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Back Room

Father Pfleger

The activist priest, 67, on the sins of vegetarianism and the upside of Trump

Illustration by Stavros Damos
Illustration: Stavros Damos

They called me a wigger, they called me an n-lover. I had a number of relatives who did that. But the South Side is my home. This is my social life, my friends. I raised my three sons here. I would not want to live any place but here.

I’m not a showman. I’m me. I can just get carried away on the pulpit.

I get overwhelmed with funerals of young people. Way too many of them. I just did another one last Friday. When you see a young person laying in a casket, that to me is pure evil at work. People say, “God wanted them home.” Nope. This is not God’s work.

Because of my faith, I’m a prisoner of hope. I can’t quit.

End of my junior year at Quigley South, I saw Dr. King speak. Where I lived in the Ashburn neighborhood was very racist, very anti-him. And yet everything I’d seen about him on TV said this man was good. So me and two friends, we rode our bikes over to Marquette Park that day, and I saw two things that changed my life. One was the hate and the anger and the violence. I knew some people there, and I’d never seen that side of them before. The other was King himself. I was mesmerized by him, how, in the center of this craziness, he was completely calm and not responding to any of the people hurling things and cursing him out. I’m thinking, What kind of guy is this? I became obsessed with him after that.

I’m a terrible singer, but I love to do it. The Bible says, “Make a joyful noise.” So I make a noise. I just hope it sounds joyful.

In the Catholic Church, Sunday morning was just a cerebral thing, not celebratory. You didn’t talk, you were quiet. Forty minutes—you’re in and out. If you were a black person, you had to leave your culture at the door. We decided at St. Sabina we were going to create a church that celebrated the African American community. So would our artwork and vestment robes and music. And then we started entering with dance. All we’ve ever wanted to do is present an alternative that can work.

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Our mural of black Jesus went up in ’84. As the scriptures say: Everybody ought to be able to see themselves in Christ.

With the exception of the last years of Bernardin’s life, from Cody to George, the cardinals here hated me. George did everything he could to get rid of me. I’m the only priest in the Chicago Archdiocese who’s been suspended twice.

My job is to make people uncomfortable with the status quo.

The Trump campaign was a frightening thing. He rallied the worst elements of America in terms of racism, prejudice, supremacy, and arrogance. But at the same time, it was a tremendous gift: We want to somehow pretend that this America is not there, but now we can see.

I love Pope Francis. I think he is the best thing that could have happened to the church.

The movie priest I’ve always been down with is Bing Crosby in Going My Way. What I loved was the way he was very in touch with the neighborhood and the community. Same thing with Karl Malden in On the Waterfront.

I’m a pizza addict. And a steak lover. Vegetarianism is a horrible, sinful thing.

Why fear anything? Just live how you believe you’re supposed to live. Don’t worry about the negativity, don’t worry about the haters. Now, does it get to you sometimes? Yeah. But I’m not gonna ever let those things run my life.

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