Born in May 1949, Michael Louis Pfleger is a Roman Catholic priest who has been the pastor of Saint Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago since 1981. Pfleger is white, and his congregation is composed mostly of African Americans. He attended Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary South, Loyola University, and the University of Saint Mary of the Lake. He was ordained on May 14, 1975.
In 1991 Pfleger led a church campaign to remove tobacco and alcohol billboard ads from his parishioners’ Chicago neighborhood. When local billboard owners refused to take down the offending ads, Pfleger and some fellow activists personally 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 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. “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, and Al Sharpton.
On another occasion, 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 various political 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.
Obama described Pfleger a “dear friend” who had helped shape his “moral compass.”
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.” 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 — a 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. (Click here to listen to the audio of these remarks.) 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.
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.” (Click here for the video of a sermon in which Pfleger angrily condemned Wright’s critics in the spring of 2008.)
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 once told Trumpet magazine, a publication of Rev. Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ.
Pfleger is also a great admirer of Louis Farrakhan: “I’ve known the minister [Farrakhan] both as someone who I have great respect for as a prophetic voice, as a mentor but also as a friend and as a brother,” said Pfleger. “We’ve become very close friends over the years. Our families have been close; he’s shared dinner at my house as I have at his many, many times. He has preached from our pulpit here at this church on three different occasions. We’ve worked together on issues not only for this community but in the city and in the nation.”
On another occasion an interviewer asked Pfleger how he could support Farrakhan, “a guy who calls Judaism a gutter religion, who calls Jews bloodsuckers.” Pfleger replied: “Okay, first of all he has not called Judaism a gutter religion and bloodsuckers [sic]. That is not what he has said.… I stick up for Louis Farrakhan because he is another person that the media has chosen to define how they want to do it. And they demonize how they want to demonize somebody.… I know the man, Louis Farrakhan. He is a great man who I have great respect for, who has done an awful lot for people in this country — black, white, and brown. He’s a friend of mine.… He is not a bigot and he is not a hater…. He is a person who has had the freedom to speak about the injustices that have been done in this country to African Americans and to poor people in general.”
Pfleger has repeatedly defended Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam and has impugned Jewish critics of that organization for their “narrowness” of mind. In 1994, Pfleger told The New York Times: “I don’t think there is any group or religion in America that has done more for the African-American male than the Nation of Islam. I feel the real problem is, America doesn’t know how to handle Louis Farrakhan or the truth.”
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 adds, “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 …”
At the February 2006 funeral of Coretta Scott King, Pfleger said that America’s “greatest addiction is to racism.” In a similar vein, he suggests that blacks in the United States are in constant danger of being attacked or exploited by white racists. “African American life in America is still threatened and still at risk,” he says.
In May 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.” In his sermon, Pfleger argued in favor of slavery reparations:
“Honestly now, to address the one who says, ‘Don’t hold me responsible for what my ancestors did.’ But you have enjoyed the benefits of what your ancestors did … and unless you are ready to give up the benefits, throw away your 401 fund, throw away your trust fund, throw away all the monies you put away into the company you walked into because your daddy and grand daddy … Unless you are willing to give up the benefits then you must be responsible for what was done in your generation, because you are the beneficiaries of this insurance policy.”
In the same sermon, Pfleger impugned white Americans for failing to understand the responsibility they all bore for the historical and continuing afflictions of the black community. Said Pfleger:
“It’s like saying to a woman who’s been repeatedly raped over, and over, and over, and over, over, and over [and telling her] ‘you need to get over it.’ ‘The HELL I do,’ [she would say]. Get the sucker who’s been raping me and make him pay.’ Well, America has been raping people of color, and America has to pay the price. America has to pay the price for the rape.”
Also in that sermon, Pfleger made reference to a recent incident where Senator Hillary Clinton had cried publicly as she became resigned to the fact that she inevitably would lose her bid for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination to Barack Obama. Said Pfleger:
“We must be honest enough to expose white entitlement and supremacy wherever it raises its head…. [W]hen Hillary was crying, and people said that was put on, I really don’t believe it was put on. I really believe that she just always thought, ‘This is mine. I’m Bill’s [Bill Clinton‘s]wife. I’m white. And this is mine. I just got to get up and step into the plate.’ And 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. There’s a black man stealing my show.’” Pfleger then mimicked Mrs. Clinton crying as the audience gave him a standing ovation. Added Pfleger: “She wasn’t the only one crying. There was a whole lot of white people cryin’.”
When portions of this sermon were aired widely by the media, Obama denounced Pfleger’s rhetoric as “divisive” and “backward-looking,” and soon thereafter he announced that he was leaving Trinity church.
A publicity photo of Pfleger that was shared on Saint Sabina’s website in 2020 showed him speaking at a rally against firearms ownership. Another photo showed him wearing a “BLACK LIVES MATTER” t-shirt.
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.”