Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray was elected President of the Unitarian Universalist Association on June 24, 2017. Prior to her election, she served as Lead Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, Arizona. Susan played a critical role in the long-term campaign to end the constitutional violations of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Susan received a Masters of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School and a Bachelor of Science in Molecular Biology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is a lifelong UU who grew up at in the St. Louis area and lives now in Cambridge, MA with her husband Brian and their son.
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Hello First Unitarian Church of Providence! What a joy it is to be with you today. I am so grateful for the ministry and leadership of this congregation – to my friend and fabulous colleague, the Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay, and to the incomparable Cathy Seggel who I have been fortunate to know through UU Associational leadership, and to your professional and accomplished music ministry and administrative staff – what a wonderful ministry you all nurture here! It is good to be with you – and especially as you approach your 300th Anniversary next fall!
There are a few people with me today I want to introduce. The Rev. Lauren Smith who is the UUA’s Director of Stewardship and Development, Halcyon Westall, who is our General Assembly Marketing Strategist, and Mary McRae, a member and lay leader at First Parish in Scituate, MA who is the 2020 General Assembly Volunteer Coordinator. Do you all know what General Assembly (or GA as we like to call it) is? It is the international gathering of the Unitarian Universalist Association that happens every June and brings together members and leaders from our over 1,000 UU congregations – all for a convergence of worship, learning, business and organizing. And it is happening June 24-28th right here in Providence, RI!
As the host city this is a great opportunity to be a part of this event without the cost of travel and hotels! And if you would like to volunteer to help show off your community to your fellow UU’s from around the world, please be in touch with Mary McRae. She will be with me at the Q&A after the service where you can learn more!
You know, one of the best parts of my job, of being your UUA President is getting to visit our congregations. For they are the life-blood of our religious tradition. When our congregations are strong our faith thrives; because it is here where lives are changed, where children are nurtured, where our hearts and our spirits grow in depth and wisdom, here where lives are saved. And I know this because my life was saved by the UU congregation where I grew up just outside of St. Louis, Missouri.
When I was five years old and my family was in turmoil, our congregation was a place of joy and love, a place of possibility that profoundly ministered to me when I needed it.
Our congregations are communities of transformation. When they are rooted in a spirit of love and justice, they unlock possibility and hope in ways that can make an untold difference in the conditions of our lives and wider communities. And I see you all here at First Unitarian embracing just this kind of ministry, particularly as you focus this year on Imagining Your Future and identifying and clarifying your mission.
This is so important, because one of the things I have found across the country is that when congregations embrace mission and have an understanding of a calling that is about more than just serving themselves – these are places where strong leadership, commitment and courage develop. You see, mission is both internal and external. Tending to the spiritual depth and care of your community and embracing a powerful sense of mission beyond – these are the ingredients of congregations that have the capacity and power to make clear and measurable impacts in the lives of their members and in the wider community.
This is why one of my first priorities as President was to clarify the mission of the UUA and to put congregations at the forefront of it.
Everywhere I go, people ask what is the UUA and what does it do? Well, the UUA’s core mission is three-fold: to Equip Congregations for health and vitality, to Train and Support leaders – both lay and professional – and three, to Advance our UU Values in the world, amplifying the collective voice of all of our congregations.
You can see the impact of the UUA’s mission in resources like our hymnals, religious education curriculum, and the Our Whole Lives comprehensive sexuality curriculum, which is saving the lives of young people every day by teaching the importance of consent, agency and the beauty of the spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientation.
We see the impact of the UUA’s mission during times of ministerial transition, with our interim ministry and ministerial settlement tools, as well as credentialing ministers, religious educators and musicians not just for today, but for the future of our faith. And we see it in the day to day of congregational life with regional staff, like your own New England regional staff, who are available to support and companion congregations in times of both challenge and opportunity.
And importantly in this moment with the increase in climate disasters – the UUA’s Disaster Relief fund has been helping congregations and individual UU’s and their community partners recover following devastating storms and fires from California to Texas, and Florida to the Caribbean.
All of this is possible because of the covenant that our member congregations make to each another. The UUA is the embodiment of the covenant our congregations make with each other. And when you support the UUA, as a congregation, through the Annual Program Fund – your annual giving – you are making sure that resources, curriculum and people are there for you but also for all of your sibling congregations in times of difficulty, transition and opportunity. And you, First Unitarian, as an Honor Congregation, have supported the Association at the fullest amount requested. You are a flagship congregation for our faith in your ministry and your generosity. Thank you!!
As UUA President, it is my great hope that we are an increasingly strong partner to you as you nurture a powerful pastoral and prophetic ministry. Because these times we are living in, both nationally and globally, are exactly the context in which we need to realize how important our liberating faith is – a tradition that holds the inherent worth and dignity of all people, the practice of democracy, the values of justice, equity, and compassion, and a commitment to truth, science and human rights, as core values. We only have to watch the daily news to understand how critically needed these are.
Two things are clear to me: This is no time for a casual faith, and this is no time to go it alone. This is a critical moment in history, and as Unitarian Universalists we are called to demonstrate our faith boldly and powerfully. Now is the time to embrace more fully the deepest expression of our theology, and in particular our Universalist theology.
Universalism teaches us that no one is cast out of the circle of love, that salvation is not individual but collective. And the way we live this faith is with courage and commitment, learning to take risks for the principles of justice, equity and compassion for all people today – in this life. This is not only a deeply Universalist message; it is also a deeply humanist one. For ours is a faith that is concerned not with the hereafter – but the Here and Now, the conditions of our lives today, the conditions of the lives of our neighbors. And right now xenophobia, anti-immigrant fervor, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, white nationalism, sexism, racism, transphobia, the climate crisis, military escalation, poverty, lack of access to healthcare, attacks on people with disabilities, voter suppression, gun violence — I wish the list were not so long – all of these threaten the lives, the wellbeing and the safety of our neighbors, our children, our communities, our people – all people.
So much is on the line, and that is why we are called to live our faith out loud – to be our bravest, our boldest, our most loving selves, right now in the streets, in our congregations, in the halls of government and in the voting booth.
Right now, we are just 10 months from what is the most critical election in our lifetimes. You will choose your candidates as individuals, but as a movement, I propose that we UU the Vote. What do I mean by this?
Out in the wider community, Unitarian Universalists are known as the people who show up faithfully and consistently. And I challenge us over the next 10 months to not only be the people who show up but the people who get others to show up and turn out to vote.
We have the opportunity, we have the ability, and we have the power to show what it looks like for those who ascribe to a faith of love to challenge the forces of hate and exclusion. What happens in November 2020 matters. And with what we do starting tomorrow, we begin to write what happens on that day.
The third part of the UUA’s mission it to advance our UU values in the world. And we do this through partnership with our congregations and in providing national leadership and coordination. So, from now until the 2020 election, we will be rolling out a comprehensive, multi-tiered, association-wide strategy that is designed to be accessible to UUs everywhere. We will collaborate with movement partners, as well as UU organizations, state advocacy networks, congregations and individuals to help Unitarian Universalists grow and sharpen our skills for faith-based electoral organizing.
As adrienne maree brown describes, we are in an “imagination battle.” And some imaginations only see fear and scarcity. Some imaginations can’t think of a world without militarized borders, an imagination focused on winners and losers, extraction and wealth. But…as religious people, we are in the business of cultivating the spiritual imagination of people. And our Unitarian Universalism imagines a world not of fear and division but one of love and justice, of possibility and abundance, of interdependence and interconnection.
I know many of you may already be engaged in the work. If so, now is the time to bring it up a notch. If you are not yet engaged, find a way to get involved. You can start now by finding partners in your community. Two critical resources we have as congregations is people and spaces to meet and organize. In this moment, when democracy is under attack, with increasingly sophisticated voter suppression efforts, we can become voter registration, voter education and voter mobilization hubs. I imagine congregations across the country organizing voter engagement tables, helping members not only register or make sure their registration is still active, but also helping to connect members to partners groups mobilizing the vote in the wider community. I imagine us opening our congregations to host voter education events around issues critical to our communities. And the UUA nationally will help invest strategically in key areas and organize UUs to show up in other states where voter suppression is more severe.
For we as Unitarian Universalists this is not just political, this is faithful, moral action, because we hold democracy and the right of all people to have a voice and a vote as part of our seven principles, part of our core values. This is about protecting democracy and the inherent worth and dignity of all people, it is about our care for the planet and it is about our commitment to justice and equity.
If we start now, then in the fall we’ve already built the muscle of talking to neighbors, knocking on doors and making phone calls, and we can turn that all out for the issues, and individually for the candidates, we care about. UU the Vote officially launches today at 4pm with a launch party you can watch online. You can also find more information at UUA.org to connect to this campaign throughout the year.
Imagine, what would it mean, if across this country 100,000 UU’s were able to get half a million people to vote with love, to vote for humanity, to vote their values! Our voice, our values, our ability to show up matters right now. And it is needed. We are small but we are mighty, and that mighty love and spirit centered courage is exactly what is needed today.
These are difficult and dangerous times. And one of the challenges is that in times of change and disruption, there is a tendency for individuals and institutions to withdraw, to grow fearful. This is one reason the rhetoric of hate and scarcity and isolation grows in this country. At the same time the chaotic political situation is meant to make us feel overwhelmed and disempowered. All of this serves results in a reinforcement of the status quo, no matter how unjust and deadly, when it is exactly in these times when we need imagination, when we need boldness and when we need audacious leaders and communities that are showing a new way forward – one that is life-giving, life affirming, and justice centered.
Our congregations are life-saving, life affirming communities that counteract the forces of greed, division and fear that threaten our humanity and our children’s future. Our ministries matter. And I believe when we live our mission and our values boldly within and beyond our walls that we are one of the most powerful forces for good in our communities. Only together – with mission, courage, love and deep commitment – can we be the people we are called to be.
I am grateful for this honor of serving as President of your UUA. I know that I cannot do what I do and the UUA can’t do what is it called to do without your strong, consistent and generous support. I am inspired by what we are already doing all across this country and the ways we are embracing a deeper practice of community and mission, a bolder commitment to act in solidarity for justice and a more courageous expression of Unitarian Universalism. May we keep answering this call.