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|1639: St Sabina's,
Auburn Gresham, Chicago, Illinois, USA
Auburn Gresham, Chicago, Illinois, USA.
Roman Catholic, Archdiocese
A huge 1930s Gothic church, built when Auburn Gresham on Chicago's
South Side was an Irish neighborhood. The interior has been
beautifully transformed to reflect the African heritage of the
majority of its worshippers: you immediately notice the African
carved sanctuary furniture, including wooden sculptures, bright
African altar vestments and furnishings, and a large baptistery.
Most eye-catching is the huge image of a black Christ rising
in the hands of God filling the Gothic reredos, above which
is a huge neon sign spelling Jesus.
St Sabina's is a very active faith community, with an array
of ministries, including youth, Bible studies, an employment
service, elders village (old people's flats), school, safe houses
for foster children, etc. They have been dedicated to and hugely
instrumental in the community re-generation of Auburn Gresham,
which has taken its share of knocks over the years, but definitely
seems like a neighborhood undergoing renewal.
On Chicago's far South Side, Auburn Gresham was originally settled
by Irish immigrants seeking jobs on the ever-expanding railroads.
But as African-Americans settled in adjacent neighborhoods and
the population of Auburn Gresham continued to grow, racial tensions
increased along with the swell of cars and noise, and the Irish
moved away. By 1970 Auburn Gresham had become a predominately
African-American community, beset by urban blight and the civil
and racial strife that hit the city in the previous decade.
Today it is still a slightly grubby, blue collar, black neighborhood,
but with a mix of residential, light industry and small businesses
along the main streets that give it the feel of a neighborhood
recovering and regenerating.
The Revd Dr Michael Louis Pfleger, pastor of St Sabina's since
1981, was celebrant and preacher. Father Pfleger is a well-known,
even controversial, figure in the city. He is outspoken on issues
of drugs, tobacco and alcohol billboards, racism and gun crime.
He has robustly defended Jeremiah Wright (former pastor of another
South Side church, Trinity United Church of Christ, where Barack
Obama worships). Whenever a child dies in a shooting in the
area, Father Pfleger leads local people to the government center
in downtown Chicago, to protest. Father Pfleger's biography
is extensively detailed on St Sabina's website. He was assisted
by a deacon with the most regal set of dreadlocks I've ever
seen. There were servers clad in African patterned tunics; the
ushers, too, were smartly attired. The Spirit of David spiritual
dancers moved into the sanctuary as the opening worship songs
built up, led by the Levites Choir and St Sabina's musicians.
The date & time:
Sunday, October 19, 2008, 11.15am.
What was the name of the service?
The Faith Community of Saint Sabina's Celebration of the Eucharist.
How full was the building?
Over half full at the start there were probably about 700
there by the end.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
An usher at the west door gave us a warm welcome as she handed
us an orange sheet for us to write sermon notes on.
Was your pew comfortable?
Large, polished, wooden and generously upholstered.
How would you describe the pre-service
It felt busy: people were coming in and greeting each other exuberantly, while others sat quietly waiting for worship to begin.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Lift up your praises to Jesus!" spoken by Father
Pfleger as the procession moved down the central aisle and approached
What books did the congregation use during the
No mass book or hymnal – just the orange sheet, which also
gave details of the scripture readings. Many had brought their
own Bibles in which they followed the readings.
What musical instruments were played?
Electric organ, keyboard, violin, trumpet, saxophone (the saxophonist
doubled as a flautist) and two drum sets.
Did anything distract you?
Just the sheer energy of what was going on around me: the Spirit
of David Dancers, Levites Choir, and musicians all performing
at the height of their talents were a sight to behold, with
the congregation swaying, singing, clapping and shouting out
praises. My jaw hit the ground as it all got into full flow.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
To describe it as high-energy is an understatement. It was like
I've never experienced before: liturgical Catholic meets black
Pentecostal – on steroids! A mixture of both the formal
and the informal. Mind you, these are good Catholics –
they know their liturgy, but they weren’t constrained
by staying glued to the text. No chanting, but fulsome singing
with a strong gospel side, led by the Levites Choir and band.
I detected a little singing in tongues at points. Lots of swaying,
clapping, shouting and crying out during the singing, and lots
of interpolations during the sermon. Candles and bells, but
no incense. Heartfelt and extempore prayers without any waffle.
People appeared happy the whole time. The congregation seemed
riveted, but in a laid-back sort of way. The celebrant used
an extempore eucharistic prayer that nonetheless remained very
faithful to the prescribed liturgy. We joined hands across the
church at the appointed time and were encouraged to share the
peace with those around us.
Exactly how long was the
On a scale of 1-10, how
good was the preacher?
10 Father Pfleger wandered away a lot from the lectern,
which was set at the front of the nave, and used a hand-held
microphone. He began by welcoming everyone listening via live
streaming internet around the country (including those in prison),
and led a standing ovation to honor the Revd Jeremiah Wright
(Barack Obama's former pastor), who was sitting, attempting
anonymity, at the back of the gallery. A white man, Father Pfleger
preached like a black Pentecostal, at one minute intimate and
tender, the next booming so loudly and with such passion, I
worried the arteries on his neck would burst. It was the loudest
sermon I have ever heard, and certainly the most effective style
I have witnessed. I noticed he got through at least two cloths
to wipe the sweat from his face. At one point he broke off to
lead us in a song which the musicians picked up on quickly,
and he would get us to repeat his phrases to our neighbor. This
was quite simply the best sermon I have heard for a few years
... and I've heard too many!
In a nutshell, what was
the sermon about?
Father Pfleger preached on Mark 2:1-12 (Jesus heals the paralytic
man lowered through the roof on a stretcher). He referred to
the forthcoming Presidential election and said, "We've
got to come together to tackle the issues that are killing us,"
such as gun violence, food lines, absentee fathers, and racism.
People came to the house in Capernaum hungry for Jesus, but
they were fed to tackle the issues paralyzing people outside
the house. When we are going through hell, do people see us
declaring our victory or being a victim? There's nothing out
there facing us that we can't change with faith.
Which part of the service was like being in
The whole three-hour experience was as near to heaven as I could
imagine. The music was spine-tingling, the sermon was rousing
and totally applicable to the daily struggles of the hearers.
There were no hymn books or screens; we just went with the flow,
and people knew the shape of the service, including the eucharistic
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was a team of bulky "stewards" clad in dark
suits, with earpieces and discreet lapel mikes, who followed
the procession in and kept an eye on the congregation as the
service went on. I noticed some were joining in exuberantly
with worship, but nonetheless, their hulking rather unnerved
me each time I caught sight of one.
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
The service was concluded by Kimberly Lymore, associate minister,
as Father Pfleger left after the eucharist to be a guest at
the opening of South Side neighbor Louis Farrakhan's new Nation
of Islam mosque. The church emptied quite quickly (perhaps people
had other things to get on with after spending three hours in
worship!) but I got chatting with a church member and went down
to the shop and refreshments stall in the hall under the church.
How would you describe
the after-service coffee?
We bought tacos with cheese and salsa and some fruit juice,
which was very welcome at 2.30 in the afternoon.
How would you feel about
making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 A compelling experience of joyful worship with a eucharistic
community committed to putting God’s word into action
in their daily lives to bring transformation in the community
of Auburn Gresham and beyond.
Did the service make you
feel glad to be a Christian?
Absolutely! These people were serious about their faith and
its impact on the world around them.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The immense energy and joy of both people and priest a white
man who preaches like a black Pentecostal.
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