“You have been told, O man, what is good,
and what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do the right and to love goodness,
and to walk humbly with your God.”
The United Congregation of the Metro-East recipient of the Micah award on November 3, 2017 was Fr. Christian (Chris) Reuter, a man who believes in the words of the prophet Micah and has put them into practice during his blessed 78 years of life. Fr. Chris was born in 1939 and grew up in St. Louis County and entered the Franciscan high school seminary in 1953. He was ordained on June 24, 1966, and spent the first 35 years of his priesthood in the Archdiocese of Chicago. His years working in the African-American community on the south side of Chicago were split between education as an English teacher/ principal at Hales Franciscan High School, as Associate Pastor of St. Philip Neri, and then as Pastor of Corpus Christi parish.
During these years Fr. Christian had many teaching successes, but also many occasions to interact with law enforcement agencies and the courts that prepared him for the many challenges of prison ministry that would become a part of his life. He soon found out that inner city adults and especially youths had more frequent interactions with the criminal justice system. Church and school ministry in that environment often took him into police stations, courtrooms, county and state prisons, and parole hearings.
During the 1960’s he was also involved in the Civil Rights movement and marches. When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Chicago, Fr. Chris drove a truck that the Civil Rights leader used to deliver his speeches. Father Chris stated that, “I knew what it was like to have bricks flying at you through the air, and it was a time that reinforced for me the need for justice and equality among all people.”
In 2002, after a long discernment of how to continue the Franciscan mission of service to the marginalized of our communities, Father Chris joined confreres Father Carroll Mizicko and Father Fernand Cheri to move to East St. Louis, where they built St. Benedict the Black Friary. It was at this time that then-Bishop Wilton Gregory asked Fr. Chris to rebuild and coordinate prison ministry in the diocese. In conversation with the local lay leaders of the community he told then that, “We came to be your brothers. We don’t have all the answers, but we came to walk with you, to work with you.” Throughout his ministry in Chicago he “always visited people when they were in jail”, and now in southern Illinois he turned his full attention to prison ministry as the Coordinator of Prison Ministry for the Diocese of Belleville.
Father Chris is very aware that the criminal justice system is grounded in retribution. This is a system that is not about healing, reconciliation, or restoring relationships. It is about punishment and revenge that lead only to further division, hostility, despair, and broken relationships. The words of the prophet Micah called him to seek justice, love tenderly, and pursue reconciliation and restore relationships which are the paths to Restorative Justice.
Following this call to justice and equality, Fr. Chris has implemented programs and made presentations to many local, state and national groups to shine a light on the criminal justice system in our country. Early on he worked with the Catholic Conference of Illinois to establish the Illinois Catholic Criminal Justice Network, which coordinates both pastoral care and justice advocacy to better serve our prison population at the statewide level. The need to provide more services for the inmates and their families required more ministers and in particular lay volunteers; so Fr. Chris helped develop a partnership between the Criminal Justice Network and Lewis University to provide a 15 month curriculum to train lay volunteers in prison ministry at the leadership level.
Currently Father Chris works with about 60 volunteers that include clergy, deacons and lay volunteers to serve one Federal prison, eight State prisons and some jails. Because they are still not able to serve all the jails and work camps in the 28 counties of the Belleville Diocese, work continues to recruit and discern those interested in prison ministry and provide an extensive list of ways that Advocacy and Pastoral Care can be exercised (a) inside prisons, (b) outside prisons, and (c) in supporting roles.
Of all the many prison visitation stories that could be told, the one that speaks to the heart of Father Chris’ prison ministry comes from the now closed Tamms Supermax. A particular inmate, Brian Nelson, who spent twelve years in solitary confinement in a small gray box, recalls the many times that Fr. Chris came to see him and the other men at Tamms. He walked into that ugly, depressing and terrifying place, but treated all men of faith and those without faith as human beings guided by the caring hand of God as a beacon of light to wash away evil and oppression.
Father Chris is recognized for not only his creativity and boldness, but also for how he continues to address the social, political and religious issues of the day. He is focused on incarceration in the United States, which is “a broken system” in that it is excessively punitive and abusive of basic human rights. It is ineffective at preventing and deterring crime, and it is very expensive. Yet we continue to build more prisons and fill them with more prisoners. The chief culprit is the “Prison Industrial Complex”–that unholy alliance of government, business interests and the media, that reap great profits from incarceration. Privately operated prisons are a good example of the “brokenness”. In the 2000 year statement of the Catholic Bishops of the United States (Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration) the U.S. Bishops concluded: “We believe a Catholic ethic of responsibility, rehabilitation, and restoration can become the foundation for the necessary reform of our broken criminal justice system.”
During the last three years, Fr Chris has been actively working with other clergy and lay volunteers to establish a non-profit organization called Our Brothers’ Keepers of Southern Illinois, a reentry project to assist returning citizens’ transition back into the community. They are planning re-entry services that connect returning citizens to needed supportive services and reduce the barriers that prevent successful reintegration and eventually the high rate of recidivism. These services include housing, social support, structure and stabilization, and employment. Our Brothers’ Keepers of Southern Illinois is attempting to address this need in Southern Illinois, an area that exemplifies many of our society’s social problems–poverty, unemployment, infrastructure decay, and certainly the “revolving door” of crime and punishment. It recognizes the futility of recycling human subjects from a badly broken prison system into a dysfunctional home environment and back again.
Fr. Chris continues to advance the case for a criminal justice system that is based on Restorative Justice, a system that does not ignore the offense or let someone off the hook. The solution is the concept of Restorative Justice that is grounded in healing and reconciliation. It is based on the human dignity of everyone and speaking truth to love. Each of the offenders must be called to accountability so that the offender can restore what was taken from the victim.
These Restorative principles summarize what the prophet Micah described simply as what God is calling each of us to do: “Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God”
Reference: Micah award presented at the United Congregation of Metro-East Banquet on November 3, 2017. A special guest and former inmate Brian Nelson (currently Prisoner Rights Coordinator at Uptown People’s Law Center, Chicago, IL) attended and presented a testimonial to the ministry of Fr. Chris at Tamms Supermax.