As an activist local minister in Phoenix, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray was deeply immersed in fighting ICE deportations when, in 2016, she entered the race for president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. In June of last year she became the ninth UUA president and the first woman elected to the position during a fraught time for the progressive body, which has long been a leader in every significant human rights struggle. Her predecessor, Peter Morales, had resigned three months short of completing his term in the midst of a roiling internal controversy over diversity in national staffing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
You have said that this is “no time for casual faith.” Can you unpack how you frame the urgency of the present moment in the United States?
For too many people, for too many families, the urgency of this moment is literally about life and death. Families are being broken up, young students are being shot down in their own schools, Black people continue to be vulnerable to extra-judicial police killing, and a militant and unapologetic white supremacy is on the upsurge, as I saw up close when I was in Charlottesville and as we continue to see elsewhere.
Looming over all this is also the lurch toward authoritarianism and the blatant corruption of our institutions under the Trump administration, with the intentional targeted redistribution of wealth from the lower and middle class to the wealthy. Language and meaning are being degraded in precisely the ways George Orwell prophesied.
We in the UUA are clear about our core commitment to the dignity of all people—that’s our touchstone. But the challenge for us, as for all people of faith, is putting that commitment into everyday practice. And here I don’t just mean activism and advocacy but also the indispensable practice of showing lovingkindness and generosity toward one another as we struggle together toward a different kind of society. I am acutely aware of how the stresses of these times can work their way into our psyches and spirits, how the spiking anxiety we feel can even affect our bodies unless we are able remind each other, in ways large and small, of our shared humanity and, in that way, keep our hearts open to each other and to a suffering world.
There’s a fairly common conception that the UUA’s “Side With Love” campaign got started around the need to combat toxic homophobia and then grew to embrace active support for immigrant and racial justice struggles. Is this accurate, and if so are there UUA congregations that, for whatever reason, aren’t especially interested in expanding the focus beyond LGBTQ-related issues?
In regard to “Side With Love,” we said its mission is to harness the power of love to stop oppression in all forms, so we were already looking at immigrant and racial justice along with LGBTQ equity.
It’s not true that our congregations privilege LGBTQ struggle over other struggles. 64% of our congregations report using the “Side With Love” resources we provide, but an even greater number—75%—report that they are engaging or have engaged with #BlackLivesMatter or are doing other racial justice advocacy work.
Which is not to say that every congregation works on every issue. Context matters. In some locations climate justice or immigration might be of paramount importance, and no one is going to fault congregations in those places for throwing down on those urgent issues.
How do you wrestle with the internal challenges created when an overwhelmingly white UUA membership remains passionate and serious about racial and gender justice? Your predecessor admitted that he failed to meet this challenge, and now it’s your challenge.
Fundamentally I see this as a spiritual and theological question. Our universalist theology says that no one is outside of the circle of love. It says we cannot be living up to our calling unless we are vigilant in understanding our complicity in systems of oppression and discrimination—a complicity that even persists within our social justice work. This is an uncomfortable thought, but discomfort is also where spiritual growth can happen.
Ours is not the only institution that inherits a culture of complicity and its related limitations. But we are addressing this directly and head on. This moment has been brought to the forefront through the leadership and organizing of the Unitarian Universalists of Color. They have opened an opportunity for deep cultural and systemic change that centers the voices of people of color and women. We will not let this opportunity slip away.
The UUA experienced a notable growth spurt in the early 2000s and your membership today is holding fairly steady, whereas the forecast for many of the mainline groups remains quite dire. What would say is the message here?
Being ahead of the curve in some ways—certainly on LGBTQ equality—has been helpful to us. And we have grown relatively more in the South, where there is still the expectation of people going to church.
We need to explore new ways to gather, as our forms of gathering and worship are still pretty much rooted in ancient practices that may now be losing their cultural relevance.
But let me say emphatically that what grows churches is not gimmicks. Growth comes from mission, ministry, and impact. Growth comes from connecting with the deep hunger that is out there for spiritually vital communities that can help supply people with resilience. Healthy institutions have a clear sense of the difference they are making in the world, and our churches will grow in proportion to how well they live by a sense of mission.
As we enter a month marked by the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis, where would you say we are now in relation to the overall struggle to achieve Dr. King’s love-based “revolution of values”: i.e., a fundamental transformation not just in regard to who has access to power and resources, but also in regard to the underlying operating system of U.S. capitalism?
If I am to answer truthfully, I must say that we have lost ground in the struggle for a true revolution of values during the course of these 50 years. We are still in the struggle, but we have lost ground.
We see today the commodification of nearly every aspect of our lives: commodification in health care, in education, and even commodification within democracy itself, with the Supreme Court ruling that money is speech and that corporations are especially privileged people.
As Harvard’s Michael Sandel frames it, we are transitioning from having a capitalist economy to being a capitalist society in which every single thing, even our fundamental rights and freedoms, is for sale.
Dr. King, a true prophet, warned us that becoming a “thing” society in this way was the sure pathway to spiritual death. But King’s vision is also where we still take our stand and where we find our hope. King’s vision is why we have joined with the Poor People’s Campaign—A National Call for a Moral Revival, which aims to pick up where King left off when he was murdered and which foregrounds the urgency of achieving economic democracy along with racial equity.
King—and so many others—taught us that love is the only possible salvation for human civilization.