By Beth Donze
That’s the nickname students at The Good Shepherd School have assigned to Ajani Gibson, the first-year Notre Dame seminarian who faithfully visits their classrooms for two to three hours every Friday afternoon.
“Where’s your beard?” asked Good Shepherd’s eagle-eyed second graders on a recent Friday, observing that their seminarian friend had shaved.
Gibson crouched down to speak to the youngsters eye-to-eye, patiently inquiring about the current lesson, taking a peek at their iPads and asking if they needed anything.
“For these kids, to see someone in priestly formation who looks like them is very important,” said Gibson, 24, a graduate of St. Augustine High who went on to earn his undergraduate and master’s degrees at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a ministry of presence,” said Gibson of the weekly campus visits, done on his day off. “It’s important for the children to see that the church welcomes them, and that their faces are reflected in the church.”
Gibson began visiting the CBD school in September. Michelle Lucio, Good Shepherd’s new campus minister and middle school religion teacher, wanted the entire student body to pray for a seminarian by name – and for priestly vocations in general – throughout the school year. Lucio contacted Yvette Lacour at Notre Dame Seminary, assuming she would just be getting a name and a photo.
“She did one better than I asked for: she found Ajani,” Lucio said. “He was just a perfect fit for our school!”
Lucio said her students learn from Gibson that one can be a gentle yet forceful presence.
“He doesn’t raise his voice; he walks the halls quietly; he commands their attention,” Lucio observed. “He does it in a very calming but authoritative way, and the children respond to that very well.”
Gibson, who also plays basketball with the students and attends Good Shepherd’s weekend and nighttime events, said it was important for him to be “more than just a face” on the schools’ two prayer tables. Also, while most of Good Shepherd students are not Catholic, the school – founded by the late Jesuit Father Harry Tompson to provide a Catholic education to the city’s most underserved children – is a sign to the community that the church is available to all.
“It reflects what the Holy Father has asked of us: to go out to the margins and serve all people,” Gibson said. “This school really touches the lives of kids who would not in any other situation have had the benefit of a Catholic education. It’s a part of our duty as Catholics to educate all of our kids.”
Gibson said he has received so much more from Good Shepherd’s students than he could ever give back to them.
“There’s so much joy! They, for me, are light,” Gibson said. “When I walk into their classrooms and see their faces, they exude the light of Christ, and it’s a blessing. I wish more people could come (here) and see how much they are a light in this world, a world that often writes them off.”
Questions from the students include those about St. Augustine High and its famous band, and more profound queries, such as “How do you pray?” and “Does God really hear me?”
“It’s phenomenal to get those questions from young voices,” Gibson said. “My time here is really to show them how much God loves them.”