I Got Arrested Today While Praying the US Finally Confronts Poverty

America's abundant wealth is held in the hands of the few and spent on war and militarism.
Protesters in Washington, DC for the Poor People's Campaign. Photo by AP Photo/Susan Walsh

One might not expect getting arrested to be in the work plan for someone elected to lead a major religious association in the US, but that is exactly how I am closing out my first year as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Alongside the Rev. Dr. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign and dozens of other faith leaders, I was arrested near the US Capitol on Monday as I prayed that our society reconnects with the moral soul of our humanity and to ignite what will be 40 days of similar direct action protests across the country before we return to Washington at the end of next month.


Fifty years ago Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated the interrelatedness between what he called the three evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. At the time, this larger economic and military critique lost him much of the liberal support that had amassed for his campaigns when they were targeted narrowly on Southern discrimination.

But if there is anything that this past year has confirmed, it is that we need not just a continuation of the interconnected justice work Dr. King named but an escalation of it.

The hard truth is that the United States has lost ground.

For the 20 percent of Americans who live economically secure lives and see shiny development in our metropolises, it may be difficult to reconcile, but it is true. The other 80 percent of Americans are not doing well.

There is an illusion of progress that must be pulled back. Schools today are more segregated than they were 40 years ago. Despite all our narratives of forward motion, more than half of the country lives paycheck to paycheck with less than $1,000 to their name. And if we continue as-is, it is estimated that the median wealth of black people in the US will effectively be reduced to zero in the coming decades with losses for Latinos trailing not far behind.

It isn’t because we are poor as a nation. It is because our abundant wealth is held in the hands of the few and spent on war and militarism. As Rev. Barber observed regarding the most recent spending bill Congress passed, “The Republicans are bragging about doing right by the military and the Democrats are bragging about doing right by the middle class and no one is talking about the poor.” Dr. King said that “a country that spends more year after year on the military than it does on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”


I believe that our country, in more ways than one, is on life support. The heart of our nation has been hardened to the cries of the poor, the vulnerable.

It isn’t a question of we as a country being broke. It is our priorities and our sense of interconnectedness that are broken. We spend 53 cents of every dollar on the military but a fraction of that on social services. We are forced to fight to save Meals on Wheels at the same time we watch the wealthiest CEOs build new mansions with the profits they gained from not paying taxes.

The fact that Martin Luther King has a national holiday and Rosa Parks has a medal of honor might give us the feeling of progress, but what the Poor People’s Campaign has shown me, like #BlackLivesMatter in recent years, is that the civil rights movement is not over and never ended—nor did opposition to it.

I saw that opposition clearly and painfully in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, last August. During the nazi events there, law enforcement and police abdicated their responsibility and stood down while white supremacists armed with shields, bats, helmets, guns, and fiery torches brought terror and intimidation to a town and attacked people of color and nonviolent faith leaders such as myself.

In the face of these hard facts and dangerous times, the Poor People’s campaign is called a moral revival. Because 50 years after King warned that we were becoming a "thing-based society," we’re seeking not just material and policy changes for economic and racial justice. We desperately require a recommitment and reconnection to the human dignity each of us is robbed of when every aspect of our life is commodified and measured by market values.


My faith teaches me that salvation is collective, that any "kingdom" is what we make here on earth. In Arizona, where I was minister for some time, I marched with workers in the Fight for 15 campaign who’s modest demand was a raise to $25,000 per year for full-time work. As we marched through one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the US, on our way to Walton family estate, we could see through the grandiose gates to copper-domed homes. It made me and fellow church leaders wonder, How much is enough? How could you not want to pay your workers what they ask, what they need to survive, when you have so much?

Without an answer to that question, it becomes obvious why a faith leader would be in handcuffs outside the Capitol in 2018. The work is not yet finished.

The challenges we face have solutions. The resources are available. Investments in programs of social uplift in education, housing, healthcare are possible—and we know they work, we’ve seen it before. But it will require a radical shift in our values. It will take nothing less than a moral revival.

In the absence of the money to buy speech or politicians, we still have the power of faith and of the force of agape love that Dr. King spoke of as the force that could save us as a nation and recover the goodness and possibility that lives in us all. My hope is that this time, we not pull away from the fullness of the revolution in values that it requires.

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Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray is President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Follow her on Twitter.