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Father Pfleger: Ousted from the Rectory, Looking for a New Place

06/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The last time Mike Pfleger searched the classifieds for an apartment, he was a 20-something-year-old seminarian who hadn't yet taken a vow to obey his bishop.

This morning, Pfleger, the 59-year-old pastor of St. Sabina Roman Catholic Church, plans to move out of the rectory he has called home for 33 years and into an apartment in the surrounding Auburn-Gresham neighborhood.

He's not sure when and if he'll return.

That, Pfleger says, is up to Cardinal Francis George, who on Tuesday ordered the oft-disobedient priest to take a temporary leave -- a kind of ecclesiastical timeout -- to think about what he'd done.

What Pfleger did was mouth off about Hillary Clinton, lampooning her public tears on the campaign trail and accusing her (and a lot of other white folks) of demonstrating "white entitlement" in the face of the success of her younger, less-experienced black opponent, Barack Obama, during a lengthy sermon on racism at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where, until last weekend, Obama and his family were members.

George is calling it a leave of a "couple of weeks" and has called in a priest from neighboring St. Kilian parish to serve as a "temporary administrator" of St. Sabina in Pfleger's absence. George telephoned Pfleger Monday night and asked him to take a sabbatical for a month or so. When Pfleger balked, the cardinal, who has long talked of moving Pfleger from St. Sabina where he'd overstayed the archdiocese's term limit for parish priests by years and years, told him to sleep on it, Pfleger said.

On Tuesday morning, the cardinal called him at St. Sabina to tell him he thought he should take a leave of absence. Pfleger said no, the cardinal said he'd be forced to act, and by late afternoon, George had issued a statement saying, despite Pfleger's protestations, he was going on leave, effective immediately.

"I asked the cardinal if I could stay in the rectory during this time and he said no," Pfleger said late Tuesday night, after his parishioners held a prayer service and rally demanding their pastor's immediate and full return to the parish, as well as a meeting with George to discuss Pfleger's future and the future of the unique African-American parish he's been instrumental in shaping over the last three decades.

"I'm going to buy a bed and get some furniture from the church basement and move into an apartment in the neighborhood," a deflated-sounding Pfleger told me, while the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ where Pfleger made the fiery statements late last month that got him into this latest donnybrook with the cardinal, waited to take him to a late dinner. "I'm trying to find out what [George] means by 'a couple of weeks.' There's no timeline. There's no date. Give me a time. It just says a couple of weeks. I don't know..."

There's something painfully ironic about Pfleger's (if temporary) ouster.

He's been thumbing his nose at authority -- secular and sacred -- for years in pursuit of what he believes God has called him to do: fight for the poor and the oppressed; battle injustice in whatever form it appears, be it racism, sexism, or classism; and to above all present the God of revolutionary love and radical grace to the world around him. That sometimes has meant disobeying civil and canon law.

Pfleger has been arrested several dozen times over the years for civil disobedience. He's taken on drug dealers, big alcohol companies, the tobacco industry, Jerry Springer, the gun lobby, and gun-toting gang-bangers from his own back yard. He's also run afoul of three archbishops of Chicago, beginning with Cardinal John Cody, who ordained him in 1975, and who threatened to can him in 1981 when Pfleger adopted the first of his two now-grown sons.

After three decades of clashes with authority, Pfleger's tipping point arrived in a three-minute video clip from a powerful, 47-minute-long sermon on race. In those few moments, Pfleger, who is white, made snarky comments about Clinton, who is white, that many people -- the archdiocese has been inundated with complaints since last week -- thought were racist or sexist or both.

He apologized, but it was too late.

So on the day that Obama became the presumptive Democratic nominee for president -- the first African American to do so in the history of our nation -- Pfleger, a man who has spent his life fighting for that kind of racial justice, is looking for a place to live.

Pfleger told me he plans to take his dog, Imani, whose name is an African word for "faith," with him. For company, and, perhaps, as a reminder of what sustains him in good times and in bad.

Cathleen Falsani is the award-winning religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of the critically acclaimed book The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People. She is also author of the memoir Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, which will be released in August, and of the forthcoming The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, due in stores April 2009.

To read a lengthy profile of Father Pfleger from January 2001, click here.

For a time line of Pfleger's career in the Catholic Church, click here.