Bennett Award for Congregational Action on Human Justice and Social Action

The Bennett Award, instituted in 1999 by Dr. James R. Bennett to honor a Unitarian Universalist congregation that has done exemplary work in social justice, is accompanied by a $1,000 cash award.

2021 Bennett Award Recipients

This year the Bennett Award Panel chose two recipients!

First Parish in Portland, Unitarian Universalist - Portland, Maine

This congregation's ministry with the Wabanaki peoples and several of their community organizations is a powerful example of how UU communities can engage in both the internal and external work to support indigenous liberation and sovereignty. The depth of their relationship that is enhanced by the honest self-learning and acknowledgment of historical harms caused by the congregation, has contributed to an ongoing truth-telling and healing process that creates an accountable and shared foundation for mutual liberation. In addition, their model of learning and engagement is one that has been shared with their state action network, and successfully replicated among other congregations in Maine.

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse, Wisconsin

UU La Crosse's Eligible Voter Engagement Project is a shining example of what community-rooted electoral organizing looks like when built with existing relationships and racial justice in mind. Their previous relationships in educating and challenging the La Crosse community to imagine and create more equitable systems makes them a known and trusted entity in the community. In partnering with both BIPOC and women-led community groups, La Crosse's EVEP is clearly designed to increase voter access among people who are regularly denied that power. Their project also has clearly stated goals and strong messaging tactics that are critical during a midterm election cycle.

Honorable Mentions:

  1. Long Island Area Council of Congregations - We commend this council for generating community and collaboration across multiple congregations in their justice ministries. This is no small feat - and the contributions to congregational learning and public advocacy among Long Island UUs is deeply appreciated.
  2. Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick ME - This congregation's justice ministry is robust with strong community partnerships in the various efforts of the Working for Justice Steering Group. We appreciate the breadth of their ministries.
  1. All People's Congregation, Louisville KY- This congregation's work to seed the Kentucky UU Justice Action Network – KUUJAN is incredibly important, and a strong demonstration of the ways in which a congregation can be an effective starting point for broader UU organizing.

Submit a Nomination for the 2023 Bennett Award (deadline is March 20, 2023). Submissions consist of a short description form, and if applicable, a testimonial from a partner organization or community group, and any relevant media about the congregation's justice ministry, including news articles or photos.

Dr. Bennett is professor emeritus of the University of Arkansas, the former director of the Gustavus Meyers Center of Human Rights in North America, and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fayetteville, AR.

Read about past recipients.

2019 Bennett Award Recipient

The 2019 recipient of the Bennett Award for Congregational Action on Human Justice and Social Action is The Unitarian Society, A UU Congregation in East Brunswick, NJ.

In June 2017, Rev. Karen G. Johnston was struck by an invitation made at Ministry Days by colleague and religious professional Aisha Hauser: “If you are anywhere on this continent and in a space that is white-only or white-majority, it wasn’t always that way. Start there. Start with that story. See where it takes you.”

In connecting with a local historian, Johnson discovered that a notable East Brunswick resident, Jacob Van Wickle, was a Middlesex County judge who abused his position and used his courtroom to sell more than 177 African Americans -- some already enslaved, some free – into permanent slavery by sending them to the Deep South.

Van Wickle and his son-in-law -- who owned the plantation where most of the people were enslaved -- profited from their cruelty and were only halted from continuing to enslave people after public outrage from local citizens. Van Wickle and his family were never held accountable and their historical legacy was cleaned up enough that there is a street in East Brunswick named for them.

Rev. Johnson shared the story of Van Wickle and his crimes in a sermon that called for the congregation to join in publicly refusing to honor this slave trader. More than half the congregation signed a letter requesting the East Brunswick Township council rename Van Wickle Street. The endeavor was initially unsuccessful which led to a congregant imagining a more permanent way to honor the lives lost due to Van Wickle's trade: a memorial honoring those sold into slavery.

The project was named the Lost Souls Public Memorial Project in October 2017. Rev. Johnson described it as, “Inspired by the Memorial for Peace and Justice created by Bryan Stevenson, our vision is local, with regional and national implications.”

The steering committee was made up of members from the local NAACP, the Afro-American Genealogical & Historical Society, and The Unitarian Society, and was intentionally multicultural with strong involvement from the two Black community groups.

Rev. Johnson continued: “This Project is not just about history and remembering it. It is recognizing that the past is not gone, but lives in us, and requires of us to seek healing of past harm in order to live in right relations now and into the future. To do otherwise is to contribute to the ongoing system of white supremacy that is all around us.” Toward that end, the steering committee committed to centering the experience, input, and participation of African American communities and artisans. Predominantly Black community groups were sought for input and impressions during first round design of the memorial, and both the web site developer and curriculum manager were people of color.

On May 25, 2018, the congregation and project marked the date the second ship sailed by holding the first Recitation of Names on the site where many Lost Souls were held captive until the ship sailed. One participant shared that participating was “one of the most important religious experiences” he had in his lifetime.

In November 2018, the New Brunswick chapter of the NAACP gave The Unitarian Society their faith-based advocacy community service award.

The Lost Souls Memorial Project has received and continues to generate extensive media coverage. Future plans include a focus on outreach to build collaborative relationships with local Black churches in the county, as well as interfaith partners in the Township, engage more elected officials, develop a multiple-context curricula, raise funds, and to finalize the design and building of the memorial.

Moving forward, the congregation and steering committee plan to continue developing relationships, illuminating forgotten history, and formalizing the memorial and events with the township, county, and local schools.

Lost Souls Public Memorial Project banner

Recitation of Names 2018