One after another, Father Michael Pfleger enthusiastically meets and greets the 50 or so players who’ve dutifully braved the elements in hailing from all parts of town to compete in his otherwise pedestrian hoops league.
Almost in lockstep, the scenes play out in virtual seclusion at Chicago's St. Sabina—known not as a church, but as a "faith community"—but to Pfleger, with the nature of their high stakes rendezvous couldn’t be any more apparent.
“We’re seeking to change lives and basketball is the tool,” Pfleger says of his mission to curb Chicago’s troubling street violence, an epidemic that just last year saw the city post 508 homicides, including 10 over Memorial Day weekend when more 40 people were shot, at least four of them high school teenagers.
Equally chillingly, when a local TV reporter recently quizzed one admitted gangbanger as to what can be done to bring about a cease-fire on city street corners, the youth callously yet candidly retorted, “killing, killing is the solution.”
For Pfleger, such resolution simply will not do. “At some point, we have to stop and look at how we’ve created this environment,” he said. “These are somebody’s sons, brothers, fathers. They want the same thing we want, education, a job, respect. They’ve become like the homeless… we don’t want to deal with them.”
We recently spoke with Father Michael Pfleger about his ride-or-die commitment to Chicago and what he views is the city's saving grace.
EBONY: Your time at St. Sabina now spans nearly 40 years. Your fights with the archdiocese over what the role of the church should play in the community are legendary. What’s the relationship like now, are they supporting you in some of your current endeavors?
Father Michael Pfleger: If I was waiting for the archdiocese to embrace what needs to happen in the community, I’d need to live for eternity. We just have a different concept over what church business needs to involve. They think it’s just about the priest doing church and saying mass. Real community impact is to be about much more; communities like these have been pimped out so long you can’t just be passing through and expect to have influence. I now know a lot of the kids that grew up in these neighborhoods and that matters. History gives you credibility.
EBONY: You’re 63 and a Catholic priest. What’s the thread you hold that keeps you connected to the streets and able to broker things like truces between gang factions at a time when not many others seem able to reach a lot of the leaders?
FMP: Sincerity goes a long way. Most of these guys want the same things as everyone else, a job, respect, and the ability to take care of their families. Sure, I still get people telling me I’m wasting my time mentoring the already severely afflicted. All I know is since September we’ve had a no violence truce in the neighborhood among guys playing in our Peace League and there has only been only one area shooting and no killings. Even are harshest critics can’t argue with results like that.
EBONY: All this from a game of hoops?
FMP: Basketball is merely the primer, the instrument we use to get guys through the doors and make them aware of added options. Already, 10 guys playing in the tournament have enrolled in G.E.D. classes, another 10 are taking classes at Kennedy King College and nearly 20 others are participating in our job readiness workshops or have graduated and are working in internship programs. We’ve got commitments from Walgreens, Luster Products, Mellow Yellow, and A&D Property Services to work with us. For Christmas, we bought suits for 16 guys who were starting jobs/internships for new-year. We’re changing lives.
EBONY: Over the years, you’ve worked closely with Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright on a lot of initiatives, policies and goals you guys seem to share. What’s your relationship like now with those guys?
FMP: They’re still my homies, always will be. When we had our initial Peace Day Tournament last year more than 2,000 people showed up. We had native sons Isiah Thomas, Derrick Rose, Quentin Richardson and Bobby Simmons all in the gym. Minister Farrakhan sent over 50 [Fruit Of Islam] volunteers to serve as security. He and Rev. Wright [both spoke] at our ‘Prophets Among Us’ Speaking/Empowerment Forum…We’re all still fighting the same battles, demanding equality, fairness and opportunity for the oppressed.
EBONY: How has the Chicago Police Department embraced or reacted to your efforts?
FMP: It’s been a mixed bag, depends on what officers you’re talking with. [Chicago Police Superintendent] McCarthy and I argue all the time. I tell him, “You guys just want numbers down… I want lives changed. If you just work on decreasing numbers without changing lives, the numbers will go back up eventually.”
EBONY: As evidenced by the recent senseless slaying of 15-year-old honor student Hadiya Pendleton, far too many young people still harbor a sense of hopeless that manifests itself in such violence. What do you say to youth to not only change perceptions, but also build self-esteem?
FMP: What’s happened in communities like these has been a perfect storm. Nobody’s building anything, schools are underachieving, and there are no jobs. Hopelessness hardens kids to lash out and feed off one another. Most Americans don’t give a damn about that or kids from these communities. What I tell them is you have to care enough about you to fight for you. Fight for your dreams… don’t aspire to control 79th Street but Wall Street. The difference for all of us starts with you.
EBONY: We’re now in the era of Obama, how much does that help in terms of building self-esteem in the young people you deal with?
FMP: Difference that can make is off the charts, but so much more needs to be done. It starts with fighting for the poor. All this talk about the recession nearing an end, well, I can tell you the change hasn’t hit 79th Street. The Dow Jones might be up, but Ms. Jones still can’t catch a break in the hood. The love for the Prez we share will always be there, but we’re hoping he will do more to change the lives of the people we’re out fighting for every day.
Glenn Minnis is a veteran sports and culture writer who has contributed to the likes of ESPN, Vibe and the NFL Magazine. He has also been on staff at AOL Sports, the Chicago Tribune and was the founding sports editor for 360HipHop.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc