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Social change Chicago style - Martha Carr

The Great Recession has already brought forth a lot of change in the way Americans do things. No matter what the Feds do to try and get us to spend money wildly, like we used to, most of us have kept our purses snapped shut.

That's a course-correction that's been needed since the heydays of the 1950's, when we started thinking that shiny and new was worth more than solvent and sleeping soundly.

Besides, the only reason the Feds routinely try to trick us into that one for the umpteenth time is because it's a short-term fix to jump-start the economy that gets us off their backs. However, as we all now know, it's a long-term migraine with an enormous bill that we're all now paying, regardless of what our contribution may have been to the mess in general.

It's about time we finally stopped letting the elected officials take the easy way out on our life savings and made them come up with something novel.

Just in case they're stuck for ideas, I have a great suggestion. Go check out Father Michael Pfleger, the pastor of St. Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago. Most of you may know him for his unkind remark about Hilary Clinton during the primaries that made Obama choose to hold him at arms' length.

For some people, that may have made you love him more, some less. But the real shame was that it was such a distraction away from what Father Pfleger has been able to peacefully accomplish in a worn-down neighborhood, and a national audience missed out.

It would have been nice if President Obama and others had been able to rise above a misstatement to draw more attention to the real change that the Father has been able to accomplish. However, there's a new book out, "Radical Disciple." by Robert McClory, himself a former Catholic priest, who served at St. Sabina, and it may finally reintroduce us to the idea that we can make peaceful and enormous change without spending money, being disrespectful or exclusive.

St. Sabina sits in a South Chicago neighborhood that had been all-white till the 1960's, when there was a sudden flip, and what was an all-white neighborhood with an enormous and thriving Catholic Church became all black. Everyone, including McClory expected the church to slowly dwindle away till it was sold and torn down.

A young Father Pfleger had other ideas.

First, the Father started by meeting his potential new congregants where they were and adopted a lot of black Southern Baptist revival style to the Roman Catholic service. Services typically go on for hours with calls to the altar, movement and songs and an energetic priest calling on the people to become Kingdom Builders. Over time, the services in the enormous cathedral once more have become filled to the seams with people from all over Chicago.

Next, not only encourage people to tithe, which means 10 percent of all income before taxes, but exhort it as a faithful duty. The church regularly takes in over $30,000 dollars now, during the Great Recession, and is one of the most financially successful Catholic churches in the country.

Lastly, add in the old-school idea that the definition of faith is, we move our feet first, and God meets us while on the journey. Then, consider that the neighborhood surrounding St. Sabina in many ways quickly deteriorated with one visible and literal sign being the billboards for liquor and cigarettes that popped up everywhere.

Father Pfleger went to the billboard owners, the manufacturers and the legislators, including local, state and federal, but to no avail. So, he boldly set about painting over the billboards in plain sight with red paint. Week after week, billboard after billboard, he went after the hundreds of signs regularly encouraging his neighborhood children to drink and smoke. Eventually, there was a trial, which the Father won and it was the first of many victories that have helped a neighborhood to rebound and begin to thrive.

There are so many more Father Pfleger stories, such as when he used peaceful standing around in neighborhood stores that refused to stop selling drug paraphernalia, until they took their business elsewhere, that make "Radical Disciple" a must-read to get the full impact of just what was accomplished.

There will be a book signing on Dec. 5th, at St. Sabina, where Father Pfleger is still preaching every Sunday, for readers who are close enough to attend.

One man believed so fervently in the power of his God and the power of the people around him to believe with him that he changed the way Chicago did business. Now, that's saying something.

Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. Her latest book is the memoir, "A Place to Call Home." E-mail Martha at: Martha@caglecartoons.com.