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 $500 cash award.
Submit a nomination for the 2020 Bennett Award (deadline March 15, 2020). Submissions consist of a short survey, 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.
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.