Last week I was in Chicago for the 2011 SCUPE Congress on Urban Ministry and one of the benefits was being able to make a site visit to Saint Sabina, a parish located in the heart of the predominantly African American community of Auburn Gresham, a church I had known only through watching its weekly webcasts.
Cynthia Stewart, a lay leader in the parish, shepherded our little tour group, but once we were in the sanctuary, Fr. Michael Pfleger, the pastor, took over to explain the church's history, pastoral philosophy, and challenges.
The church began on July 9, 1916 in a storefront on South Racine Avenue. In 1931, during the Depression, construction began on a cathedral-like structure with elaborate woodwork and stained glass imported from France. At the time, the area was white and relatively more prosperous than it is today. On June 18, 1933 the church building was dedicated by George Cardinal Mundelein.
During the turmoil of the 1960s, African American families moved into the area and whites moved out. The parish and its surrounding community underwent considerable socio-economic decline. By 1967, the parish had dwindled to just 530 families where it had been over 3,000 strong.
Fr. Pfleger came to the community in 1975 as a newly ordained associate pastor and with already somewhat of a reputation as a nonconformist. He enjoyed the style of music and preaching in the black churches and began to incorporate these elements into his own liturgies. Five years later, the pastor died abruptly and, by popular demand from the Saint Sabina community, Cardinal Cody appointed Fr. Pfleger "permanent administrator", a title that, as Fr. Pfleger derisively adds, "doesn't exist in canon law." It was meant to be a short-term solution, but thirty years later, Fr. Pfleger is still pastor of Saint Sabina and all attempts to dislodge him have been met with so much resistance from the parishioners that they have come to nought.
Under Fr. Pfleger's leadership, the parish took on the look and culture of its surrounding community. The congregation is now almost entirely African American. The church's European traits exist only on the periphery. African vestments hang in a sacristy in wooden cabinetry that could be mistaken for the interior of any major European cathedral. African wood carvings and an altar covered in kente cloth form the center of the sanctuary. This transformation of the church is not unlike the transformation in Fr. Pfleger himself. He may look like a blue-eyed white man but his heart beats polyrhythmically.
In 1984, the most striking and best-known feature of St. Sabina was added -- the "For God So Loved the World" mural behind the altar. Painted by a Mexican born Jesuit, Fr. Fernando Arizti who would attend services at St. Sabina, it depicts a young black Jesus in the powerful hands of God who is offering Him to the world.
The image is stunning. It draws the eye and the mind away from everything else in the church, including the preacher. It is impossible to think you are God's gift to the Catholic Church when you have to preach each week in the shadow of this constant reminder of who IS the gift and the center of our faith. The mural is a call to humility and it is also a reference point for Fr. Pfleger's homilies. The habit of turning and pointing to this Christ is so ingrained in him that sometimes, when he is preaching in other venues, Fr. Pfleger will turn and point to the space where this Christ lives in his mind's eye, where He would be if the pastor were home, in St. Sabina.
As the parish and its liturgy took on the sounds and feel of Africa and the Black Diaspora, the straight lines of European church architecture were blurred and bent. The design is now circular, like a clearing in an African village where people would gather. The altar and the ambo are in the center of this "clearing" on the same level as the congregation that surrounds it. The altar is a table at which all are welcome and, in fact, Fr. Pfleger told us that a surprisingly high number of the estimated 2,200 people who attend services at St. Sabina's each week are not Catholic. He also said that many Catholics who have become alienated from mainstream Catholicism for cultural or ideological reasons have found a home in his parish.
The altar area is not a space set apart and above as it is in most Catholic churches -- a space that only the ordained or specially commissioned lay persons may enter. At St. Sabina's, the laity are often invited by Fr. Pfleger to come and join him in this sacred space to praise Christ who is above everyone. The design reflects a deliberate de-emphasis on clerical privilege, running counter to today's tendency to draw ever sharper lines between the ordained and those they serve.
Another feature of St. Sabina that makes a distinctive theological statement is the placement of the tabernacle. Again, the current trend is to make the tabernacle central, above and away from the people -- the receptacle and its holy contents an object of veneration. At St. Sabina, the Body of Christ is not so much a consecrated host as the "body of Christ", the faithful who ARE the Church, so the tabernacle is in the background. This is not a place for passive adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; the emphasis is on exteriority rather than interiority. The whole design says: "If you really love Me, go out into the world and feed My sheep." As Fr. Pfleger likes to put it, church is "huddle time" and from there you go forth to play the game, to "change the atmosphere" through loving service and working for justice.
Turning towards the back of the church, one notes the beautiful rose window, but its prominence is diminished by the banner hanging from the balcony that confronts parishioners with the key question: "Discipleship will cost. Are you willing?" At St. Sabina, discipleship means not just responding to God's call to work for peace and justice, but also tithing, a practice that Fr. Pfleger has been able to implement successfully and that has given the parish financial independence and credibility. Through tithing, it has been able to pay off its debt to the Archdiocese and has one of the largest weekly collections in the local Church.
As the topic turned towards the future, Fr. Pfleger grew pensive. He's willing to stay on at St. Sabina as long as his health and circumstances permit but the reality is that he is aging (62 this year) and the conflicts with the archdiocesan hierarchy, which have never abated, are wearying. The young men currently emerging from seminaries are too conservative and not interested in serving in a progressive parish in a poor, crime-riddled neighborhood, much less one in which the clergy seem to serve at the pleasure of the laity rather than vice-versa. Fr. Pfleger has built up a cadre of lay leaders to take on any and all aspects of the ministry they can perform under canon law, but they can't do it all.
He is trying to recuit and mentor priests from Africa who have come from countries plagued by the same poverty and violence that wrack his community and who are used to preaching the gospel from a social perspective. The problem with this strategy, Fr. Pfleger candidly concedes, is that these men are at the mercy of the archdiocese. If they do anything controversial, the archbishop can send them home immediately.
As dusk fell, Fr. Pfleger retired to his quarters to nurse the flu that had been dragging him down all week and Cynthia took the group on a tour of St. Sabina's extensive social ministries that have transformed the neighborhood from vacant lots and boarded up buildings into a thriving and safer community that even includes regular retail businesses like a drugstore and BJ's Market where we stopped for dinner. This changing neighborhood may be the best symbol of Fr. Pfleger's lasting legacy at St. Sabina.