SLU scholarship inspired by making positive change post-Ferguson

Lisa Johnston | | @aetern
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Brian Shelton remembers sitting in the congregation as Archbishop Robert J. Carlson delivered a homily at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis in August 2015, on the one-year anniversary of shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

Shelton was deeply moved by what the archbishop said — that a culture of systemic racism had been uncovered, and healing and justice can only be achieved through respect for one another and a commitment to help others.

"He spoke with conviction," Shelton recalled. "It really sparked something inside of me. I knew I had to be part of the solution and not part of the problem."

So, Shelton, a 1980 graduate of St. Louis University, established the St. Peter Claver, SJ, Service Endowed Scholarship at his alma mater to assist first-generation, full-time freshmen. Students must live in an urban setting and have a financial need, with a love for community service. The $5,000 scholarship is renewable each year, as long as the recipient meets the academic and service requirements.

The scholarship is named for the Jesuit missionary who ministered to African slaves in Colombia in the 17th century. He catechized and baptized approximately 300,000 slaves over a period of 40 years. He also ministered to slaves aboard transport ships, which often meant overcrowded, dirty and disease-filled conditions. Shelton learned about the saint's life through his parish, St. Elizabeth Mother of John the Baptist in north St. Louis.

"He was stepping beyond the Church's practice then, in ministering to African slaves," Shelton said. "He gave me the clear impression that he was about treating humanity with dignity. Empowerment is the key to helping the marginalized and the poor to grow from their situation."

Last month, freshman Hana Dagne was announced as the first awardee. A native of Burayu, Ethiopia, she moved with her family to St. Louis at the age of 11 and graduated from Hazelwood West High School. At SLU, she's studying biochemistry, with the hopes of enrolling in the pre-med program.

Seeing the tensions that arose in Ferguson, Dagne was inspired to become more involved in her community. As a requirement to receive the scholarship, she volunteers tutoring students once a week at North Campus, which was founded by St. Louis alderman and CBC graduate Antonio French. The initiative which provides educational assistance and a safe place for students of disadvantaged or low-income families in north St. Louis.

Dagne learned about North Campus through SLU's Center for Community Service. She volunteered there because "it's based on creating change for children," she said, adding that North Campus programs "show them that they are capable of doing things other people have said they can't."

A theology degree led Shelton to a career in youth ministry, including as coordinator of urban youth ministry in the Archdiocese of Boston. His time at SLU revealed to him how to live out the Jesuit mission of being a "man for others." He drew inspiration from teachers such as theology professor Sister Dolores Greely, RSM, "who really taught me to reach out to the marginalized and poor." Other inspirations included former campus minister Dan Ficuane and Deacon Lou Menard, retired dean of admissions.

"They all taught me how to make a difference in others' lives," Shelton said. 

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