hateful…. He’s a true patriot because he loves the country enough to criticize it and challenge it.” Expanding on this theme, Pfleger said: “America has to take responsibility for its actions around the world. And we have done some shameful things around the world.”
Pfleger’s views on race were shaped, in large measure, by black radicalism in the 1960s. “I got very educated by the [Black] Panthers — very educated,” Pfleger told Trumpet magazine, a publication of Rev. Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ, in 2008.
At the February 2006 funeral of Coretta Scott King, Pfleger said that America’s “greatest addiction is to racism.” In a similar vein, on August 29, 2007 he stated that blacks in the United States were in constant danger of being attacked or exploited by white racists. “African American life in America is still threatened and still at risk,” he said.
Pfleger views America as a nation infested with “classism and racism,” and he identifies white racism as “the number one sin in this country.” “Unfortunately,” he said in 2008, “in America we don’t have a real good history of serving all its [the nation’s] people. Unfortunately in America there is a double standard society. And it’s as real forty years after Dr. King’s death. … Dr King, I believe, would cry today if he looked at this country and saw the plight of poor people …”
On May 25, 2008, Pfleger was a guest preacher at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ (TUCC), where the recently retired Jeremiah Wright had been pastor for 36 years. TUCC’s new pastor, Otis Moss, introduced Pfleger to the congregation as a “brother beloved,… a preacher par-excellence,… a prophetic powerful pulpiteer.”
When portions of this May 25 sermon were aired widely by the media, Barack Obama denounced Pfleger’s rhetoric as “divisive” and “backward-looking,” and soon thereafter he announced that he was leaving Trinity church. Saint Sabina’s Church, meanwhile, suspended Pfleger for three weeks.
On March 25, 2012 — one month after the death of Trayvon Martin, a black teen who had been shot and killed in an altercation with a “white Hispanic” man named George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida — Pfleger preached from his pulpit: “We cannot talk about Trayvon Martin without talking about the racism that is alive and well in America today. America, we demand you deal with race.” Pfleger wore a hoodie while delivering his sermon, to emphasize the notion that Zimmerman, prior to his altercation with Martin, had viewed the latter as a suspicious-looking individual because that article of clothing was commonly associated with young black criminals. “Jesus wore a hood,” Pfleger shouted. “Is he suspicious?”
On July 20, 2013 in Chicago, Pfleger spoke at a large “Justice for Trayvon” rally sponsored by Al Sharpton‘s National Action Network, in memory of the late Trayvon Martin. Among the five-to-ten thousand people (predominantly African-American) in attendance were representatives of radical groups like the International Socialist Organization, the Revolutionary Communist Party, Occupy Chicago, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation. Angered by the “not guilty” verdict that a jury had recently rendered in George Zimmerman’s trial for second-degree murder, Pfleger declared that “racism is in the DNA of America”; he called for a “social justice” revolution; and he demanded that the federal government allocate additional funding for poor people. “We will not tolerate the killing of black and brown children, whether it’s in Sanford, Florida, the backwoods of Mississippi, Englewood … the genocide is over starting today!” Pfleger shouted.
In June 2018, it was reported that Pfleger, a longtime anti-gun activist, had been employing an armed security guard named named Henry Eugene Hale to protect his personal safety. The story made headlines after Hale was arrested outside St. Sabina’s Church on May 27, for possessing a firearm without a valid Firearm Owners Identification (FOID) card. After his card had expired in December 2017, he was unable to renew it because he had fallen behind on his child-support payments.
During the afternoon rush hour on August 28, 2020, Pfleger, in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, held a “Stop Killing Us” rally on the overpass of the Dan Ryan Expressway at 76th Street. The event was intended “to protest the continued racism in America that continues to make black men an endangered species.”
Regarding the closeness of the still-undecided 2020 presidential election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, Pfleger tweeted on November 4, 2020: “I think we keep wanting to believe America is better than she is, America was Birthed in Genocide, Built on Slavery and committed to upholding supremacy…When someone shows you who they are, Believe them! The closeness of this [presidential] race shows us again the DNA of this Country..”
After Joe Biden was declared by the media on November 7, 2020 to have won the presidential election, Pfleger tweeted: “Joe Biden’s election not only allows us to turn away from the lying, demonizing, separating of Families and fueling the flames of hate and racism, but now gives us the opportunity to Heal a Broken Nation, care for the Poor and disenfranchised & attack Racism.. now our work begins.”
On January 5, 2021, Pfleger was removed from his role as head of Saint Sabina Church following the revelation that he had allegedly committed sexual assault against a minor many years earlier. Without providing any details about either the alleged abuse or the victim, Cardinal Blase Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, addressed Pfleger’s departure in a letter to Saint Sabina’s congregation: “In keeping with our child protection policies, I have asked Father Pfleger to step aside from ministry following receipt by the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Child Abuse Investigations and Review of an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor more than 40 years ago.”
In response to the allegations, Pfleger issued a short statement on Facebook the following day: “I can’t possibly respond to the hundreds of Texts, emails, and calls that I have received from all across the nation since yesterday. I am devastated, hurt and yes angry, but I am first, a person of Faith, I Trust God. Please keep me in prayer and the Faith Community of St. Sabina.”
By January 25, 2021, another alleged victim — the brother of the first — had come forward to accuse Pfleger of having sexually molested him in his youth. At a January 25 news conference, the two men, who were now in their sixties, gave details about repeated acts of sexual abuse that Pfleger had allegedly inflicted upon them more than four decades earlier. They claimed that Pfleger had molested them dozens of times, starting in the 1970s when they were members of the choir at Chicago’s Precious Blood Church. They also said the abuse continued for years afterward at the Mundelein Seminary and at two other churches, including St. Sabina. Both brothers said that they had never previously told anyone, including each other, about the abuse.