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winter 2018

Fast helps bridge the racial divide in East St. Louis

Shane Fast ’04, above center, is trying to help rebuild a city, and not just any city — East St. Louis, Ill. Just across the river from St. Louis, Mo., East St. Louis is a city marred by racial conflict dating back to 1917, deindustrialization, extreme poverty, crime (the highest crime rate in the United States according to the FBI’s 100 most dangerous cities) and urban blight. It’s also less than a 20-minute drive from Ferguson, Mo., the site of the recent Michael Brown shooting and ensuing riots.

“For all of the reasons that many people fear, hate or ignore East St. Louis, we choose to love it,” says Fast. “As we were incorporating our ministry, we felt like this was where we were called to be.”

Fast and his wife, Kristin, founded Rebirth: East St. Louis and moved to the area in February 2009. In addition to a full-time job running and raising funds for the ministry, Fast works as a volunteer coach for East St. Louis High School, one of the most successful high school football programs in the country. Although coaching football is time consuming, Fast does it to build mentoring relationships with students in the school, the target population for RebirthESL’s programs. RebirthESL provides academic, career, spiritual, relationship and life skills training. They are starting a housing ministry as well.

Now six years in, Fast is seeing success. Three students who have worked with him since the beginning are now interns with the ministry, and for the first time some of the youth who have spent their high school years in the program have earned academic and leadership scholarships to attend college.

“We believe that youth have the power to transform the city,” says Fast. “We don’t want to risk paternalism. The youth of East St. Louis are the next generation of leaders, and we want them to embrace their community and feel empowered to transform it.”

Fast and his ministry have gotten lots of attention lately because of the accelerated racial tensions in Ferguson. He wrote a blog post, “A White Man’s Response to Ferguson,” that was picked up by CNN and other news outlets, and Stephen Knox did a major feature on Fast, “The Other Side of the River, A Football Coach in East St. Louis Tries to Bridge the Racial Divide,” for SBNATION.COM.

“We were in the right place at the right time to allow our voice to go further,” says Fast. “Ferguson has a direct psychological affect on our youth. It affirms that this is what we need to continue to do. We’ve been sounding this bell for nearly five years. Reconciliation is what we’re supposed to be about.”

Fast, a biology major at Wofford, played on the football team for five years. During that fifth year, he earned a master’s degree in teaching from Converse. He says his childhood in Union, S.C., and his time at Wofford helped him to think in shades of grey.

“This is our calling. It’s who we are,” says Fast. “The values we’re trying to live out here are the values I feel like everyone should live out wherever they are. We’re a small thread in the greater fabric. It’s a privilege to be here, a part of this community, working alongside people who have been fighting for this city for a long time.” 

by Jo Ann Mitchell Brasington ’89