Humanitarian Aid is Never Criminal

A Statement from the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray
President, Unitarian Universalist Association


During World War II, Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat, wrote illegal visas for Jewish families fleeing Lithuania. He did not follow the rules about who should get a visa and who should not. He followed his moral compass. He wrote them for anyone who asked. He issued 10-day visas for transit through Japan in clear violation of his orders. He decided he had the power – even though he could have assumed he had none. I have the seal to stamp the visas; I have my signature. He wrote visa after visa.

I learned about Sugihara the same day I learned some children who have been separated from their parents at the border are being drugged to keep them listless and sleeping. The guardians who have been reunited with their children find their children are not the same—they are changed from the trauma they’ve experienced.

Just like Sugihara, we must all ask what our conscience requires of us in this time when the most inhumane abuse is being carried out against the most vulnerable by the government.

When asked what the most important commandment is, Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and …Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

As a religious person, my faith calls me – in no uncertain terms – to help those who are suffering, to help those who need sanctuary and safety, who are facing death and persecution.

I return to Arizona this week, a state where I spent nine years as a Phoenix faith leader advocating for migrant rights and fighting deportations, the abuses of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and laws that criminalize, dehumanize and terrorize immigrants in Arizona.

I return to join faith leaders from around the country in a small town with a lot of heart, who will put lifesaving water in the desert. Faith leaders have been asked to place gallons of water in a place where just this year people discovered the human remains of 58 people trying to cross into the United States.

We have been asked to put gallons of water in the desert knowing this very act of providing water has been criminalized.

Nine humanitarian-aid volunteers from No More Deaths are currently facing federal felony and misdemeanor charges for their humanitarian aid. And they are fighting their charges saying humanitarian aid, helping to save lives, can never be a crime. Rather, it is an act of conscience, the practice of deeply held religious beliefs.

Scott Warren, a geography professor, has been the most aggressively targeted. He faces 20 years in prison, if convicted, for allegedly giving food and water to two migrants in the desert. Scott’s defense team argues, “The government’s attempts to criminalize religious charity in these circumstances impose a clear substantial burden on Dr. Warren’s sincere religious belief.”

My values and religion ask me to save lives and help my neighbors, particularly in the face of laws legitimizing the torture, dehumanization and killing of people.

As a religious person, I answer to a higher law of love and justice. I pledge allegiance to love and to our fellow humanity, to our ancestors and the generations yet to come.

We are all accountable to uphold our values of compassion, interdependence, and the worthiness of all, over any of the fallible laws of this land.

We must support those who are being persecuted for providing humanitarian aid, for organizing their communities, for speaking out and using the power they have to save lives.

What would it mean if every moral and religious person looked at the tools in their own hands, just as Chiune Sugihara did, and used those tools to save lives?

May we answer these questions, together.