By SUZANNE KOZIATEK
A year ago, the men and women who serve southern Illinois inmates’ spiritual needs lost their leader, Father Christopher Reuter, OFM.
It’s been a year of poignant reminders and a determination to continue to fulfill Father Reuter’s vital work, says Louis Slapshak, associate director for prison ministry for the Diocese of Belleville.
“He will never be replaced,” Slapshak says. “He will never be forgotten, since he lived his legacy that will carry on through each of us who lived it with him.”
Slapshak and other supporters of the prison ministry will join members of Immaculate Conception Catholic Parish in Columbia, where Father Reuter served as a sacramental minister, on June 30 to remember the priest and his life.
The event will begin with an 11 a.m. memorial Mass for Father Chris and continue with a luncheon afterward, Slapshak says. Remarks will be offered by the Hon. Milton S. Wharton, a retired St. Clair County circuit judge who has served on the advisory board for Our Brothers’ Keepers of Southern Illinois. That organization, which Father Reuter helped create in 2014, focuses on meeting the needs of inmates who are reentering society after being released.
Father Reuter died suddenly and unexpectedly June 30, 2018, at age 79, after complications from back surgery. A Franciscan friar and a veteran of the civil rights movement, he came to the Diocese of Belleville in 2002, and was asked by then-Bishop Wilton Gregory to become prison ministry coordinator, expanding and strengthening a network of volunteer priests and laypeople who visit the diocese’s state penitentiaries, the federal prison in Marion and nearly two dozen county detention centers.
Over the years, Slapshak says, Father Reuter became focused on what happens to inmates when they leave prison – in particular how to help them be ready for the transition to a life of work and purpose.
It’s a growing concern, as the state releases more prisoners each year, he says. “So many people are getting out of prison now, it’s overwhelming.”
Reuter and retired Bishop Stanley Schlarman reached out to the Lutheran and Episcopal communities, forming Our Brothers’ Keepers, an ecumenical Christian non-profit organization that assists former inmates in obtaining the tools they need to successfully reenter society.
Volunteers sit down with the inmates to do intake assessments, determining what resources they need and helping them set achievable goals. The help available can range from obtaining identification to literacy training and providing employment skills to money management and other life skills.
“Someone who’s been in prison for three or five or 10 years may have no idea what to expect when they get out,” Slapshak says. “Their family may have given up on them.”
Providing all of this support requires an ever-growing network of volunteers. Slapshak says the ministry is always in need of help, for everything from tutoring and writing grants to collecting donated items and fundraising.
“Often people don’t realize they have skills that we need,” he says. “For example, somebody may be good with accounting, know how to use QuickBooks – we could always use help in that area.”
The ministry is also looking for pen pals for men and women in prison, to provide a positive link to the outside world.
“Some of these (inmates) get no mail at all,” he says. “Volunteers find it’s a very rewarding thing, once they understand their circumstances.”
One of the current focuses of the prison ministry is an awareness campaign among parishes about the needs and challenges faced by men and women returning to them after being incarcerated.
“We want people to understand what the prison ministry does,” he says, noting that parishioners might be in a good position to know where returning inmates can find jobs or other assistance.
This year brings a move for the prison ministry, to a larger space at 614 N. 7th St. in East St. Louis, a building that also houses Catholic Urban Programs’ Neighborhood Law Center.
Once renovations are completed, the larger space will provide room for a bigger computer center and other services.
“It’s nice to be working within the CUP organization,” Slapshak says.
He’s keeping busy with that move, and with taking on a larger role with state and national Catholic prison ministry advocacy.
And Slapshak keeps getting those reminders of Father Reuter’s direction and legacy.
He says that one of the last things the priest did was to pen a note talking about the idea of being “born again” and its relevance to prison ministry.
“These returning citizens, they can get a pathway to a new life back in their community,” Slapshak says.
How to help
The Prison Ministry for the Diocese of Belleville provides help to inmates throughout southern Illinois – both those in prison, and those released after being incarcerated. Volunteers are needed in a variety of areas, including education, fundraising, support of families and victims, public relations and clerical help.
Representatives are available to speak to parishes and other groups about their work and volunteer opportunities.
For information about how to support the Prison Ministry in the diocese, contact: the Diocese of Belleville – Prison Ministry, Post Office Box 398, East St. Louis, Illinois 62202-0398