At 77, Kit Ketcham has declared “mission accomplished.”
For the third time.
She retired at the end of June as minister at the Pacific Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Astoria.
Ketcham was a longtime school teacher and counselor in Colorado, then had a second career as a minister. She pastored in Portland and on Washington’s Whidbey and Vashon islands before she retired to Gearhart in 2012.
A life of relaxed leisure didn’t last long, for she was soon at the helm of the then-struggling Pacific Unitarian. She has managed the church, supervising its move to the Performing Arts Center, where its regular use has reinvigorated the PAC while supporters consider its long-term viability.
Charlene Larsen, president of Partners for the PAC, was delighted when the Unitarians moved in. “This agreement is a wonderful partnership for the PAC and I gained a friend who has done a lot for her congregation and her new community,” she said.
Other highlights of Ketcham’s tenure have been the Pete Seeger birthday concerts, which she organized the past two years with fellow folk performer Joseph Stevenson; a third could be in the works next year. Larsen, too, savored that musical collaboration. “It is most interesting to have shared visions and see them come about for the community,” she said.
Elizabeth — later Betsy, then Kit — Ketcham was born in Chehalis, Washington, when her father was serving as a Baptist minister in nearby Mossyrock. The family moved to Athena in Eastern Oregon, where she spent her teenage years as a “pea bum,” working 12-hour days for 85 cents an hour, driving a truck in the pea and wheat fields.
Her high school aptitude for languages, especially Spanish, morphed into a bachelor’s degree at Linfield College. “I liked the beauty in the language, the mellifluous harmony, then continued in college, probably because I was good at it.” She became the favored student of a “crotchety professor” who set her to work translating an arcane version of “Don Quixote.” It was a wonderful introduction to the intricacies of language,” she recalled.
Her first job was as a public assistance worker in Washington’s Klickitat and Skamania counties, serving World War II veterans who captivated her with their stories while offering an indelible snapshot of poverty. A chance meeting led her to Colorado to become a Baptist missionary in Denver, working with young people in the inner city inspired by a leader who had marched during the civil rights conflict in Selma, Alabama.
“I was so naive and raw,” she said. “I knew nothing about real racism. I had seen some examples with the way Native Americans were treated, but at this Christian center there was a real mix with many students of color.”
In the late 1960s, she earned her credentials and began a lengthy stint with the Jefferson County Schools in the greater Denver area, first as a Spanish teacher, then 19 years as a counselor.
She married and had a son. When her marriage broke up, her change in lifestyle reflected the era. “I was a single woman and ready to cut loose — which I did for a while,” she laughed.
Counseling meant daily exposure to traumatized young people whose thoughts of suicide revealed patterns rooted in sexual assault, domestic violence and parental alcoholism, all masked amid affluent suburbs.
When Ketcham posted her resume on her Facebook page, one of her former students, Kristen Rahm, was quick to reply. “Thanks for being there when I felt no one else was,” said Rahm. “I know your work in the ’80s is part of the reason I made it through my teens relatively unscathed and reasonably sane. You listening to me saved me from making a lot of really dumb choices.”
Ketcham pioneered peer counseling among middle schoolers in an educational climate more focused on statistical learning “outcomes” than caring for each individual student. “I didn’t know how to convey to the kids the hope,” she recalled. The job came with pressures and threats, especially when reporting parents and colleagues for abuse. “I really learned a lot about bad news and the best way of conveying it.”
Her shift from growing up in a Baptist household toward embracing the extremely liberal Unitarian Universalist philosophy happened in 1972 as experiences combined to focus her beliefs on active social justice and equality.
Unitarian churches, though rooted in Protestant Christianity during their formative years since the 1820s, have no dogma, and instead reflect a more humanist approach stressing inclusiveness. Unusually, a belief in God isn’t required, but instead a commitment to seven principles beginning with the “inherent worth and dignity of every person” while acknowledging the interdependence of mankind and nature.
Two moments shifted her career from the classroom to the pulpit. One, where she spoke perceptively about contrasting good and bad aspects of ministry, led a Unitarian leader to tell her she had identified her calling. “It was a proverbial two-by-four between the eyes,” Ketcham said.
Later, at a regional church meeting in Spokane, Washington, when attendees sang Anglican Bishop William W. How’s beloved 1864 hymn, “For All The Saints,” the tears flowed.
One verse resonated. “And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong, alleluia, alleluia!”
“I saw my dad, who had been dead 20 years, and despite his conservative theology I thought about my love for him, and I thought, ‘I can do this!’” said Ketcham, weeping at the memory.
An invigorated Ketcham returned to Colorado, completed her eligibility to retire from her school career and enrolled in the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. She learned more about trauma as an intern hospital chaplain and was ordained.
“This was the formative experience for me,” she said, still tearful as she looked back. “I saw my dad and then looked at me, and I came to realize what a hero he was to me. He knew I loved him, but we never had a conversation about why I was a UU and not a Baptist.
“But, I have never looked back.”
Pastorates with contrasting successes followed. The first was in Portland, where a bitterly divided congregation tested her healing skills. She drew on the philosophy of the 12-step program — especially making amends — that she had learned during a relative’s struggle with alcohol.
Her favorite Bible verse is Micah 6:8. One modern translation is: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your god.”
“I made the decision to learn from this and not just suffer,” said Ketcham, recalling debilitating personal stress. “I never forgot these lessons, that I have to listen and be aware and open — and not be defensive. I can listen.”
The second posting was in Washington’s San Juan Islands, where she enjoyed the rewards of expanding two progressive, appreciative congregations and building an environmentally “green” church. Because she lived in Seattle, island residents dubbed her their “ferry godminister.”
Washington followed Oregon passing its pioneering Death with Dignity law, and two suffering congregants used its provisions to legally end their lives.
“It was being with people at this incredibly grateful times in their lives, and being there, holding their hands and not having to say anything,” she recalled. “I also was burying people who had made me furious, but I loved still. That was a really magical time, but it was exhausting.”
Ketcham’s lifelong passion for music began as a 5-year-old taking piano lessons, singing in her first choir a year later, then again at college and at all of her churches. Her joy with folk music spurred her to organize a Seeger birthday tribute concert on Vashon in 2009, something she replicated in Astoria the last couple of years and may continue in 2020.
North Coast folk musician Ray Raihala commended her. “Kit brought new energy and organizational skills to our local musical community and, having done a similar production in her former location, saw the opportunity and need to spearhead these projects locally,” said Raihala, who performed at both Seeger shows. “As musicians, we are always looking for new people to interact with, or new ways to interact with our old friends, and it is even better when you can put your talents to work for a good cause, in this case the maintenance of the PAC as a community resource.”
KMUN radio stalwart Joanne Rideout said it was a blessing that Ketcham moved to the North Coast. “She’s a warm, loving person who seems to just get along with everyone,” Rideout said. “She also has a lovely voice, has quite a background as a performer herself, and loves music very much.’
She and her partner, Jerry Middaugh, played at both concerts and at Ketcham’s retirement party. “I was touched by the deep affection and respect her parishioners have for her,” Rideout noted.
Ketcham hopes to continue performing.
“I have always played music,” she said. “It has grounded me.”
When she had her epiphany in Spokane so many years ago, music soothed her emotional state. “I woke up with the song, ‘I would be true, for there are those who trust me,’” she said, quoting a turn-of-the-century hymn based on Bible verses in Acts and Timothy.
Her retirement location was chosen, in part, because she thought she may participate in religious retreats at Cannon Beach. She enjoyed making friends unconnected with any workplace, but didn’t resist when the tiny Unitarian congregation in Astoria sought leadership.
“I thought I would just sit in the pews,” said Ketcham, with a grin that signals that could never happen. “I saw ‘this place is dying, and I can help,’ and I became more and more connected to them and they were willing to take my suggestions.” These included becoming part-time minister a year after her move, shifting services from cramped South Slope quarters to the PAC and developing Unitarian outreach in Nehalem, Seaside and on the Long Beach, Washington, Peninsula.
On the North Coast, Ketcham’s public profile has involved working with the anti-war and gay and transgender communities. Unitarian Universalists were the first major U.S. church to approve religious blessings on homosexual unions way back in 1984. In the past year, she has been active helping Hispanic families affected by the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
Broadcaster and singer Carol Newman described Ketcham’s enthusiasm as “wonderfully contagious.” She shares common ground in social justice, conservation, eduction, arts and spiritual matters.
“She ‘gets it’ and speaks out, with dignity and passion, insight and conviction, seriousness and laughter,” Newman said. “She steps up for immigrants and others outside the dominant culture, partners for a community center, facilitates at Encore, brings folks together in song and spirit, leading as well as joining in.”
Ketcham’s resume doesn’t mention that she is a member of Mensa, the elite organization for people with high IQs; her son and ex-husband also qualified. That modesty is reflected in comments from teacher and broadcaster Debbie Twombly.
“Kit is one of those people who makes everyone feel important. She’s wise, but it never seems like she’s a know-it-all,” said Twombly. “I never have a conversation with Kit when I don’t come away with some new life inspiration, even if we hadn’t spoken of anything pressing. She’s a go-getter and has a real talent for getting people involved in a project.”
Ketcham acknowledges her life has been well-lived, with some relationship breakups but no serious trauma other than heart surgery some years ago. She is looking forward to enjoying her grandchildren and son, now 47, a special education teacher in Reno, Nevada, who recently played a major role in the Astoria Scandinavian Midsummer Festival’s Viking encampment.
“I never wanted to risk my legacy of living by my principles,” Ketcham said, “the ones of integrity and the ones that I learned through 12-step and ‘hard knocks,’ and with the congregation of UU.
“I have come to the place in my life where I don’t want to be an evangelist any more. I just want to model the principles that have shaped my life the whole way.”
A sign posted in her kitchen reads, “I will do whatever I can, with whatever I have, for as along as I have.”
“That’s my path.”