The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray felt called to Arizona at a time when the state was ground zero for the controversy on immigration that today dominates the headlines.
It didn’t take long for the issue to become personal.
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix where she became lead minister in 2008 included several undocumented immigrants. One of them, a young man named Daniel, taught the toddler Sunday School classes at the congregation. An excellent student, he enrolled in college hoping to be a schoolteacher, but he had to drop out when his mother got sick and needed support. By the time he was ready to return to school, the state had revoked in-state tuition rates for undocumented students. In 2009, Daniel’s mother was deported.
“He couldn’t pursue his education,” Frederick-Gray says. “He couldn’t work legally. He and his family worried he might be deported. We saw his dreams disappearing—this young man, husband, and father. But in our congregation, he did teach. The kids in our community and their parents loved him.”
For nine years, Susan Frederick-Gray, MDiv ’01, was on the front lines of the struggle for immigrant rights on the United States–Mexico border. Today, as the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), she brings her passion for justice to a wide range of issues, including combatting criminalization, inclusive of both immigration and mass incarceration; LGBTQ and gender justice; climate justice; and protecting democracy.
“Unitarian Universalists hold a critically important role in our country as a community that has been bold in living our faith of justice in the world,” she says. “I saw in Arizona that nurturing a deep theological and spiritual foundation and being deeply aligned with grassroots movements for justice really made a difference. I want to bring that mission of spiritual vitality and impact in the larger world to our entire faith community.”
Showdown with Sheriff Arpaio
In Arizona, Frederick-Gray responded to state politicians and local officials who, she says, “used fear and prejudice to punish migrants, further their own careers, and curtail civil rights for all citizens.” She singles out the Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio.
“Sheriff Arpaio was violating the constitution and people’s civil and human rights through racial profiling and the inhumane treatment of prisoners,” she says. “At the same time, there were hundreds of cases of sexual assault and violence against children that were never investigated. He used attacks on immigrants to continue to win political office. That was the context in which I served in Arizona and one of the reasons that the issue was so important.”
When, in 2010, Arizona passed a law codifying many of Arpaio’s tactics and empowering local police officers to enforce federal immigration law, Unitarian Universalists (UUs), led by Frederick-Gray, partnered with the Puente Human Rights Network, Tonatierra Indigenous Cultural Center, other immigrant rights groups, labor unions, and other faith communities to try and stop the bill from going into effect. Thousands took to the streets of Phoenix to march in protest as the UUs and Puente attempted to shut down the street outside of Sheriff Arpaio’s office and the 4th Avenue Jail in Maricopa County.
“We wanted to stop Arpaio from going after the community and to encourage the federal government to intervene in Arizona,” Frederick-Gray explains. “The point was to make him deal with us and to shut down the jail’s function so that he would not be able to go out on raids.”
Like dozens of other protesters—many of them UUs—Frederick-Gray was arrested by Sheriff Arpaio’s officers and tossed into the jail she was trying to shut down, a terrifying ordeal. Under Arpaio, the 4th Avenue Jail had become one of the most violent in the country, costing Maricopa County tens of millions of dollars in settlements for the abuse and wrongful death of prisoners.
Frederick-Gray says that she was scared but also strengthened by a spirit of love and justice. “I was afraid once we were in custody, but I also felt incredible faith and conviction,” she says. “Courage isn’t the absence of fear. Courage is knowing fear and still doing what is right.”
After their release, the Phoenix protestors interviewed with Department of Justice investigators who used their testimony—as well as that of others—as the basis for a lawsuit against the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department. As a result, a federal judge ordered Arpaio to discontinue the practice of racial profiling. When he disobeyed the order, Arpaio was held in criminal contempt. He also lost his bid for reelection as sheriff.
“The whole campaign was about fighting policies that terrorized undocumented people, their families, and the Latinx community,” she says. “Puente did incredible work to build the campaign. There were real consequences for bothArpaio and the Sheriff’s Department.”
No Time for a Casual Faith
Frederick-Gray’s desire to bring to her entire denomination the experience she gained from both the spiritual vitality of the Phoenix congregation and its real-world impact inspired her to put herself forward in 2017 as a candidate for president of the UUA. She says that UUs across the country increasingly feel a need to strengthen the impact of their faith in the world and deepen spiritual resources for resiliency and care within their ministries.
“This is a moment when people feel a sense of urgency,” she says. “They want to fight for human rights, and for the health, dignity, and worth of all people. They understand how much is at stake. That’s why I say this is no time for a casual faith.”
One of Frederick-Gray’s areas of focus as president is policing. She says that her experiences in Arizona and elsewhere demonstrate that law enforcement behaves very differently in white, middle-class, and aff luent communities than it does in places where people are poor or of color.
“When protesters took to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown (a young African American man killed by a police officer), police showed up with a militarized force,” she says. “But when white nationalists showed up in Charlottesville with sticks, bats, and guns, the police stayed away. So, the UUA is part of the national fight against state violence, as well as the ways that it targets communities of color.”
Frederick-Gray had firsthand experience of the violence in Charlottesville. She and fellow HDS alumni like Jalane Schmidt, MDiv ’96, and Susie Hayward, MDiv ’07—as well as HDS professor Cornel West—were literally on the front lines of the response to the “Unite the Right” rally that took place there in August 2017. Violence broke out when a white nationalist drove his car into counterdemonstrators, killing one and injuring 19. Frederick-Gray says that her time in Arizona prepared her to put herself in harm’s way for justice.
"It was the same thing in Charlottesville on that line,” she says. “We were right up against a right-wing militia with long guns, rounds of ammunition, and an ideological agenda of hate. We as faith leaders had nothing but our stoles, our songs, and one another as we stood before them. I was in that same line against the border patrol, and it is a faithful place to be. It’s deeply spiritual—a place where courage feels like faith.”
This notion of social justice work as inseparable from faith is deeply rooted in UU theology, Frederick-Gray says. The denomination has no single theology, creed, or scripture—but is rooted in love and an affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of all people. For Frederick-Gray, the question of God is less important than the question of how we are to live together.
“Love means that we are called to nurture health in one another,” she says, “to nurture community with one another, to nurture the wholeness and vitality of every person, and to lift one another up. It can’t be reconciled with putting children in cages, with erasing transgender people, with racism, or with poverty. It means we are connected with one another. In this way, God is a powerful form of love.”
—by Paul Massari