Friday, April 29, 2011

Fightin' Father Pfleger

These days, folks who live within the sound of the bells of the church at Racine and 78th Place on the South Side of Chicago refer to their community as Auburn-Gresham. My late Aunt Gertrude, (who has appeared in this space on numerous occasions, mostly on St. Patrick's Day), spent a great many of her 101 years in that neighborhood, but I'm sure the words "Auburn-Gresham" never crossed her lips. No, she lived in "St. Sabina's". The same goes for her best friend Ruth, several years her junior, who unlike Gert, was not a Catholic, but also came from "St. Sabina's".

Today in Chicago, and perhaps all over the world, the name St. Sabina's is far more well known than the name of the community it represents. That is entirely thanks to the man who has been its pastor for the last thirty years, Father Michael Pfleger.

Father Pfleger has been a tremendous force for good, not only at St. Sabina's parish, but in the entire community of Auburn-Gresham and beyond. As an activist, his has been a strong voice against many of the social ills that affect both the community and society at large; gangs, drugs, guns, violence, illicit sex, disrespect for women, racism, just to name a few. Not limiting his activism to the pulpit, Father Pfleger has taken cues from predecessors such as the Berrigan brothers. Like the anti-war priests that proceeded him, he has taken his activism into the streets, participating in acts of civil disobedience that has at least once landed him behind bars.

No stranger to publicity, for his efforts Pfleger has become something of a folk hero, (or villain depending on your point of view), in and around St. Sabina's and for that matter, the entire Chicago area.

Father Pfleger has also built up a strong Roman Catholic faith community within the largely non-Catholic African American community of Chicago. In a part of the city where Catholic churches are often taken over by other congregations, or shuttered and demolished, St. Sabina parish has flourished. It has sought and received little if any financial help from the Archdiocese of Chicago, and its finances remain in the black, even during difficult economic times. My own church on the other side of town cannot say the same about itself.

Given all of Pfleger's accomplishments, why one might ask, would Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago and spiritual leader of Chicago's 2.3 million Catholics, have his sights set on removing Father Pfleger from his post as pastor of St. Sabina's? Cynics would argue that the Archbishop is simply trying to use his power to silence a renegade priest who has often publicly expressed dissent with many of the expressed positions of the Church.

While it's true that the Cardinal has openly declared Father Pfleger at times to be a thorn in his side, he has also expressed praise and admiration for Pfleger's hard work and dedication to the faith and to his community. The fact is, over the past thirty years, every Catholic parish in Chicago, except one, has had to deal with the reassignment of at least one pastor, most likely more. While not nearly as well known as Father Pfleger, many of these men were just as vital, important and beloved to their parishes. Priests, including pastors, typically sign on for a 6 year stint at a given church, those who are pastors may have the option to sign on for another six years. That's it, twelve years at a parish and then it's time to go. That is, with the exception of Father Pfleger.

Many parishioners develop close relationships with their priests, and as I have experienced many times over, it can be difficult to say goodbye. The twelve year rule may seem to be arbitrary and unfair, but the cult of personality that develops around a popular priest can be problematic when that priest becomes the sole representative of the Church for his parishioners. By enforcing the rule, the Church is stating unequivocally that we Catholics are followers of Christ, and not of a particular priest.

The strong reaction against the Cardinal's decision to reassign Pfleger, by the parishioners of St. Sabina's and Father Pfleger himself, illustrate the Church's concern rather clearly. Pfleger has publicly stated that he may choose to leave the Roman Catholic Church, and implicitly stated that he'd take many of his congregation with him if the Cardinal persists in his actions. Which begs the question, do his parishioners see themselves first and foremost as Christians and Catholics, or Pflegerites?

By his actions, Pfleger has inadvertently made himself the poster child for support of the twelve year rule.

For his part, I believe the Cardinal has shown remarkable restraint and patience in his dealings with Father Pfleger. After all, Cardinal George was installed as Archbishop fourteen years ago, four years past Pfleger's twelfth anniversary as pastor of St. Sabina's, if my math is correct. He could have reassigned Pfleger from the get go had he chosen to do so. During the Cardinal's tenure in Chicago, he has had to publicly reign in Pfleger for several egregious comments made by the pastor. Once he threatened to "snuff out" a gun shop owner. Another was a well publicized racial diatribe against Hillary Clinton during her campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. The candidate Pfleger supported, Barack Obama, had to distance himself from Pfleger and his divisive words. Father Pfleger later apologized for both comments.

As it stands now, the Cardinal has only recommended that Father Pfleger step down at St. Sabina's to become the president of Leo High School which is steps away from the church. The new post would allow Pfleger to remain in the neighborhood, be free to continue his activities, and on occasion at least, celebrate mass at St. Sabina's. Yet Pfleger and his parishioners continue to protest what seems to be a very reasonable compromise.

Pfleger made his comments about possibly leaving the Catholic Church on NPR's Tavis Smiley program. You can hear a snippet of that interview here. In response, the Cardinal has suspended Pfleger from his role as pastor for an unspecified period of time. I'll let the Cardinal speak for himself. Here in PDF form is Cardinal George's letter to Father Pfleger, telling him of the suspension.

To the parishioners of St. Sabina's I would say this. I have great compassion for your cause. Father Pfleger has been a beacon of light in a troubled world. He has brought hope, inspiration and along with it, much needed development into your community. While it is very difficult to lose a beloved priest, it doesn't sound like he'll ever be very fay away. But it is very important to understand that in the Catholic faith at least, the Church does not belong to the Pope, Archbishop or the Parish Priest, all of whom will one day leave. It belongs to God. All of us as believers, black or white, are members of St. Sabina on the far South Side and members of St. Margaret Mary on the far North Side. Whether we're African, Asian, or European, American or Australian, we all belong to the Body of Christ. And as members of one body, we need each other. You are in my thoughts and my prayers.

Finally to Father Pfleger I would add this, if he cares to listen. You have fought many gallant battles against all odds against terrible causes of evil in our community. More often than not, you have won, and for that we owe you a debt of gratitude. That is your legacy. It is better to build than to tear apart as you no doubt know and we are all stronger when we are together than when we are apart. Some battles are worth fighting. Respectfully, this one is not. May God bless and keep you.


At the end of May, Cardinal George reinstated at least temporarily, Father Pfleger as the pastor of St. Sabina parish. The controversial priest has agreed to work out a transition plan for sometime in the future. You can read more about it here.

It sounds like everybody wins.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Five reasons to root for the Canucks

As a lifelong Blackhawks fan, the team's having been knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by the Vancouver Canucks was not exactly what I hoped for. Yet as a hockey fan, with the exception of the outcome, the series exceeded my wildest expectations. It had everything one could hope for, magnificent skill and speed, big hits, raw emotion, good guys and bad guys (depending on which side you were on), failure and redemption, and most of all, high drama. It ended in perhaps the most compelling and exciting scenario in all of sports, sudden death overtime in game seven of a hockey playoff series, the entire season on the line, everything hinging on one goal, the next one.

In the end, certainly everyone must agree that the better team won. The Canucks ended the season with the best record in the NHL. The Hawks finishing with a respectable record, nonetheless stumbled into the playoffs. Yet in the first round of the playoffs, the Blackhawks played with grit, determination and heart, and came within an eyelash of stealing the series. I think it will go down in history as one of the greatest playoff series of all time, it was the kind of stuff upon which legends are made.

As with all good rivalries, there is much to dislike about the opponent. After game seven, Vancouver's star forward Daniel Sedin claimed that the Hawks probably didn't "deserve" to make it as far as the seventh game of the series. An interesting comment given the fact that over the course of the series, the Hawks outscored the Canucks 21 to 16. Sedin's remarks may have been born out of personal frustration as together with his linemate and identical twin Henrick, the Sedins finished the series with a pathetic combined minus 13 rating.*

By contrast, the stars of the series for Vancouver, Alexandre Burrows who scored both goals for his team in the final game, Ryan Kesler, who set up Burrows' first goal and held Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews in check throughout most of the series, and their much maligned goaltender, Roberto Luongo, who made the most important save of the series by stopping Patrick Sharp's point blank shot in overtime of game seven, all were generous in their post series comments about their worthy opponents.

Some sports fans feel compelled to root for the team that beats their team so they can at least say: "we were beaten by the champs". For me personal bias usually gets in the way, but not this year. I'll be rooting for the Canucks to win the Stanley Cup. Here are five reasons why:

  1. The better team won. The NHL is often criticized for being the easiest league in professional sports to make it into the post-season. Back in hockey's "golden era", when there were only six teams, four of them made it into the playoffs. An entire season was devoted to eliminating two teams. Today, a slightly smaller percentage of teams get into the post-season, and in the Western Conference, the team with the worst record to make the playoffs, the Blackhawks, finished the regular season with a respectable 44 wins, 29 losses and 9 ties. The Canucks on the other hand had the best record in the entire league, and for credibility's sake, it would be nice if the team with the best record could win it all. It seldom happens.
  2. Oh Canada. Ice hockey is Canada's game. The NHL is composed primarily of Canadian players, yet only 6 of the 30 teams in the league are based in Canadian cities. The Montreal Canadiens were the last team from north of the border to win the Cup and that was way back in 1993. The Canuck's next opponent are the Predators from of all places, Nashville. Give me a break. Montreal by the way was eliminated last night, and all the other Canadian teams have been on the golf course for the last two weeks. I think it's about time that Canada took back the Cup.
  3. Roberto Luongo. Hockey goalies are special people. As an old radio commercial for the Blackhawks put it: "The puck is flying at you at over 100 miles per hour. Not only do you have to see it, you have to stop it." As a goaltender, your team, your city, and in Luongo's case your entire country's hopes all rest upon your super-human reflexes. And Roberto Luongo is one of the best in the business. But he has one achilles heel, he succumbs to pressure in big games, especially it seems against the Blackhawks. In other words, despite all his hard work and God given talents, he's human like the rest of us. Despite being shaky in the series, even terrible at times, in the end, under more pressure than anyone of us could ever possibly imagine, he came through and made that great save against Sharp. Am I a fan of his? I am now.
  4. The Pathos Factor. What do an animal in distress, a drunk person walking face first into a building, and the 2003 Chicago Cubs have in common? They are all pathetic images that no decent person should be forced to witness. The good people of Vancouver have been chomping at the bit for three years now to defeat the Blackhawks. This year the Canucks won the first three games of the series and looked like a shoe-in for crushing their long time adversary. That is until their hopes all but crashed and burned when the Hawks came storming back in the series and forced the Canucks to the brink Tuesday night. Had the Canucks lost, their collapse would have been of dare I say, of biblical proportions.
  5. Let the Rivalry Begin. It takes two to make any good rivalry. Up until this week, the Canuck/Blackhawk rivalry was one sided, we were their rivals, they were our lap dogs. Not any more. If the Canucks were hungrier than the Hawks this season, next year will be another story. As the Blackhawks found out, it's tough to be champion, every team brings it A game against you. Even the best teams have only so many A games a season. If the Canucks win the Cup, they'll find that out next year.
I can't wait.

*The difference between the number of goals scored for and against a player's team while that player is on the ice.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Can he do it again?

I'm reviving a ritual that I began two years ago, trying to coax a playoff win out of the Chicago Blackhawks. Last year of course they won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1961. They were the odds on favorites to win that year and didn't need my help. The year before they were big underdogs and outperformed everybody's expectations. During a few pivotal games when they were trailing I wrote in this blog and as I wrote, the Blackhawks scored, took the lead, and won those games, with the exception of the last one where they lost to the vastly superior Detroit Red Wings.

This year the Hawks backed into the playoffs by virtue of the lowly Minnesota Wild beating the Dallas Stars in the last game of the season. In round one of the playoffs, against their arch-rivals the Vancouver Canucks, the Canucks won the first three games. It looked like it was all over, everyone seemed to have given up with the exception of the team. The Hawks beat the Canucks solidly in games four and five, won game six in a squeaker and forced the winner take all game seven.

Now as I write this, there are less then five minutes to play in game seven, the Hawks are down by one, and a penalty has just been called against Chicago. It looks bleak.

Wait a minute...


Jonathan Toews scores a shorthanded goal. Game tied 1-1.

Overtime. Unbelievable. Let's see how this one turns out.


Well at 5:22 in overtime, Alex Burrows of the Canucks scored to win the game and the series. The Blackhawks' season has ended.

But they played out of their minds and went way farther than they probably had any right.

Congratulations Vancouver.

A season ending loss has never been so satisfying.
I couldn't be prouder of my team.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

You don't see these everyday

Those were the words of the Metra train operator the other day as we headed into the downtown station which I still have a hard time calling Olgilvie Transportation Center. He was pointing out three passenger cars, freshly painted in old Union Pacific livery that were parked at the station. A few passengers including myself chose to disrupt the routine of our daily commute to check them out. One was a woman I'd say in her early forties, who was curious what the fuss was all about. The other, a man in his early sixties got it. Only he and I made the complete trek across the station and almost the entire length of the platform to take a look at these beauties.

"This is how I used to travel back when I was a kid" the man said.

"Me too" I replied, wistfully.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


The new 5000 Series rail cars were introduced this month on the CTA rapid transit Purple Line. I got to ride on one the other day. To those who don't notice such things, these cars may not appear all that different from the other cars on the system, the oldest of which date back to the sixties. Although I missed the announcement of their release, as a bit of a transit buff I was immediately struck by the LED destination sign at the head of the train which replaced the ancient nylon scroll system that dates back to the time of Julius Caesar. Gone are the color coded signs which the CTA adapted from the MTA in Boston several years ago. This means my four year old won't know for sure what train she is on, at least until she learns to read in another year or so.

Another major difference is the seat configuration. Like the New York subway system, the majority of the seats now face the aisles instead of forward or backward. This reduces the number of seats on the train but greatly increases the capacity of each car which will be welcome during rush hours. At other times it will mean that a rider is less likely to get a seat which is not entirely welcome news. It also means that the much treasured (for some) window seat will be even more difficult to come by. As an inveterate window gazer, I for one will find this the most unpleasant change of all.

What will be striking for some is the re-introduction of the hanging strap, those vinyl loops hung from the overhead support bars to help support standing passengers, which were once a fixture of New York City's subway cars. While the term "straphanger", referring to a regular user of public transportation, apparently was coined right here in Chicago, the devices themselves haven't been seen around here for a very long time, certainly not in my lifetime, and I'm guessing way beyond.

The ride on the new cars is certainly more comfortable, both smoother and quieter. The Purple Line doesn't run in the subway but I'm guessing these cars perform even better underground. The public address system is also improved, you can now hear the dulcet tones of your operator, not to mention the canned announcer guy, in high fidelity. Gone as well is the familiar bing-bong tone before the doors close, also ripped off from the New York Subway, replaced by a more tasteful, subdued audio signal.

Coolest of all in my humble opinion are the line maps above the doors where a flashing light marks your current location. I saw these for the first time in Tokyo and wondered when we'd be seeing that nice touch here, now I know. There are as well LED signs at both ends of the car displaying the next stop, the date and time and I'm assuming other pertinent information when necessary. These are also found on the newer cars in the Washington Metro (as well as our newer buses and Metra trains), and are very helpful.

Most of the features of the new cars, such as intensive video surveillance, have to do with safety and are not immediately apparent to the rider. For the rail geek in us all, here is one of my all time favorite sites, listing in detail the CTA's entire fleet of rolling stock, including all the information you will ever want for the new cars.

As you can see, the folks at the CTA are not loathe be inspired by other transportation systems, which I suppose is a good thing. In my youth, the L had to be one of the most arcane systems of its kind anywhere in the world. Getting around on it used to be difficult enough for natives. It was virtually incomprehensible for visitors.

Chicago's L may not be as modern, efficient and comfortable as the Washington Metro, which itself is beginning to show its age, nor as beautiful as the Moscow Underground, which had the unlimited resources of a totalitarian government to build it. It's not nearly as comprehensive a system as New York's or London's, not to mention as charmingly idiosyncratic if you mind the gap. Yet to me there are few greater urban experiences than riding around the Loop on the L, and I wouldn't give that up for any other urban transportation system, with the possible exception of San Francisco's cable cars.

All the nifty features aside, I still kind of miss the old 6000 Series cars of my childhood, many of whom were built from parts taken from the beautiful, discarded Green Hornet streetcars. I still fondly remember riding the classic Chicago L cars in the subway in summertime with all the windows wide open, where the sound level was several decibels above the threshold of pain. And no one had a portable electronic device for distraction.

We were tougher back then.