WILLIAMSTOWN -- The late Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., who began his career at Williams College in 1957, was a highly outspoken proponent of social justice and civil rights.

Several years ago, according to Williams fellowship coordinator Lynn Chick, a member of the First Congregational Church wished "an opportunity for students to speak publicly about issues that are important to them" existed.

From there, a joint effort between the First Congregational Church and Williams College Chaplain's Office resulted in the William Sloane Coffin Prize in Passionate Public Speaking.

The Coffin Prize provides Williams undergraduates an opportunity to do as the Rev. Coffin did: Speak passionately on a topic of social justice or faith that they truly care about.

This Sunday at 7 p.m., Williamstown's First Congregational Church will host the fourth annual William Sloane Coffin Prize in Passionate Public Speaking. The event is free and open to the public.

"There's this idea of young people being ambivalent or not caring about modern issues, and that is just not true," said Chick, who's a member of the Coffin Prize Planning Committee and the church.

To compete, students write and submit manuscripts to the Chaplain's Office. Each manuscript must deal with issues of social justice and activism or faith and spirituality.

Manuscripts are then reviewed and ranked by members of the college and community.


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"We bring together a group of readers from the community, local churches, and the college to read these essays for their message and their relevance to today's society," Chick said.

The planning committee -- comprised of Chick, the Rev. Rick Spalding of the Williams Chaplain's Office, the Rev. Mark Longhurst of the First Congregational Church, and college professor Robin Lehleitner -- then tallies the rankings and determines the finalists. The top three manuscripts in both categories are chosen as finalists.

Having been notified in early- to mid-March, finalists have a few weeks to rework their manuscripts and tune them for oration. Sunday night, finalists will give their speeches to a panel of judges (as well as a public audience) and a winner will be chosen based on the merit of their presentation and content.

"For the clergy especially, and for many others who remember his brief career at Williams and his distinguished decades as Yale University chaplain," reads the Williams Chaplain's Office Web page regarding the contest, "William Sloane Coffin Jr. stands as a paradigm of the kind of informed, convicted eloquence to which our students could aspire."