To paraphase the Bard himself, if outrage is the food of activism, keep feeding.
Father Michael Pfleger has outrage in abundance, and has used it to fuel a relentless crusade for social justice in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood where he has ministered and led the St. Sabina faith community during the past 35 years.
He is not without detractors or contradictions.
Born into a white family on Chicago’s Southwest Side, Pfleger has overseen the growth of the one of the city’s largest and most politically active black Catholic churches.
He gained national notoriety during the 2008 presidential campaign when his mocking of Hillary Clinton and critique of white privilege during a guest sermon at Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church were played and replayed endlessly on YouTube.
Many other priests in the diocese, including those who agree with his politics if not his methods, consider him a lone wolf, unwilling to cooperate.
Pfleger knew his calling from the beginning.
Hercules shows the cherubic youth having set up an altar and praying to his flock in the basement of his homes on Chicago’s Southwest Side, much the way a young John Lewis recounts ministering to chickens in his memoir, Walking With The Wind.
A trip in his early teens to a Native American reservation in Oklahoma expanded Pfleger’s horizons and started his quest for social justice-a passion that gained strength and focus when he connected with Chicago’s black community at Precious Blood Catholic Church.
Pfleger arrived at St. Sabina in 1974. He encountered a small and beleagured membership, a dilapidated building and a veritable den of iniquity with large servings of prostitution, drug sales, abandoned homes and other associated ills.
He took the helm in 1981 and has been there since.
Radical Disciple traces Pfleger’s dawning awareness, and skillful use of, media to help him accomplish his goals of making the community a safer, more vibrant and thriving space. The film has a number of scenes of him confronting liquor store owners, all in front of the klieg lights.
His activism has generated many detractors. The film has a number of critics affiliated with the Catholic Church, an institution with which Pfleger has had a predictably rocky relationship. To be fair, the critics come off as a bit doctrinaire and shallow, and so ultimately have a little bit of a feel of straw men, rather than legitimate and thoughtful voices of Pfleger opponents.
The same cannot be said of longtime Chicago journalist Carol Marin.
While clearly an admirer of the community Pfleger and others in the church have built-St. Sabina has a school, senior homes, packed services with prominent guest speakers like Cornel West, and a peaceful park-she does take him to task both for his ill-timed speech at Trinity and for what she sees as his incomplete apology.
In the end, Hercules paints Pfleger as a character who would live comfortably in a Greek tragedy-his prodigious strengths and charisma also being the source, if not of his downfall, at least of setbacks and great but geographically limited impact.
It is a portrait worth seeing.
Radical Disciple does not fully explore all of Pfleger’s motivations and personality traits, but his outrage, and the basis for it, are well developed indeed.