When Sylvester Lorenzo “Syl” Shannon D’66 arrived at one of his pastorates, the church had three different worship services — one black, one white, one Hispanic. When he left that church, there was one service with all God's people worshiping together.
Whether preaching in the pulpit at the Pentagon, conducting preaching missions around the world, or starting a college scholarship fund to bring hope from despair after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., his life’s work has been all about breaking down barriers and bringing people together.
In honor of his contributions to education and ministry, the retired U.S. Army chaplain received the Divinity School’s 2008 Distinguished Alumni Award last October.
“Dr. Shannon is an advocate of inclusiveness,” said Eric Porterfield, D’94, D’96, former president of the National Alumni Council and chair of the selection committee. “He’s not a gatekeeper keeping people out, but a person committed to breaking down barriers and bringing people together.”
Shannon served with the U.S. Army Chaplain Service from 1966–1981, retiring with the rank of colonel. He was the first African-American chaplain to graduate from the Command and General Staff College and the first African American to serve as senior pastor of the Pentagon pulpit. He conducted preaching missions all over the world and received the U.S. Army Legion of Merit Award for service in South Vietnam.
After retiring from the army, Shannon served Presbyterian Church (USA) pastorates in North Carolina, Virginia, Kansas, New York, and Washington, D.C. In 1990 he became pastor of the historic Siloam Presbyterian Church, the largest predominantly black congregation in his denomination, located in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Shannon’s commitment to helping others pursue education has its roots in the 1960s. After King was assassinated in 1968, Shannon and two clergy colleagues pooled their money and started a scholarship. To this date, they have helped 87 students from the United States, India, Korea and Zimbabwe pay for college.