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Black and Catholic are joint ventures at Chicago parish

Special Report Writer

It’s 10 minutes before the 11:15 Mass at St. Sabina’s, and the church is already half full.

The 50-member choir, attired in purple robes, is in place in the sanctuary and already in motion. Some do knee bends; some move their heads about, loosening neck muscles; some swing their arms and take deep breaths.

This not a special occasion -- just an ordinary Sunday in the church’s Ordinary Time. Yet the scene resembles nothing so much as a group preparing for a marathon. And a kind of marathon it will be. The weekly 11:15 at St. Sabina’s typically lasts three and a half hours, and one must be fit for liturgy that is participative in the extreme.

During the entrance procession, the organ, the piano, the drums and the flute support the swaying choir and the congregation of about 600 in a thundering “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord,” which goes on for almost 10 minutes. Last up the aisle is the presider, Fr. Michael Pfleger, the 48-year-old pastor, who is good-naturedly referred to by parishioners as a “reverse Oreo,” white on the outside, black on the inside.

When the singing subsides a bit, Pfleger stirs the embers: “Let your worship rise like incense!” he shouts. “Brothers and sisters, don’t complicate it. Let hands and bodies praise the Lord.”

And now practically everyone in the church is singing, swaying, lifting arms and voices in praise that is as resoundingly loud as it is seemingly lacking in self-consciousness. A mother in the pew in front of me keeps singing as she sits down to breast-feed the infant in her arms; a man several pews behind is shaking his tambourine in time with the music; a teenage girl, suddenly overcome with emotion, drops to her knees, covers her face and weeps.

“Glory!” said Pfleger, “Glory! If you come to worship God and let him have his way, anything might happen.” And it does. After the reading of the day’s gospel (in which Jesus reads from a scroll in the synagogue and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”), the congregation breaks into applause -- as if the words were personally addressed to them.

Perhaps sensing there’s still a lot of untapped energy in this body of the faithful, Pfleger said, “All right, all right, we’ll take one minute to go crazy for God!”

The one minute turns into 10. The earlier swaying and raising of arms turns into spontaneous dancing. As the choir and musicians lend full-bodied support, Pfleger himself spins around the sanctuary, while young and old shuffle, two-step, bunny-hop and do something that looks like a cross between the twist and hip-hop.

Calm returns and Pfleger, a bit breathless, said, “We call this gospel aerobics. Maybe when you used to go to church, they told you to genuflect and be quiet. But the Bible said the people gave loud praise! Glory! The Bible said the people danced before the Lord.”

As he begins his homily at last, Pfleger asks the assembly to open their Bibles and read along with him a passage from Romans. It’s immediately clear that better than half the people have brought their Bibles along with pencil and notebook to write down salient points.

The homily, which he has titled “No More Excuses,” a no-nonsense summary of Christian moral teaching, will last a little over an hour. “If you want a 45-minute church service,” Pfleger reminds the congregation, “you in the wrong place here. Lord, it takes us 45 minutes just to get started!” Then in a down-home delivery laced with earthy examples, snatches from scripture and numberless touches of humor, he covers greed, jealousy, laziness, lying, fornication, adultery, substance abuse, religious indifference and half a dozen other topics. Frequently, he invites the people to repeat a key phrase after him or speak it directly to a neighbor in the pew.

When he has finally wound down, he asks those who are fully resolved to “make no more excuses” in their lives to come up around him in the sanctuary. About 100 come forth, some in tears, and he prays over them for many minutes. The gospel flavor permeates the whole celebration, including the presentation of gifts, the eucharistic prayers and Communion.

Particularly impressive is the collection ceremony, in which everyone processes to the front of the church and puts a contribution in the basket. Collections at St. Sabina average $20,000 a week, and a recently completed renovation of the church interior has already been paid for. By 2:30 everyone looks a bit weary except the nonstop, well-conditioned choir and Pfleger, who seems to draw energy and strength from these marathons.

Of course, not every parishioner appreciates the 11:15 Mass. Those who prefer a somewhat shorter Mass can attend the regular 8:30 a.m. Mass, which draws about the same number of people (a little over two hours, with a smaller choir and a slightly less demonstrative style). And for the emotionally constrained there’s the really quiet Saturday afternoon liturgy in a small chapel. But those who come here weekly, including a surprising 5 to 10 percent who are white, appear to find something that resonates with their souls.

When Pfleger became pastor in 1981, longtime parishioner Len Richardson wondered, “Was all this energy and zest just a facade?” Quickly, Richardson came to see that “everything was real,” and his life has changed. Now a permanent deacon, he recalls the time “when being Catholic and being black were two separate things in my life. Catholicism was mainly performing certain duties, accepting rules from up above. “I’ve been awakened to how my religion and my culture fit together. I’ve been empowered.”

Empowerment seems to happen all week at this parish. Since he came, Pfleger and groups of parishioners have been involved in Friday night anti-gang and anti-drug marches around this poor to middle-class black community during the spring and summer.

The marches have resulted in a substantial decrease in criminal activity and the shutdown of several stores specializing in drug paraphernalia. The parish has generated national notice for its long campaign to restrict billboards pushing the sale of cigarettes and liquor -- virtually the only products advertised outdoors in the black community. When billboard owners rejected the demands, Pfleger and others began defacing their signs. Charged with destruction of property, Pfleger was tried in criminal court in 1991 and acquitted by a jury.

Because of repeated threats against his life for his aggressive anti-gang, anti-business stance, Pfleger has been assigned a police bodyguard for many years. The sprawling parish complex seems never to sleep. Sessions for “new believers,” about 50 of whom are preparing to enter the church at any one time, are held weekly, as are weekly Bible study meetings, which draw up to 200 people.

In addition, a plethora of organizations dealing with everything from alcohol and drug recovery to intercessory prayer, as well as various choirs, sisterhoods, brotherhoods, teenage groups, outreach to the poor groups and revival groups meet regularly on every square inch of church property, especially in the rectory.

“I used to feel like the Catholic church was dying,” said Virgil Jones, the 36-year-old associate minister and director of youth programs at St. Sabina’s. “You go to a lot of churches around the South Side and there’s maybe 50 to 100 blacks at Mass. Nothing’s going on. There’s a lot of unchurched Catholics out there.” Jones, who has a master’s degree in pastoral studies, said he lacked a “personal relationship with Christ” before he came to St. Sabina’s in 1986 and might have drifted along forever if he had not encountered the parish. “There’s real evangelization here,” he said. “We’re doing what the apostles did at Pentecost. We’re building church.”

St. Sabina’s parishioners are especially proud of a new, large wooden sculpture of the Holy Family created by a black artist and standing tall in the sanctuary. It shows a youthful, black St. Joseph holding a newborn, black Jesus high in the air, African-style, while a laughing, black Virgin Mary dances with outstretched arms at his side.

“See,” said Pfleger, “you don’t have to always have the Holy Family all bunched up together and all looking so depressed and holy. Salvation’s a happy thing.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 13, 1998