Samford University students were introduced to a man described by president Andrew Westmoreland as a "flesh and blood" example of a person who has tried to live out the message of Romans 12 during the semester-opening convocation Aug. 26.
The scripture, said Westmoreland, points to three things one can do to lead a life of relevance and help a broken world: change from the inside out, be what one is made to be, and bless one's enemies.
But rather than sermonize on the passage that stresses taking an ordinary life and placing it before God as an offering, Westmoreland chose to let veteran Birmingham communications executive Shelley Stewart share his story.
Stewart, born in Homewood's mostly-black Rosedale community 74 years ago, told how he saw his mother killed by his father, fished for food on Edgewood Lake, which was located across Lakeshore Drive from where Samford sits today, and became homeless at age seven.
Today, Stewart is chairman and chief executive officer of O2 Ideas, a multicultural advertising and public relations firm based in Birmingham with offices in Chicago and Greenville, S.C. The company employs about 70.
Stewart said his early positive influences included a teacher who told him that if he earned to read he could become anything he wanted to be, and a white family who helped him understand that life was not just about skin color.
"Mister Smith said that it takes both black and white keys on a piano to play The Star Spangled Banner," he said of the man whose family took him in as a youngster.
Stewart's memoir, The Road South, was published in the mid-1990s by Time Warner. Of the four brothers in his biological family, he was the only one to get an education, and his two brothers who never learned to read met untimely deaths.
"If people aren't getting an education and learning to read, something bad will happen," said Stewart, whose concern about the school dropout rate prompted his recent production of a DVD, "Inside Out." The recording tells compelling stories of inmates in two Alabama prisons.
"We're going to have to lift each other up," said Stewart, who admits to being concerned about America and what people must do to work together better. "Programs aren't working. But relationships will work."
A starting point involves communicating and forming relationships. "We need to look at what we're going to, rather than what we've been through," said Stewart, urging his audience not to wait for politicians to act.
The convocation also included the presentation of this year's Buchanan Award for Excellence in Classroom Teaching to biology professor and environmentalist Dr. Betsy Dobbins, and installation of the 2008-09 student government association officers.
Officers are Drew Davis of Raleigh, N.C., president; Beebe Ray Frederick III of Montgomery, vice president for senate; Allyson Dewell of Mableton, Ga., vice president for events; Lee J. Ross, Jr., of Pelham, vice president for programming; Madeleine Mula of Mandeville, La., vice president for development; and Trey Holmes of Slocomb, chief of staff.
They were sworn in by chief justice Chris George of Dunwoody, Ga. The chief of staff and chief justice are appointed positions. The other officers were elected during spring elections.