It was after the immigration justice General Assembly in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2012, that the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray felt called to greater leadership in the Unitarian Universalist Association. Justice GA drew 3,500 UUs to Phoenix to focus on migrant justice, culminating in a candlelight vigil outside of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s notorious Tent City jail that drew national media attention.
Frederick-Gray, who is seeking election as the next UUA president in 2017, believes Justice GA showed that UUs working together can put aside their internal differences to focus on the important work of social justice. “I would like to see the UUA and our congregations have greater impact in changing people’s lives and building communities and a society of greater love and justice,” said Frederick-Gray, a lifelong UU who has served as lead minister at the UU Congregation of Phoenix since 2008, has been a regional leader for the UU Ministers Association, and has held leadership positions in all five UUA regions.
A key voice in the fight against Arizona’s notorious anti-immigrant law, SB 1070, and a longtime activist for migrant rights, Frederick-Gray was instrumental in envisioning GA 2012 as the UUA’s first “Justice GA.” When SB 1070 was passed in 2010, UUs considered boycotting Phoenix, which had been designated as the site for GA 2012. But Frederick-Gray saw an opportunity to mobilize UUs to fight for justice for migrant workers. She helped convince the UUA leadership and GA delegates not to boycott, but instead to embrace the Phoenix GA as a means for prophetic witness.
She also helped organize a march in Phoenix against SB 1070 in 2010 that drew 500 UUs from around the country and received national attention. In 2011, UUA President Peter Morales hired Frederick-Gray to lead the Arizona Immigration Ministry, which forged partnerships with grassroots migrant rights groups who helped plan and implement GA 2012. She says her longstanding relationships with local migrant rights and social justice groups, including with Opal Tometi, one of the cofounders of Black Lives Matter, proved critical to GA’s success. She also worked closely with the General Assembly Planning Committee, UUA senior staff, the board of trustees, and the GA Accountability Group.
“That model showed that when you’re clear about your mission, it can move congregations out of conflict,” she said. “We struggle with conflict in our Association and our congregations, which hampers our ability to grow. But when you have something important to do, you’ve got to work together, and that sense of mission draws the best out of people.”
Frederick-Gray entered the UUA presidential race by petition in March 2016 after the withdrawal of one of two candidates nominated by the Presidential Nominating Committee. She is running against the Rev. Alison Miller, the remaining nominee, and the Rev. Jeanne Pupke, who was certified as a petition candidate in June. (UU World is profiling each candidate in the order they entered the race.)
Frederick-Gray counts relationship building, including with other faith and justice groups, as among the most important skills needed to lead the UUA. “We face tremendous challenges in climate and racial and economic justice, to name a few, and we as UUs can’t fix those problems alone,” she said. “We need to work in broad coalition with faith groups and with groups that do not identity with a particular faith, like Black Lives Matter. Those relationships are really important to building power and lifting up an agenda around equality and caring for the earth.”
Frederick-Gray graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 2001 and was ordained in 2002. She has been part of congregations in all five UUA regions, including in her childhood congregation of Eliot Chapel in Kirkwood, Missouri, where she organized youth conferences and served on the Young Adult Committee.
Since she became lead minister of the Phoenix congregation, it has grown by 35 percent in both membership and financial operations, and she has led two successful capital campaigns. During her earlier tenure as minister of First UU Church of Youngstown, Ohio, the congregation grew by more than 17 percent in membership and more than 50 percent in pledge income.
She has also been a leader in the UU Ministers Association, including serving as president of the Pacific Southwest District UUMA Chapter and mentoring ministers in formation. “My leadership in the UUMA is relevant to seeing how the UUA needs to grow as a strong institution and organization, through nurturing excellence in our congregations and our ministry,” she said.
Frederick-Gray is married to the Rev. Brian Frederick-Gray, a pastor with dual standing with both the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). They have a 10-year-old son, Henry. susanfrederickgray.com
An earlier version of this article omitted a reference to Opal Tometi that appears in the print version of this article.