St Sabina's may be the largest predominantly African-American Catholic parish in Chicago. It has the look of being well attended and financially well supported. They, with their outspoken pastor of almost 30 years, the Revd Dr Michael L. Pfleger, find themselves frequently in the local news. This writer knows of no other Catholic parish that is so identified with the person and personality of their pastor, who over the years has become famous for his outspoken social activism. Most recently (April 2011), Pfleger was suspended from his priestly duties by Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, when Pfleger threatened to leave the Church and take his congregation with him if he were forced to accept an assignment elsewhere in the archdiocese. A storm of controversy resulted, culminating in the Cardinal's reinstating Pfleger in return for a statement of "clarification." At least for now, Father Pfleger continues his preaching and flock-building and his crusades against gun violence, the aggressive advertising and sale of alcohol and tobacco, and the lack of employment opportunities in his neighborhood. He is the adoptive father of two orphaned boys, and was foster father to a third who was tragically killed as a result of gang crossfire in 1998. Father Pfleger is the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions, and delivered one of the eulogies at the funeral of Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
This is known as the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood of Chicagos south side. It seems to be a solid middle class area, but perhaps more beset by unemployment and foreclosure than some.
The Revd Dr Michael L. Pfleger, pastor; the Revd Thulani Magwaza, associate pastor; and Michael Drayton, minister of music; plus choir, instrumentalists, liturgical dancers, altar servers, crucifer, communion ministers, lay readers, and a small army of ushers, security, and parking attendants.
What was the name of the service?Worship Service
How full was the building?
Nearly full, perhaps 650 people at the height of this holiday weekend service. Not air-conditioned, but the day was so mild and lovely that with some of the stained-glass window vents open it was very comfortable.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. A greeter handed me a service sheet, and one of a dozen or so uniformed gloved ushers guided me to a seat.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. The old church pews have been upholstered and possibly re-spaced. I also noticed that the original kneelers had been removed.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The atmosphere was very chatty. Everyone seemed to be catching up with friends. I arrived no more than three minutes before the appointed time, but the service didnt actually get going until about twelve minutes after the hour.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!" This was followed by a fairly long list of announcements.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
I did see a hymnal in the pew, but it wasnt used in the service. The service sheet gave readings, as did the paperback Monthly Missalette.
What musical instruments were played?
Praise band with a gospel sound: piano, electric Hammond organ, bass, trumpet, saxophone, drums and percussion. The choir of about 25 singers was miked. The amplified sound was loud to ear-splitting in the reverberant space.
Did anything distract you?
I was disturbed by how loud the amplification was cranked up, but apparently most people were used to it.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Nothing stiff here, in spite of the white-gloved ushers. The worship was quite spirited, with much call and response and shouts of Amen and such from the congregation. They applauded at the close of any musical offering. Lots of times we were urged to greet or speak to our seat neighbors and so on. I noted two rather strange things: First, the offering was not collected by the usual passing of plates. Rather, the entire congregation filed forward communion-style to drop their envelopes into a couple of large baskets. Second, it appeared that about 15 per cent of the congregation left after the offertory! Were they non-Catholics who had come just to hear the preaching?
Exactly how long was the sermon?
70 minutes! (And in a Catholic church!) For this listener, 20 minutes would have been OK, but I was feeling a little head-achy by about the halfway point.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Father Pflegers preaching was very lively and engaging and brought comfort to his congregation, but I cannot give it higher marks for two reasons: First, it did not seem very scripturally grounded. Rather, he took a couple of short phrases out of context and riffed on them. Second, it did not relate to the readings of the day, one of which, Matthew 18:15-20 ("Where two or three have gathered together in my name, there I am"), should have provided for quite an interesting homily. Instead, he preached on Job 14:13-14 ("If only you would hide me in the grave and conceal me till your anger has passed"). The delivery was the most dramatic I have heard, going from whispering into the mike to deafening. I often felt I wanted to cover my ears due the volume of the loudspeakers. Clearly much of the congregation comes here for the preaching, though.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Mainly the sermon theme was waiting for God to work things out, and how hard waiting could be: waiting for family problems to work out, waiting for a better job to become available, waiting for a personal problem to get solved. "How does a believer wait?" he asked.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The congregation were very friendly and welcoming, much more so than in some Catholic parishes I have experienced. The exchange of peace was particularly warm.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I suffered from the audio volume. I also would appreciate being able to participate in the music, but there were no printed words or music to follow, and with the extreme amplification, no (unamplified) congregation could make a dent in the soundtrack of this service.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After almost three and one-half hours, I hope I might be excused from hanging around. As I was snapping my pictures, a guy came up to say hello and welcome me, and remark on the beautiful weather.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I saw no evidence of anything that would lend itself as such. Probably everyone was ready to go home or go out to have a full meal by that time.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – If I lived on the south side (and particularly if I were Roman Catholic or African American or both) this would be a real consideration.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, sure. People were very friendly and really entered into the spirit of worship.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Aside from the friendliness, the volume, and the sermon delivery style of Father Pfleger, I think I will remember the way in which the offering was received and the fact that so many people left after the offertory.