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Father Pfleger: ‘I want lives changed’ and ‘basketball is the tool’

Rev. Michael Pfleger Charles Allen St. SabinChurch Chicago Ill. Saturday December 22 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

Rev. Michael Pfleger and Charles Allen at St. Sabina Church in Chicago, Ill., on Saturday, December 22, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 28, 2013 6:07AM

No ESPN, NBA-TV, or Comcast SportsNet.

No gaggle of past and current NBA stars, just gang members playing basketball.

The Maroon Team, members of the Killa Ward gang, a faction of the Gangster Disciples, is up by one, vs. the Green Team, members of the Black Disciples.

The black men filling the auditorium of St. Sabina Church on a recent night range in age from their teens to well into their 30’s. Many still pledge allegiance to the streets.

Others, however, such as Charles Allen, 30, of Englewood, have by their own and others’ assertions, grabbed a carrot that activist priest the Rev. Michael Pfleger has extended: G.E.D.’s. Internships. Jobs. Counseling. Recreation.

All are part of a gang violence antidote being applied at the South Side church.

Paroled last August after six years in the penitentiary for possession of drugs with intent to deliver, Allen is one of the men Pfleger has taken under his wing.

“I first got into trouble at 13,” Allen says. “I got involved with some guys who were robbing people, and asked me to stand watch. I ended up getting snatched up by police and sent to IDOC [Illinois Dept. of Corrections] until I was 18.”

This particular night is Week Four of a new “Peacemakers League” at St. Sabina — offshoot of the ballyhooed Peace Basketball Tournament that drew 2,000 people, famed NBA names, and a national spotlight to the church last September.

That’s when Pfleger and NBA Hall of Famer Isaiah Thomas corralled rival gangs from gang violence-plagued Auburn-Gresham and Englewood to shoot hoops together — in hopes it would begin to build a bridge to peace.

The Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson showed up, and fellow NBA players Quentin Richardson, Bobby Simmons, and Zach Randolph.

Under a national spotlight, four gangs competed in peaceful, sports rivalry.

The event’s success only whetted the appetite of Pfleger, pastor emeritus here.

“We kept telling people basketball is the tool. [Chicago Police] Supt. [Garry] McCarthy and I argue about this,” Pfleger says. “I tell him, ‘You guys just want numbers down. I want lives changed.’ If you just work on decreasing the numbers without changing lives, the numbers will go back up eventually.”

Pfleger refers to Chicago’s 506 homicides last year — the nation’s highest murder rate. St. Sabina has posted numbers of a different sort since last September.

Sixty men competed in that one-day tournament.

As of today, 10 are enrolled in G.E.D. classes held Monday and Wednesday mornings and Tuesday and Thursday evenings at the church in partnership with Kennedy-King College.

Some 10 others are taking G.E.D. classes over at Kennedy-King and Daley colleges.

Fourteen have taken job readiness workshops at St. Sabina’s Employment Resource Center, graduated, and been placed in three- to seven-month internships the church has negotiated with area employers.

Employers include Walgreen’s, A&D Property Services, Grant’s Financial Services, Little Black Pearl, Luster Products, St. Sabina, and several restaurants: Bannana Leaf, C’est si bon, Just Turkey, Mellow Yellow and South Side Shrimp.

An additional 27 men just completed workshops, and begin internships this month.

Since the September tournament, Allen, whose 2006 conviction was his second prison stint, has completed the workshops and an internship at St. Sabina’s Elders Village. He is enrolled in an 18-month medical assistant career program.

“When I got out of prison the first time, I still had ties to the gang,” he says.

“I was pretty much just selling drugs and trying to get by. I ended up getting shot in the face. Some guys pulled up, started shooting. It was too late to run.”

He says this last stint was a harsh lesson; St. Sabina’s effort, an eye-opener.

“I’ve had to do some soul searching. I’ve played the blame game all my life,” Allen says. “It used to always be my mother’s fault, father’s fault, the judges, police — everybody but me. I had to look in the mirror. I realized the enemy was staring me right in my face. The situations I ended up in are all because of me.”

The Peacemakers League kicked off on Nov. 19, running Mondays through March 4.

Competing are six 10-member teams. Besides Maroon and Green, there’s a Blue Team, members of the Gangster Disciples; and Black Team, made up of the Black P-Stones.

A Light Blue Team and a Red Team are just neighborhood guys, non-gang affiliated.

They show up at 5:30 p.m., hear a speaker during a meal, then the games begin.

“I don’t know what I’m doing at 63 years old hanging out with guys from the streets,” says Pfleger. “Listen, I’m not excusing the violence. But at some point, we have to stop and look at how we’ve created this environment. These are somebody’s sons, brothers, fathers, who want the same thing we want, education, a job, respect. They’ve become like the homeless. We don’t want to deal with them.”

Allen takes responsibility today for the path he once chose, saying all he is seeking is a full-time job to be able to provide for his girlfriend and daughter.

Last week, he interviewed with and was hired by A&D, attended orientation on Friday, and begins work this Monday.

“[The gangs] try to say, ‘From the cradle to the grave.’ But at the end of the day, I’m my own person,” he says, declining to name the gang he was in.

“Because I’ve renounced it,” he says. “I don’t want that life anymore. That’s behind me. The Lord’s the only gang I’m running with now.”

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