Father Pfleger lifts his hands in worship as a soloist sings. (Photos; Samantha Latson)

Chicago Priest Pfleger Reinstated; ‘It’s Good to Be Home’

By Samantha Latson

CHICAGO, June 6 — On this sun-drenched Sunday morning, masked men and women with smiling eyes filled the sanctuary that flowed with a palpable sense of excitement, waiting for the moment.

People from all walks of life — Black, white and brown, the old and the young — gathered, wearing their Sunday’s best inside the sanctuary of St. Sabina, where a portrait of Black Jesus with arms outstretched has become a symbol of hope, faith and activism in this South Side Auburn Gresham community.

That activism and Pfleger’s return ensured the church’s return to their annual “Weekly Summer Peace” walks each week. The first, amid a spike this year in gun violence across the city, is scheduled for Friday, June 25, at 7 p.m., and will start at St. Sabina, located at 1210 W. 78th Pl.

Indeed gun violence so far this year has spiked across the city, raising concern that it could be the prelude to a deadly summer. Recently, 10 people were reportedly wounded, one fatally in the city’s second mass shooting in the first six months. Indeed on the weekend of June 11–13, 43 were wounded and four killed, among them Kimfier Miles, 29, a mother of three fatally shot on a summer night while out with friends and standing on the 7500 block of South Prairie Avenue, according to police.

With their peace walks this summer, St. Sabina and Pfleger hope to make a difference.

Members and attendees gather at St. Sabina Church to celebrate Father Pfleger’s entry at service on June 6, to preach his first sermon since being reinstated as pastor. A local reporter captures the service.

“Chicago needs someone who can speak up and has the balls to speak against violence since no one else is doing it.” –Ricky Hill, 32.

Speaking to members upon his return to St. Sabina on the first Sunday in June, Pfleger announced the planned kick-off of the anti-violence marches as well as the resumption of the church’s food giveaways and other activities designed to help heal and build community. But inasmuch as the announcements were well received, it was clear that the most celebrated news that Sunday was that Pfleger — removed by the archdiocese for nearly five months while it conducted an investigation into allegations of sex abuse against a minor more than 40 years ago — was home.

As members took their seats in the pews, they embraced each other with warm hugs and laughter as if at a family reunion, their salutations ringing with excitement and love:

“It’s so good to see you,” said one.

“Hey, brother, how are you doing?” said another.

They had come for Sunday mass. But the service would also mark the return of their senior shepherd, Father Michael L. Pfleger whom the Archdiocese of Chicago recently restored to senior pastor after removing him in January during the investigation into allegations of sexual abuse involving two minors. The archdiocese found there was “insufficient” evidence and on May 24, reinstated Pfleger after nearly five months of requiring him to live away from the parish and removing him as pastor.

Father Pfleger embraces award-winning film director Spike Lee.

Sunday, June 6, was his first sermon since being restored. And it was clear, even through the cloud of excited voices that permeated the sanctuary, even amid the clamor of media with cameras and microphones poised, that Pfleger’s church family and supporters — among them acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee — were anxious to celebrate the moment.

Then the moment came, an announcer’s voice igniting the audience:

“This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it. We trusted God, and God made a way when we thought there was no way. God, we thank you on this day for bringing back our senior pastor.”

The congregation roared.

Pfleger appeared, wearing a white robe trimmed in black, making his routine Sunday morning entrance during mass as the church stood, many applauding, shouting and waving, overjoyed at the sight of their pastor.

“It’s good to be home,” Pfleger said, his voice rippling through the sanctuary.

On Pfleger’s first Sunday back, he first addressed the media, chronicling what he described as a “painful nightmare” over the previous five months, adding that the allegations amounted to a “false accusation that began with an extortion letter.” He went on to preach a sermon, reiterating his role — and the church’s — in the fight against social injustice.

“The ground is no place for a champion to be, so whether you like it or not I got up, and the fight is still on,” he told the congregation. “I promise you that I commit to aggressively eradicating and working against violence, and proliferation of guns in our communities. These are fights that I’m not going to stop. In fact, I’m going to fight harder.”

During his sermon, Pfleger also cited statistics on the deadly violence that continues to plague Chicago streets.

“Twenty-four children under 18 have been shot in the last two weeks,” Pfleger said. “Last Thursday, four of the five people shot were under 18. Since January 1, 138 children have been shot in Chicago.

“That’s unacceptable,” Pfleger said, his voice ringing passionately “We’ve saved the whales, we’ve saved the birds, but our children are becoming extinct. We must save our children!”

For parishioners and supporters, the sight of Pfleger prancing the aisles and the sound of his Sunday sermon booming through the sanctuary was cause for relief and celebration.

“How do I feel? OMG, I’m ecstatic,” said Alba Gonzalez, 63. “I’ve been waiting for five months to finally be able to hear and see him. It’s been painful. Throughout this experience I have questioned my Catholicism because I feel what was done to him was very unjust.

“Father Pfleger was proven innocent in February, yet he was kept away for so long, that hurt,” said Gonzalez, referring to an investigation by the Department of Children and Family Services that determined the allegations to be unfounded.

For Ricky Hill, 32, and a member of St. Sabina for eight years, Pfleger’s return on Sunday felt “amazing.”

“It feels like I got my father back. Not only is Father Pfleger a pastor to me, but he’s a mentor. You see all the people with smiles and how packed the church was today, because he is a true leader,” Hill said. “I don’t look at color, I look at a person’s heart.”

For member Samuel Sanders, Pfleger’s absence over the previous five months felt similar to losing a family member.

“Not being able to see my pastor was very painful,” said Sanders, 74. “It was like somebody had died in my family.”

For some, the archdiocese’s silencing of Pfleger, long outspoken on Chicago violence and the proliferation of guns, created a glaring void in public outcry over a spike in shootings and murders so far this year.

“Chicago needs someone who can speak up and has the balls to speak against violence since no one else is doing it,” said Hill.

Father Michael L. Pfleger hugs Dell Harris, 30, who was among the many members and attendees at the Faith Community of St. Sabina during the priest’s first Sunday sermon after being reinstated as pastor.

For Dell Harris, 30, being able to celebrate the reinstatement of Pfleger and also witness his return sermon reminded him of the impact the priest has had on his life.

“There was a time when I got into some legal trouble and Father Pfleger helped me get a lawyer and I beat the case,” Harris said. “His involvement saved my life. If I could say one thing to Father Pfleger today, I would say, ‘thank you.”’

In closing his sermon, Pfleger vowed to be even more engaged in ministry, and to resume St. Sabina’s weekly food giveaways as well as its weekly summer marches to end gun violence.

After church, Pfleger stood outside as overjoyed members of the Faith Community of St. Sabina embraced him, celebrating the return of their shepherd.­

Email: samanthalatson22@gmail.com

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Members and attendees gather at St. Sabina Church to celebrate Father Pfleger’s entry at service on June 6, to preach his first sermon since being reinstated as pastor.

St. Sabina begins its annual “Weekly Summer Friday Peace Walks” on Friday, June 25.

Peace March

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Samantha Latson

Roosevelt University journalism grad, graduate student at Indiana University, Aspiring broadcast journalist. Chicago-based freelance writer.