In disasters and tragedies, Trauma Response Ministry steps in

In disasters and tragedies, Trauma Response Ministry steps in

Now in its 11th year, volunteer ministers and laypeople provide crisis relief.
Donald E. Skinner
The board of the UU Trauma Response Ministry
The board of the UU Trauma Response Ministry
courtesy of UU Trauma Response Ministry


The Rev. Dr. Susan Suchocki Brown had a great-great-grandfather who was a fire chief, and a mother who was a registered nurse. So it does seem natural that she might have a fierce commitment to a ministry that involves caring for others in traumatic situations.

Further evidence of that is that she has been the chaplain for the Leominster, Mass., fire department for 17 years and a founding member of the Massachusetts Corps of Fire Chaplains. In the days after 9/11 she was serving with the latter group at the site of the Twin Towers in New York City. Noting the presence of organized disaster response teams from several denominations, she wondered to herself why there was no Unitarian Universalist disaster team.

Thus was born the UU Trauma Response Ministry, now in its 11th year. In that time it has responded to more than one hundred crisis situations—from natural disasters to personal tragedies within congregations.

The UUTRM includes about 50 volunteers, 80 percent of them ministers, who are available to help congregations when called upon. Members of the ministry team come in on short notice to assist local clergy in providing spiritual care after disasters and other events. That can include providing crisis intervention, or simply doing something as basic as answering the telephones in the congregation's office or taking over other routine tasks, allowing members of the congregation to focus on recovery.

Calming presence

Part of what the UUTRM team members do is simply to be a calming presence. On April 27, 2011, a massive E4 category tornado rammed through Tuscaloosa, Ala., leaving behind a mile-wide path of destruction. The Rev. Fred Hammond, minister of the UU Congregation of Tuscaloosa, began immediately calling congregants.

Almost as immediately he got a call from the Rev. Jake Bohstedt Morrill, minister of the Oak Ridge, Tenn., UU Church, and a member of the trauma team. "Jake arrived the very next day, and we toured the families' homes we could access," said Hammond. "The neighborhood was no longer recognizable. His presence was more than just one person; all of the UUA was embodied in his presence, grieving with us with our loss. I never felt a congregation held in an embrace before and this was it. After Jake came [the] Rev. Bret Lortie, then of our San Antonio congregation, who did pastoral-care small-group crisis intervention with the congregation. We began to heal and find strength to carry on. Some of our families are still slogging through the reconstruction phase, now several years later. But we know one thing to be true—we are not alone in this journey because we are loved by our larger faith community."

Founders of the trauma ministry team include Brown; the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, senior minister of the Fourth Universalist Society in New York City; the Rev. Dr. Lisa Presley, congregational life consultant with the MidAmerica Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association; and Kate Bortnick. "Rosemary and I talked at the time of 9/11 about the need for a UU presence at disaster events," said Brown, who is currently president of the trauma response ministry as well as being minister of First Church Leominster UU. "We felt it was not right that there was not a UU religious presence such as other denominations had." And when those other denominational teams sometimes referred to disasters as "God's will," that strengthened the resolve to create a UU team that could bring a multifaith perspective, said Brown.

"When our team goes in we have a better understanding of the issues of oppression and racism. And how racism connects with environmental disasters. We're not so bound to have to 'save' someone. Instead we try to connect people with their own inner strengths and resources," Brown said.

She said the UUTRM is doing more than she had thought possible when it was founded. "Our initial thought was that it would primarily respond to big events. But we've done much more than that."

Team members have responded, for instance, when a member of a congregation has committed suicide or has been killed. When a member of a congregation was hit in its parking lot by a ricochet from a drive-by shooting, the team responded as well.

Team members have responded to hurricanes in Florida, Louisiana, and New Jersey, and wildfires in Colorado and California. They also helped nearby congregations through the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn. shootings in December 2012. They provided care at the Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville, Tenn., after a gunman killed two parishioners and wounded seven others during a service in 2008.

The team has also begun responding in ways that could not have been anticipated in 2001. In November, when the Church of the Larger Fellowship held an online Transgender Day of Remembrance Service, members of the UUTRM participated to provide spiritual care to people who needed it.

In April 2013, when the Boston Marathon bombings occurred, the CLF immediately organized an online place for its members to come together and grieve, and several trauma response ministry members made themselves available for individual crisis intervention to those who participated. They also created a short video on self-care which the CLF used that day.

The Rev. Julie Taylor, community minister with Emerson UU Chapel in Ellisville, Mo., has been with the UUTRM since 2007. She noted that one of the ministry's primary missions is preparedness—educating congregational leaders about safety issues. "In an hour we can do a presentation about things that, if you haven't thought about, you need to. About safety and security in your building, protecting against intruders, preventing fires, and about preparedness for natural disasters."

The ministry has other presentations that can be spread over several days. Trauma response is Taylor's life work. "Disaster spiritual care has been my community ministry for many years," she said. She works with the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation and the multifaith Disaster Chaplaincy Services, in addition to volunteering with UUTRM. She will teach a course on ministry after disaster at the Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Mo., in January.

Taylor emphasized that the UUTRM is different from some of the more prominent denominational responses to disasters. "We don't have a big motor home that serves as our command center, and we don't have trucks that can bring food. We're not big enough to sustain that and there's not funding for it. At this point we work primarily with UU congregations and communities when disasters happen. At Newtown, for example, other groups took care of the general population. We focused on two nearby UU congregations that had folks connected to the school."

Sometimes a congregation can be cared for by a phone conversation. "We had a call a few weeks ago where a congregant was hit by a car and seriously injured," said Taylor. "I called and did a one-on-one with the minister. Some of what we do is helping ministers and others understand how trauma affects folks. Not all ministers learn that in seminary and their other training."

Funding has always been tight for the trauma ministry. The all-volunteer force has to depend on donations for airline tickets and other expenses to get people to where they're needed on a moment's notice. Trainings also cost money. "We'd love it if congregations could include us in share-the-plate donations occasionally," said Taylor. Donations can also be made through the website. Prospective volunteers may apply there as well. The website has many safety-related resources, plus an 800 number.

Brown said she hopes the organization might eventually have enough resources to hire at least a part-time administrator. The focus of the group at the moment is to increase the number of volunteers, both ministers and laypeople, so that most geographic areas are reasonably covered. "We need not just ministers, but psychologists, massage therapists, social workers, and others. You don't need prior special training," she said. "If you think you have a calling to do it, we'll help you discern that and provide the necessary training.

Photograph (above): The board of the UU Trauma Response Ministry includes (from left) the ministers Julie Taylor, Craig Schwalenberg, Nannene Gowdy, Jan Taddeo, Susan Suchocki Brown, Bret Lortie, and Susan Karlson (courtesy of UU Trauma Response Ministry).

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