May 30, 2008
He's a white priest at a largely black church. He's held hands with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. He's been arrested dozens of times and battled anyone he thinks has wronged his parish - from gun dealers to a local Catholic sports league.
Now the Rev. Michael Pfleger is something else: the latest thorn in the side of presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Racially charged comments Pfleger made last week mocking Obama
rival Hillary Rodham Clinton - as a guest at Obama's church, no less - triggered a quick response from Obama, who wants nothing to do with a racial firestorm like the one generated by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
While Pfleger is not nearly as close to Obama as Wright had been, he has donated to the candidate's state Senate and presidential campaigns and sat on a Catholics for Obama committee until a few weeks ago. When Obama was in the Illinois Legislature, he helped land more than $200,000 in state grants for outreach programs run by Pfleger's church.
Obama made it clear he wasn't happy with the comments - in which
Pfleger pretended he was Clinton crying over "a black man stealing
my show" - and said he was "deeply disappointed in Father Pfleger's divisive, backward-looking rhetoric, which doesn't reflect the country I see or the desire of people across America to come together in common cause."
Pfleger, too, issued an apology, saying he was sorry if his comments offended Clinton or anyone else. He did not return several calls for comment on Friday.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Francis George of the Archdiocese of Chicago
issued a press release Friday in which he criticized both Pfleger's
involvement in a political campaign and a "personal attack" on Clinton. George said Pfleger has promised not to campaign or even mention any candidate by name.
Wright's comments reverberated in the Democratic primary for weeks and remain a part of the race. Obama broke with Wright, who had been his longtime pastor, after video of his sermons blaming U.S. policies for the Sept. 11 attacks and his calls of "God damn America" became fixtures on the Internet and cable news networks.
The relationship between Obama, a one-time community activist on
Chicago's South Side, and the outspoken priest at the activist St.
Sabina Church has been a long one.
As a state senator, Obama secured two grants related to Pfleger's church - one for $100,000 to repair The Ark community center at the church in 2000 and the other for $125,000 for computers at the church's employment resource center.
For his part, Pfleger, 59, has donated $1,500 to Obama's campaigns for state office and another $1,500 to his presidential campaign.
Aides say Obama has rarely visited St. Sabina, although he cited Pfleger, along with Wright, as one of his spiritual advisers in a 2004 Chicago Sun-Times story. Pfleger helped Obama's Iowa campaign
by taking part in a faith forum.
Pfleger has invited criticism with his words and actions in the past, even before Sunday's fiery sermon at Trinity United Church of Christ.
He has hit the streets, sometimes with busloads of parishioners in tow, to protest Jerry Springer's television show, stores that sell drug paraphernalia and gun violence. He's been arrested for acts of civil disobedience, such as smearing red paint on alcohol and tobacco billboards. Last year, he and the Rev. Jesse Jackson were arrested during a protest of a suburban gun shop; charges were later dropped.
Pfleger's fight to make the community safe is an intensely personal one. He's adopted three children, one of whom was gunned down near the church in 1998.
Pfleger has urged parishioners to pay prostitutes and drug users so they could share their faith with them. He has offered his church as a place where controversial figures can express their views. Farrakhan spoke there, as did the Rev. Al Sharpton.
At times, there has been talk of diocesan officials reassigning Pfleger, but he is immensely popular in his parish and has helped it thrive over the past quarter-century as many other congregations have struggled.
In March, as Wright's inflammatory comments were making national
headlines, St. Sabina gave Wright a hero's welcome after Pfleger
invited him to give the benediction.
And in early May, Pfleger posted a letter on the parish Web site calling Obama and Wright "two friends who I respect, admire and have a deep love for." He wrote that neither man should be held accountable for the other's words.
"The truth is we need Senator Barack Obama and we need Reverend
Jeremiah Wright and, if we are serious about wanting a new America,
we cannot afford to throw either one of them under the bus!"