When the Rev. Scott Sammler-Michael, minister of the Accotink UU Church in Burke, Va., started divinity school in 2004, he never thought that his past occupation as an electrician and his future vocation as a minister would ever converge. But that is exactly what happened. Sammler-Michael is the founder of the TUUL-Belt Ministry, a new program that will help train UU volunteers in construction skills so that they can be deployed to disaster sites to help with rebuilding.
It all started when Sammler-Michael was doing his ministerial internship at the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, N.J. After Hurricane Katrina, Sammler-Michael led several work trips to New Orleans, including one from the Ridgewood church.
Only three people volunteered to go from Ridgewood. Sammler-Michael said, “The people at church asked if I was still going to go with three people. I said, ‘Of course. It’s not about numbers, it’s about the experience and doing some work.’” When he returned, Sammler-Michael wrote a church newsletter article lamenting the fact that UUs don’t have a ministry in which volunteers are trained in reconstruction skills.
Days later, Sammler-Michael received a phone call from someone who had read his newsletter article, a man who was not himself a UU. “How would $15,000 be to get this thing started?” the man asked. Stunned, Sammler-Michael accepted, and in August 2007 the TUUL-Belt ministry was officially begun. All of the ministry’s funds are administered by the UUA’s Metro New York District, the district where the major donor lives.
“It was a great lesson for me,” Sammler-Michael said. “Be careful what you write in a newsletter because someone’s going to ask you to do it!”
The ministry’s goal is to respond rapidly to disasters by providing skilled construction labor and spiritual care. To do this, the organization needs volunteers at a variety of levels. First, Sammler-Michael said, he wants to find people who are skilled trades people. These people would need to be trained in how to train others. “I envision a week-long training where we would do basic tools and safety, like a foreman’s school,” Sammler-Michael said. Work crew leaders would also need to learn how to organize and fund trips. All participants would need to receive Red Cross disaster site credentialing and be offered training in providing spiritual and psychological care to victims and to one another.
Does he think it might be difficult to recruit UUs for this kind of work? “Our demographic doesn’t necessarily scream ‘trade,’” he said. “But I’m sure I can find 10 or 15 tradespeople who want to commit to this around the country.”
At another level, Sammler-Michael wants to find people who are skilled organizers and fundraisers to work as part of a leadership team, which can keep volunteers and donors engaged with the ministry. These people do not necessarily have to have construction skills.
“My long-term goal is to have one TUUL-Belt team in an affected area like New Orleans every week of the year,” he said. “If we had 26 leaders, each leader could try to go down two weeks of the year.”
Sammler-Michael has so far made several fact-finding trips to New Orleans on TUUL-Belt’s behalf, to assess needs and to form relationships with groups already engaged in rebuilding, such as All Congregations Together, and lowernine.org.
The TUUL-Belt ministry was recently called upon for help in funding the transportation of 60 tons of high-end kitchen and bathroom tile from Secaucus, N.J., to New Orleans. The tile was donated by Artistic Tile to help with the rebuilding of homes in New Orleans. The problem was transporting the tile, which would require five tractor trailer trucks, to its Louisiana destination.
Paul Eisemann, a noted Brooklyn contractor and a member of First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn, heard about the tile’s availability and stepped in. Eisemann has spent a great deal of time rebuilding and renovating homes in New Orleans and contacted Sammler-Michael about getting some TUUL-Belt funding to help move the tile. Sammler-Michael anted up $3,000 for the transport. As it turned out, the money was not needed. The freight company ended up donating the transportation for the first load of tiles—approximately 20 tons—which reached its destination in mid-November.
Eisemann, who is on TUUL-Belt’s board, has spent at least nine months living and working in New Orleans. Part of that time has been devoted to training other volunteers in basic construction skills. “So much of what I’ve done there and continue to do is partnership building,” he said. “When we get disparate groups together, we always find that we have more in common than what makes us different. There’s truly a spiritual element within a construction ministry that’s more than just getting people back into their homes.”
Sammler-Michael comes from a long line of tradesmen. “I’m a union man who’s the son of a union man who’s the son of a union man,” he says proudly. He followed in his father’s footsteps becoming a master electrician. After five years in the electrical business he decided to go to college, earning a degree in English from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a Master of Arts degree from St. John’s College, Annapolis. For the next four years he taught in the Baltimore Public School system before returning to work as an electrician.
It was during this last period in his life that he became aware of Unitarian Universalism. “I was re-reading my copy of Emerson’s essays on a job site and somebody invited me to a chili cook-off,” he said. The cook-off venue turned out to be at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Harford County (UUFHC) in Churchville, Md. “Emerson was a Unitarian,” he remembered thinking as he pulled into the church driveway. This serendipitous introduction to Unitarian Universalism was more than fleeting; Sammler-Michael started attending church there and soon became an active member.
He became friendly with the fellowship’s minister, the Rev. Lisa Ward, who was soon dropping hints that he might consider going to seminary. “I had no idea that she meant it nor that I would listen,” he said. “I started to get more serious about it in 2000 when I began running a Soulful Sundown program at UUFHC.”
In 2004 Sammler-Michael enrolled at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, graduating in 2008. He was ordained that same year by UUFHC. During his time at Meadville Lombard, he met and married one of his classmates, the Rev. Anya Sammler-Michael. They currently live in Sterling, Va., in a caretaker’s cottage on an old farm.
Traveling to New Orleans to do rebuilding was life changing for Sammler-Michael, and one of the main inspirations for the TUUL-Belt ministry.
“Relief trips are funny things,” he said in a 2007 sermon. “A group of people fly into town hoping to save someone or something, and no matter what good work they do it never seems enough. What normally happens is relief workers find out more about themselves, and they redefine home, family, neighbor.”
“New Orleans matters,” he continued, “because New Orleans is Miami, it is Virginia, it is New Jersey, it is anywhere people call home and suffer catastrophe. We are all connected. We all need relief.”
- From Debris Pile to New Homes. (nytimes.com) New York Times article from 11/10/08 about the transportation of bathroom and kitchen tiles donated by a tile company to home-renovation groups in New Orleans. (nytimes.com)
- New Orleans UUs mark Katrina anniversary
- All Congregations Together.New Orleans interfaith group working to empower leaders at the congregational level to effect change. (actnola.org)
- Lowernine.org New Orleans-based nonprofit lobbying for sustainable economic development and teaching home rebuilding skills to residents and volunteers. (lowernine.org)