BY CHRIS KERR | October 20, 2014
Saint Louis University (SLU) president Dr. Fred Pestello announced the voluntary departure of SLU students and others who had encamped themselves adjacent to the university’s clock tower for almost a week. Their presence in the middle of SLU’s picturesque urban campus was part of a larger nonviolent action that began earlier this month during the four-day “Ferguson October” demonstrations. These protests were initiated by community leaders in response to the early August shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, of 18-year-old Michael Brown and other killings of young black men by white law enforcement officers.
Pestello offered some perspective for those who had been critical of SLU’s willingness to let the protesters remain on campus for many days, saying:
“Unlike some with whom I spoke, I have never been followed by security throughout a department store, had taxicab drivers refuse to pick me up, or been seated by the bathrooms of a half-empty restaurant. But those indignities — and far worse — are not uncommon to people of color, including our students, faculty and staff.”
He invited the SLU community to “come together” and said the week had been tremendously challenging for many at SLU, including himself. Moving forward, Pestello announced that SLU will work to formalize and institutionalize conversations on race at SLU and initiate short and long term efforts to recruit a more diverse community of students, staff, and faculty. You can read his full statement here.
Throughout the challenging week many in the SLU community referred with great pride to SLU’s “Oath of Inclusion” that calls on individuals at SLU to commit to challenging their own worldview, enrich diversity, foster community, and work for social justice.
SLU’s Oath of Inclusion
We, as students, form a diverse and vibrant university community.
We do not enter into this community by proximity, but by virtue of a shared Jesuit vision – to pursue higher truths, obtain greater knowledge and strive for a better world. In this endeavor, we do not succeed by our individual ambitions, but by our discovery of each other.
We find higher truths when we seek to understand the complexity of our neighbors’ identities, we obtain greater knowledge when we consider the perspectives of our fellow students and we begin to strive for a better world when we build a stronger community.
As a student and a member of the SLU community, I will live by this oath.
I will embrace people for the diversity of their identities, creating a community inclusive of race, ethnicity, sex, age, ability, faith, orientation, gender, class and ideology.
I will challenge my worldview through education inside and outside the classroom.
I will show that I am proud to be a Billiken by enriching the culture of our University.
I will foster a community that welcomes all by recognizing the inherent dignity of each person.
I will work for social justice in the Saint Louis community and beyond.
This is the SLU I believe in.
This is the community I am building.
This is our SLU.
As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Jesuit martyrs who were murdered in El Salvador in 1989, we are reminded of the prophetic impact Jesuit education can make in a place filled with injustice. As president of the Jesuit’s University of Central America (UCA) throughout the 1980’s, Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria S.J. utilized the intellectual resources of the UCA to be a force for social good by responding to violence, injustice, and oppression. The UCA was not just a place to learn about a more just world through Catholic teachings; it was a place where students experienced people doing that work through research, teaching, and prophetic actions that responded to the realities of the time and place. While Fr. Ellacuria, five fellow Jesuits, and two lay women were murdered in response to their work at the UCA, their witness has inspired many individuals and institutions to be a force for justice as well.
Jesuit education, inherently committed to justice, leaves little room for comfort or the status quo. Instead, it provides students the best real-life preparation possible to graduate as individuals committed to working for a society that protects the human dignity of all, especially the most marginalized. As former Jesuit Superior General Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., reminds us, “Students, in the course of their formation, must let the gritty reality of this world into their lives, so they can learn to feel it, think about it critically, respond to its suffering and engage it constructively.” (The Service of Faith and Promotion of Justice in Jesuit Higher Education, Kolvenbach, 2001) Saint Louis University, through its desire to not take the easy way out and its openness to acknowledge that injustice exists even within its own confines, is offering its students a glimpse of what modern-day Jesuit education looks like amid the “gritty reality” of our complex world.
Editors Note: After this post was published an additional document was published by Saint Louis University documenting further steps by the university to respond to racial injustice. The document was established as a part of mutually agreed upon departure of the nonviolent demonstrators encamped on SLU’s campus.
Chris joined the Ignatian Solidarity Network (ISN) as executive director in 2011. He has over fifteen years of experience in social justice advocacy and leadership in Catholic education and ministry. Prior to ISN he served in multiple roles at John Carroll University, including coordinating international immersion experience and social justice education programming as an inaugural co-director of John Carroll’s Arrupe Scholars Program for Social Action. Prior to his time at John Carroll he served as a teacher and administrator at the elementary and secondary levels in Catholic Diocese of Cleveland. Chris speaks regularly at campuses and parishes about social justice education and advocacy, Jesuit mission, and a broad range of social justice issues. He currently serves on the board of directors for Christians for Peace in El Salvador (CRISPAZ). Chris earned a B.A. and M.A. from John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio. He and his family reside in Shaker Heights, Ohio.