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Chaplain is writer in residence, disaster chaplain

Debra Jarvis is in ministries that help people express and make sense of painful experiences in their lives.

She’s the first writer-in-residence at University Congregational UCC in Seattle.

Recently, she completed training to be a disaster chaplain for clergy with the UCC National Disaster Ministries.

These ministries are volunteer.

Debra Jarvis
Debra Jarvis is writer in residence and national UCC disaster chaplain.

Debra has been in a covenanted relationship with UCUCC for more than 22 years, including as chaplain at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance until 2008.  Since then Debra has shared her gifts to produce books, workshops, videos and presentations coming out of her experience with patients as well as her own illness.

For those with “a moldering manuscript, a partial poem, a half-finished haiku, an incomplete essay, an idea for a screenplay, or some thoughts about a memoir or novel,” she has been available since early in 2012 by appointment to offer guidance on writing projects from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesdays, in a room that is her office. 

A sign on her office door says, “Writing help – 5¢.”

People come in for someone to talk with about writing.  She guides them asking, “What are you thinking?  Where do you want to go?”

Her role as writer-in-residence is to help people develop and share their writing skills.

In August, she started an every-other Tuesday evening workshop at University Congregational UCC on “Find Your Writing Voice: A Writing Workshop for Women Veterans” for any woman in the Puget Sound area who has served or is serving in the military.

Debra has been presenting this workshop as a safe place for women to express their creativity in writing in any form—stories, poems, essays, commentaries or other forms.

She said that writing is “treated as fiction unless the writer specifies that it is non-fiction. This helps us write more freely. We will write together using writing prompts, share our writing, have some treats and socialize, write some more and share some more,” she described in a promotion.  “No one is required to share their writing. 

“Writing done during the sessions is not critiqued. Only writing that has been edited, printed out and distributed a week in advance to other group members will be critiqued,” she said.

“I give them a prompt, such as placing an onion on the table and saying, ‘See where it takes you.’  One told of her mother cooking soup.  Another wrote that it made her cry thinking of unpeeling it layer by layer,” said Debra.  “It’s not a therapy group, but healing happens as writers share what they write.”

They do not necessarily write about issues they face as veterans, but that’s part of their life experiences.

As writer in residence, she also gives writing workshops, writes a church newsletter column, works on personal projects and does video interviews with elders in the congregation on the impact former pastor Dale Turner had on their lives.

Jarvis has trained to be
a UCC disaster chaplain

During October, Jarvis trained in to be a disaster chaplain for the UCC National Disaster Ministries.  She met pastors whose churches had assisted after the Columbine, Colo., high school shooting and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.  In the midst of helping others, the clergy faced burn out.

Recently, as West Coast chaplain, she helped facilitate a retreat in Denver for clergy involved in the wildfires and the Aurora shootings. They spent time walking, meditating in nature, being present to each another and sharing their anger, grief, guilt and questions about hope, evil and self-care.

She has also written the script for special events, such as an Easter musical and a Christmas pageant.

Debra earned a bachelor’s in communication in 1977 from the University of California Berkeley.  While she was working on a master’s in Christian arts at New College in Berkeley—completed in 1984—a friend suggested she do clinical pastoral education.  Three days into the program, “I realized this is what I was on the planet for.”

After marrying and moving to Seattle 27 years ago, Debra realized she could not find work as a chaplain without a master’s of divinity degree.  So she attended seminary at the ecumenical Northwest Theological Union, which later became part of the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University.  She was ordained in 1989. 

She worked 10 years with Hospice, the Multifaith AIDS Project Care Teams and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

In 2007, she wrote a book, It’s Not About the Hair: And Other Certainties of Life and Cancer.  In 2005, her mother she had been diagnosed with cancer.  So she brought perspectives as a medical professional, a family member and a cancer patient.

Two of Debra’s four books are on spiritual issues related to AIDS.  One, a guidebook for family and friends, had a short shelf life after treatment for HIV and AIDS extended the lifespan and health of people.

Another book, Take It Again from the Top, she wrote as a memoir when she was 26 about training for a marathon.

She also helped produce Palliative Care: Improving Quality of Life for People with Serious Illnesses.

“I’ve always been writing since elementary school.  Books have been a big deal for me—a way to escape,” she said.  “I love to put words together and take people to different places.”

Debra knows if she has something to say, others do, too.

Curious about people, she loves listening to their stories, which she does as a hospital chaplain.  She also wants to give people a voice.

For information, call 206-660-8694 or email



Copyright © December 2012 - Pacific Northwest United Church of Christ Conference News


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