The Unitarian Universalist Association has awarded the Bennett Award for Congregational Action on Human Justice and Social Action to First Parish Portland. 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.
The citation reads, “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.”
In 2019, a worship service was conducted by Wabanaki lawyer and activist Sherry Mitchell who revealed the history of Rev. Thomas Smith (minister from 1727-1795) who was a slave owner and agent in scalp hunting parties. First Parish responded by forming a Wabanaki Ally Team (WAT). The congregation began researching their historical complicity in colonialist persecution of tribes, created truth statements, and was part of “Holding Up The Sky: Wabanaki People, Culture, History & Art,” an exhibit in the Maine Historical Society. First Parish also vowed to continue to work toward healing and reconciliation by actively advocating for Wabanaki tribal sovereignty.
The WAT teamed up with Maine Unitarian Universalist State Advocacy Network in 2020 to contact other UU congregations in Maine to form the MUUSAN Wabanaki Legislation Team. MUUSAN became an ally organization in the Wabanaki Alliance Legislative Coalition. The WAT modeled activism to other UU churches by inviting tribal leaders as guest preachers, celebrating Indigenous People’s Day, hosting educational events and testimony writing events, and contacting legislators and Gov. Mills. The Wabanaki Ally Team is committed to continuing its allyship with the Maine Wabanaki tribes in future legislation for tribal sovereignty. They hope to inspire other UU congregations in the country to become allies to their own local tribes and actively work on decolonizing as a moral-ethical obligation growing out of Unitarian Universalist values.
The original First Parish church in what is now Portland dates from 1674. In 1740, the second wooden Meeting House, known as Old Jerusalem, was erected at the present location, 425 Congress St. The present granite structure opened its doors in 1826. As a family-friendly, welcoming Unitarian Universalist congregation, First Parish practices a liberal religion, affirming the worth of all humans and advocating freedom of belief and the search for advancing truth. Recent inclusion initiatives at First Parish include the installation of a “Black Lives Matter” sign over the entrance, a plaque and regular mentions in worship services noting early church leaders’ complicity in genocide of Wabanaki people, and the installation of an elevator aimed at making the historic building more accessible to people with disabilities.