Fr. Brian Christopher, SJ: Surrendering to God

By Tracey Primrose

April 4, 2016 — Father Brian Christopher, SJ, 41, was barely a toddler when he met his first Jesuit in the late 1970s. The youngest of seven children in a devoted Catholic family, Fr. Christopher remembers regular visits from Jesuits to his childhood home. For years, his dad, a respected political science professor at Saint Louis University, hosted dinner parties, where his students and colleagues, Jesuits and lay alike, engaged in spirited conversation about U.S. foreign policy, social justice and El Salvador’s bloody Civil War.

Fr. Christopher currently serves at Our Lady of Guadalupe in San Antonio.

Not great bedtime fodder for a child. Even today, decades after the fact, Fr. Christopher recalls waking up from a heart-pounding nightmare where he dreamt that his family had relocated from leafy St. Louis to war-torn El Salvador.

And because a Jesuit vocation is often characterized by irony, El Salvador and its Northern Triangle neighbors of Honduras and Belize are the places where Fr. Christopher’s heart now resides.

Sticking up for the little guy is very much a part of Fr. Christopher’s story. “My parents were faith-filled people, and they instilled a lot of values in us.” They told young Brian that it was never right to pick on anyone, and that extended to eight-legged creatures. “I would yell for my mother to kill a spider, but instead she talked to it and then ushered it out the door because you treat all of God’s creation with respect.”

At Catholic grammar school, he was “a pious kid” who learned how to pray the rosary, but his mother brought the faith to life. “I have clear memories of being home sick from school, and I remember my mom reading from St. Joseph’s Missal. She talked about Jesus with such warmth and affection. Both my parents really mediated Christ for me and made him so approachable.”

Fr. Christopher with his mom on the day he professed first vows in the Society of Jesus in 1999.

He prayed a lot. When his older siblings started to get married and move away, prayer helped him deal with the loneliness. “Prayer became a very consoling thing. When I prayed, I tangibly felt God’s presence. Jesus, for me, was a very close friend, and that never went away.”

At St. Louis University High School, a Jesuit named Jeff Putthoff began challenging Fr. Christopher. Fr. Putthoff is today a veteran community activist, but in the early 1990s, he was a Jesuit scholastic trying to influence young minds.

“Jeff would take us to do community service in North St. Louis neighborhoods plagued by drugs, violence and poverty,” remembers Fr. Christopher. “On the way up there he’d ask, ‘How many burned out buildings do you see? How many liquor billboards? Does this look like your neighborhood?’ And then he cut to the chase: ‘What does God think about that?’”

On retreat, Fr. Christopher found himself consumed by Fr. Putthoff’s questions and realized that God was, in fact, inviting him to something. He heard God ask, “How far are you willing to go with me? Do you want in on this thing I’m doing in the world?” The thought of being a Jesuit entered his head. “It felt like a dare.”

Fr. Christopher giving a talk at his alma mater, St. Louis University High, in 2014. (Sam Beckmann)

As a student at Saint Louis University, Fr. Christopher studied philosophy and Russian and was active in campus ministry. He also cared for his ailing father, the brilliant professor who had been rendered mute by Diffuse Lewy Body disease. “When the brokenness comes into your own home and you’re no longer in power, it’s an experience of poverty. That’s what following Jesus means: you face the cross.”

Just a few months after graduating college in 1997, Fr. Christopher entered the Jesuits. His formation took him to underserved neighborhoods of Chicago and St. Louis, to Ethiopia, El Salvador, Honduras and, as a novice, to Belize, the small Central American country with the third highest per capita murder rate in the world.

Fr. Christopher in Honduras as a Jesuit novice.

He loved it and, after ordination, was sent back. Fr. Christopher lived at St. Martin de Porres Parish in Belize City, surrounded by 23 street gangs trying to get a piece of the country’s booming drug trade. He spent time on the streets and in the jails and helped start a nonprofit to provide job training to those trying to climb their way out of poverty. The work was challenging and consoling but a losing battle.

“It became painfully clear that we were looking at the wrong problem. Of course people needed jobs. But most of the people we worked with also carried deeper, older wounds from the traumas they had endured,” Fr. Christopher remembers. “These young men and women lived lives that were constantly chaotic, and it was hard for them to hold a regular job, when facing crisis after crisis. They would just stop showing up.”

Fr. Christopher with his mom and siblings on his ordination day in 2009.

Fr. Christopher knew that without understanding the trauma and how widespread it was, the community groups and NGOs trying to make a difference in Belize didn’t stand a chance. So he brought together a group of local therapists to study the incidence of PTSD in youth, which led to Belize 2020, a joint project of Saint Louis University and St. Martin’s Parish. “It’s not just the gun violence that’s happening in the street, but what’s going on at home — domestic violence, sexual abuse and bone-crushing poverty. The rate of PTSD is significantly higher in Belize than in soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. We can’t keep responding in the same old ways because we’re missing the deeper issues.”

While serving in Belize, Fr. Christopher co-founded the Centre for Community Resource Development, which includes a bakery that provides hands-on job training.

He spent five years in Belize and, after one year of work and study in Portland, Oregon, was missioned last summer to Our Lady of Guadalupe in San Antonio, a diverse, working-class parish that’s also an important regional center for Hispanic Catholicism. “I love parish ministry because it gives us the doorway to build relationships with people in marginalized communities.” He’s also doing community organizing work in San Antonio and identifying the challenges and opportunities of this fast-growing region.

Fr. Christopher baptizing a baby at Our Lady of Our Lady of Guadalupe in San Antonio.

While Fr. Christopher misses his time in Central America, which is ironic given that childhood nightmare, he is grateful to be where he is. His first visit to El Salvador in 1997 left him feeling like “God’s footprints were everywhere” but especially evident in places where “hope isn’t a luxury, but a necessity.” And San Antonio is no different.

God’s footprints have also left their mark on Fr. Christopher’s vocation. “God is still daring me, and I am still as stubborn as can be. But guess what? I’m not in charge and I hope Christ is, so I have to trust and see what God has in mind for me, and I have just enough of a sense of adventure that allows me to say, ‘OK, I’ll go.’”

Fr. Christopher with members of Our Lady of Guadalupe's youth group. 

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