In the Rev. Darrell Armstrong’s office at the Shiloh Baptist Church, a portrait of Dr. S. Howard Woodson, the church’s longtime pastor, hangs on the wall. The caption reads: “speaker of both houses.”
It refers to Woodson’s service as the Speaker of the New Jersey State Legislature (the first black person to hold the office), and also to the sermons that he delivered at Shiloh Baptist Church. He preached there from 1946 until shortly before his death in 1999.
One of the ways Shiloh Baptist Church continues to honor Woodson’s legacy is with a lifetime achievement award in his name. Gerald Stockman, a lawyer and former member of the New Jersey Legislature, was presented with this year’s award at a breakfast ceremony on Saturday morning at the church.
During his time in the state legislature, Stockman worked on education and tax reform, as well as urban redevelopment. He joined the state legislature in 1977, shortly after Woodson left.
Armstrong said Woodson was a humanitarian leader, and that Stockman embodied that spirit with his work in the statehouse. “He fought for a lot of civil rights issues,” Armstrong said of Stockman.
Stockman is the first white recipient of the Woodson award, and his selection is one indication of how the church is broadening its idea of Woodson’s legacy. Woodson died in July of 1999, and the recipients of the award in its first few years typically worked alongside Woodson on civil rights issues. Armstrong said he wants the Woodson award to cement the reputation of a man who is legendary in the church.
“It would one day be our hope that we could honor Archbishop Desmond Tutu,” he said after the ceremony.
In accepting the award, Stockman emphasized strides that have been made in integrating government and public institutions. He wasn’t able to attend integrated schools when he was growing up, he said, and his education suffered for it.
Many of the roughly 80 people who attended the ceremony, mostly church members, knew each other and had longstanding connections to the community and strong memories of Woodson. Even the man who engraved the plaque was called to the stage to provide some history. Bud Gough went to one of the few integrated elementary schools in the area growing up, and his father painted the Shiloh Baptist Church for Reverend Woodson.
Eggs, grits, sausage and coffee were served at the ceremony, and the church’s male chorus performed as part of the celebration.
To introduce Stockman, Armstrong delivered a 1984 sermon by Woodson on wealth, excess and how to live a full life. Looking away from his notes for an impassioned last minute of the speech, he spoke of beauty expressed through a life well-lived, and not through ostentatious displays of wealth.
Quoting Woodson, he implored those gathered to walk and talk like Christians, not by being hard and avoiding opposing opinions but by being “more human, more approachable.”
“We must disagree but not be disagreeable,” he said.
Armstrong typically presents a sermon of Woodson’s during the ceremony, and sometimes on other occasions. He said in an interview that Donald Trump’s actions and attitudes in the Presidential campaign motivated him to choose the “beautiful people” sermon.
“The title caught me and the scripture caught me,” he said. “What’s going on in the beautiful people sermon is the very antithesis of what Donald Trump stands for.”
He said the church would be open to honoring someone from another faith in the coming years, but good government was the priority for this year’s ceremony.