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St. Sabina members protest Rev. Michael Pfleger’s suspension

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

More than 100 St. Sabina Church parishioners flouted police orders to loudly protest the suspension of the Rev. Michael Pfleger outside Cardinal Francis George’s Gold Coast mansion Thursday morning.

Singing “Our God is an Awesome God” after they were bused in from their impoverished South Side parish, they demanded the cardinal reinstate Pfleger and voiced outrage at his suspension, announced by the cardinal in a letter Wednesday.

Pfleger and his adoring, overwhelmingly African-American congregation’s long-running tensions with the archdiocese boiled over again when the cardinal wrote that Pfleger had “already left the Catholic Church” if he meant what he said when he indicated in an interview that he would leave the church rather than be reassigned to become president of Leo High School.

Surrounded by parishioners outside the cardinal’s home Thursday, St. Sabina Parish Council leader Isadore Glover Jr. said the cardinal had taken Pfleger’s comments in an interview with National Public Radio presenter Tavis Smiley last month “out of context” and had “misrepresented” Pfleger’s position.

According to a transcript provided by St. Sabina leaders, Pfleger told Smiley, “I want to try and stay in the Catholic Church. If they say you either take this principalship of a high school or a pastorship there or leave, then I have to look outside of the church.”

Pfleger has repeatedly said he is committed to sticking with his congregation of 2,000 at St. Sabina, where he has been the pastor since 1981 — a stay far longer than usually permitted in the Catholic Church. He survived an earlier suspension over comments he made about Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential election.

“He’s upset, angry, discouraged, disappointed, disrespected,” associate pastor Kimberly Lymore said Thursday, explaining how Pfleger had first learned of his latest suspension through the media. “He says he’s never felt this disrespected in his 36 years in the ministry.”

Protestors said that the Rev. Thulani Magzawa, a South African minister brought in in 2009 to eventually take over from Pfleger, would run the church in Pfleger’s absence but that the cardinal had abandoned a plan that Magzawa would not take over until 2012 at the earliest. Magzawa needs time to “acclimatize,” Lymore said, adding that Pfleger should be appointed “pastor emeritus,” which would allow him to preach and to pursue other projects.

“That’s a beautiful mansion over there,” Glover said, gesturing to the cardinal’s home as protestors cheered. “But there are a lot of people in our community who are homeless and we spend tons of dollars on everything but the right thing.”

Tonya Burch, whose 19-year-old son Dontae Smith was murdered at a party in 2009, was one of many with a personal debt to Pfleger. “He was there for me when I needed support,” she said, “It seems that anyone who tries to help our community gets brought down.”

Thursday’s protest began with a warning from police that parishioners would be breaking the law if they protested directly in front of Cardinal George’s residence.

Police allowed the group to give a press conference across the street, but when the press conference ended, Pfleger’s assistant Vince Clark called for the large crowd to “go across the street anyway,” leaving the two police officers at the scene powerless to intervene.

The crowd left after protesting for 30 minutes and leaving a letter for Cardinal George, who was due to travel to Rome later Thursday for the beatification of Pope John Paul II.

Neither the cardinal nor Pfleger was available for comment Thursday and Archdiocese spokesmen refused to comment on the protest or to say whether the cardinal was home when it happened.

Pfleger did get guarded support on Thursday from Mayor Daley, who described him as “just a great priest” during a visit to Mt. Greenwood Elementary School. Daley praised Pfleger for his efforts to toughen gun control but stopped short of saying he should be retained at St. Sabina.

“I’m not the cardinal. I’m not the pope,” Daley laughed.

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