December 2, 2009

Ways of Healing

Kerrie Balch Harthan, Tufts’ new Protestant chaplain, brings a wide-angle perspective to her ministry and work

By Helene Ragovin

When the weather is fair, it’s not unusual to find the Rev. Kerrie Balch Harthan piloting a little blue boat on the Mystic River.

Aboard the wooden boat—a classic 1957 Penn Yan car-topper—she likes to reflect on the beauty of the natural world. “For me, the boat is a metaphor for life,” says Harthan, who arrived at Tufts this semester as the new Protestant chaplain. “Movement by your own engine—you are your own engine.”

“I’ve always been interested in those moments of figuring out how you can connect with another person so they don’t feel alone,” says Kerrie Harthan. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Harthan was raised on the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts, the product of, she says, an “earthy Norwegian family that’s always tried to keep our hands in the dirt as much as we can.” And these themes of water and earth, of a spiritual connection with nature, have echoed throughout her life and her intriguingly circuitous career path.

She has studied marine biology, psychology and theology. She is an environmental advocate who helps support her family not only through pastoral work, but by selling organic and sustainably grown food. She has planted and nurtured pin oaks and maples along Somerville streets.

“I’ve always wanted to be a university chaplain, and a farmer of some type,” she says. “My call has always been serving people who would never darken the door of a church. Such is the condition of most college students—indeed, most college faculty, staff and alumni as well.”

As a Tufts chaplain, Harthan organizes Sunday worship services and is the advisor to various Protestant student groups on campus. She works with the chaplaincy team and other student-life administrators to provide counseling and programming, and speaks at various campus events; on December 9, she will be a panelist at the latest installment of the “Spirituality Meets Sexuality” campus film series.

Doses of Wisdom

“I’m very good in crisis situations,” Harthan says. “I’ve always been interested in those moments of figuring out how you can connect with another person so they don’t feel alone.”

As a young child, Harthan lost her mother to cancer, and that experience has had a lifelong impact. “You get a little dose of wisdom beyond your years and spend the rest of your life growing into it,” she says.

It was these kinds of spiritual questions that brought Harthan to ministry as a career. After receiving her master’s in psychology and lifespan development from the University of San Francisco, she entered Harvard Divinity School.

“What I ended up focusing on there was how religion affects the sense of self, how it affects the way we go about engaging other people,” she says. She received a master’s of divinity, and during the next decade, worked as an admissions officer at Harvard Divinity School and then in the advancement office of Andover Newton Theological Seminary.

Two years ago, when the economy floundered, Harthan found herself out of work. “Being laid off was really, really hard; underemployment is hard; but I’ve been really thankful for it, too, hard as it is,” she says. She took a job as a manager at a hardware store in Cambridge and then as an assistant “team leader” in the produce department at a Whole Foods Market, where she works now in addition to the part-time Tufts chaplaincy post.

Also since 2004, Harthan has been a community minister at the First Congregational Church in Somerville, where she focuses on environmental issues. She helped steer local efforts of the Mass ReLeaf Ministry, a church and civic endeavor that planted trees along Powder House Boulevard near the edge of Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus.

“And that gets to what Tufts is all about—your education isn’t about rising above the rest of the population, but about immersing yourself in the community,” she says. “I’ve always admired that Tufts takes seriously the idea that you serve the common good with the skills that you have.” 

Helene Ragovin can be reached at

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