"Where does moral religious leadership in America come from?"

"Where does God dwell in America today?"

"Dark is the world for me, for all its cities and starts if not for a few signs of God’s radiance who could stand such agony, such darkness."

"Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United State of America."

"The whole future of America will depend upon the impact and influence of Dr. King."

— Excerpts from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s introduction of Dr. King at the Sixty-Eighth Annual Convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, March 25, 1968, published in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. edited by James Melvin Washington (1986).

Dr. King would be assassinated ten days later.

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As native of Chicago’s South Side and 12 year alum of South Side Catholic Schools, I have followed Father Michael Pfleger’s ministry and activism for years — as he organized against environmental racism, the proliferation of the sale of drug paraphernalia, alcohol and tobacco advertising, easy gun access for poor and minority communities.

I even had the good fortune of having Father Pfleger serve as the discussant for my play TANGLED (2010) at ETA Theatre in Chicago, which examined gun violence on Chicago’s South Side.

So, when I found out that Father Pfleger was providing the keynote address for this year’s Annual Countywide Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Celebration, I reached out to have him reflect on King’s legacy, poverty in America, his efforts to combat gun violence, and more.

I spoke to Father Pfleger at the end of a week punctuated by an impromptu intervention with a mentally ill community member who came to the church, attacking staff and throwing things that, after several hours, ultimately required police intervention; hosting a visiting pastor and delegation from Scotland; addressing a Chicago Mayoral candidate who was using video of the killing of LaQuan McDonald for political purposes; all while trying to catch up on an array of tasks that piled up over the holidays, including my interview request.

Father Michael Pfleger: It’s been a truly crazy week.  But it’s all good and you didn’t call me to talk about all that.

Smile Politely: Ahhhh, yes, just another day in the life of a Chicago pastor?

(We both laugh)

SP: So, I want to talk to you about your visit and what you hope to accomplish during your presentation.

Let me first begin by asking you why you are coming to Champaign?

Pfleger: They said they were interested in my thoughts on violence based on what we have been dealing with in Chicago, because I speak at the King Center, because I spoke in Memphis at the 50th Anniversary of the The Assassination of Dr. King last April and was the keynote speaker at the Lorraine Motel.

For me, any opportunity I get to continue in the legacy of Dr. King, I will. He is the reason I am a minister today. He is a model of what ministry and church ought to look like today. And I think we have never needed a prophetic witness of Dr. King more in our country. So any opportunity to continue his legacy, I will take on.

SP: That said, as King was a minister and victim of gun violence himself, can you speak about gun violence as a spiritual crisis in America?

Pfleger: It is a spiritual crisis. And I am going to try to talk about the conditions of the world that we live in right now, and then drill down on the violence issue. 

Furthermore, the church has to do more of what it has not done. Actually, the church, the synagogue, and the mosque have to be willing to be the conscience of our society. We have to do more than look at statistics and numbers. We have to deal with the fact that this violence has gone on for so long. As long as the main victims were Black and Brown, the issue of gun violence wasn’t a concern in our society.

Then, Newtown and Parkland and Las Vegas happened. So, now gun violence is affecting Whites and the upper class and now all of a sudden, it has become a bigger issues in our society.

So the church has to be able to do what Dr. King did: to look beyond the statistics to the causes of our societal crises: the inequality, the injustice, the lack of education, the unemployment. What I want to do is try to address the roots of this violence because unless we have the courage to address these issues, we are not going to stop the violence from happening. All we will be doing is bandaging it. 

SP: What we are dealing with in Champaign is an uptick in gun violence since 2013. There have been as many shootings in the last 5 years in Champaign-Urbana as you might see in one year in Chicago, but that is a lot of gun involved activity for this community and too many shootings for either of these communities.

Pfleger: Of course, right.

SP: So, one of the things that we are deploying locally with the support of the Champaign County Community Coalition is a the CU Fresh Start Gun Violence Deterrance Initiatve funded by a three year ICJIA Focused Deterrence grant made of four primary components:

  • Conducting research on gun violence incidents
  • Calling in potential offenders and offering social services counseling if they abstain from gun violence incidents
  • Providing law enforcement with additional technology and resources to reduce gun violence
  • Keeping the community apprised of developments via monthly public meetings and subcommittee meetings

Based on your experiences observing an array of interventions tried in Chicago, does grant-driven policing of this kind have an impact on reducing gun violence?

Pfleger: Well, in my mind, it only has an impact if we use the information to go deep enough to eradicate the problem. Often times, we do all of these studies and we end up putting all our money into policing. We cannot police our way out of this violence.

We have to be willing to level the playing field and give opportunities to people. We deal with brothers here on the street. We work with about 350 gang members here and have four former gang members on our staff. The reality is that if we are not going to invest in people, we are not going to eradicate this problem.

Again, the danger in this country has always been just to give more money to policing to try to outrun the criminals, but we don’t put enough money on prevention and investment.

Listen, providing social services and food and bus passes are important and good, but that is charity.  When I come down to the church at 6:30 in the morning, at least 3 or 4 days a week, there are people here knocking on the door, begging for food, bus fare, etc., and we address that, that is charity. But as the church, synagogue and the mosque, we have to demand justice.

Demanding justice is dismantling and changing the systems that create oppressive conditions for people in the first place, and if we don’t address unjust systems, then all we are doing is band-aiding the problem. We cannot continue to have people come to us with (societal) cancers and we try to reduce their suffering with Tylenol or an Aleve.

SP: I know you mentioned that we must do more than look at the data. However, when we do look at the data, “Most arrestees, offenders, and victims are identified as Black and as male”  73% of gun violence offenders are black and 78% of gun violence victims are Black.

So, Pastor, we also have to be willing to have that conversation as well. Why is gun violence so often the go-to-coping mechanism for Black males?

Pfleger: What I am going to say to you is this: you put two lions in a cage; and you don’t feed them. One is going to kill the other. It’s survival of the fittest. So, when you put people in communities and you don’t feed them with opportunities, education and jobs...what is going to happen? Survival of the fittest! People will always ask me: Why are they shooting each other? Killing each other? It’s also human nature to take out your anger and frustration on those closest to us — Black, White, whatever. For example, I was taking care of my 96 year old father in his last years, and he was getting angry and frustrated about what was happening to him...and I was the S.O.B.

SP:  But you know, Pastor, at the same time, we have also seen an increase of phoned-in bomb threats to schools in smaller predominantly White communities, right outside of Champaign-Urbana. These young folks’ actions have resulted in schools being evacuated, school days disrupted with threats of doing serious harm. And yet, there is not widespread panic, no outrage, no public debate or public meetings.

Pfleger: Of course not! With those students, it is purely a mental health issue, but with Black kids it’s their anger, their race, and their violence.

SP: So we don’t even look at the issue the same way?

Pfleger: We need to come at the issue the same way, but no, we don’t. When a Black kid shoots somebody, they are a violent animal. When a white kid walks into a church and kills 10 people, we say they have a mental health problem. What’s wrong with that picture?

Or we say that the White male is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But in the community that I live in on the South Side, between Gresham and Englewood, the whole community has present traumatic stress disorder because the entire community lives in a war zone, and nobody cares about that. There is no access to mental health resources or to counseling, and nobody cares about that.

SP: So with all that is happening in both of our communities, how do we make Dr. King’s message relevant?

Pfleger: Dr. King was murdered because of the things he said. Too often, we just want to hear the “I Have A Dream” speech, and we only want to hear the last three minutes of that speech. We forget how radical Dr. King was, and how radical his use of the Gospels was. So that is what I hope to lift up during my visit to Champaign next week.

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The end of Rabbi Heschel’s remarks echo both King and Pfleger:

“The situation of the poor in America is our plight, our sickness. To be deaf to their cry is to condemn ourselves.”

Father Michael Pfleger will give the keynote for this year’s Annual Countywide Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Celebration at Vineyard Church in Urbana. The event is free and open to the public. You can find more details here.

For the most recent update on local gun violence, view the CU Fresh Start Gun Violence Deterrence Initiative Year 2 Update here, or read the full report.

Photo from Saint Sabina website