Matt Driscoll

Remembering the Rev. Edna Travis, one of Tacoma’s first black female pastors

The Rev. Edna Travis celebrates her 30th anniversary as pastor of New Covenant Pentecostal Tabernacle. Photo was taken Thursday, November 2, 2000. (Bruce Kellman/The News Tribune)
The Rev. Edna Travis celebrates her 30th anniversary as pastor of New Covenant Pentecostal Tabernacle. Photo was taken Thursday, November 2, 2000. (Bruce Kellman/The News Tribune) THE NEWS TRIBUNE

The struggles are remembered, part of the Rev. Edna Travis’ lasting story.

As one of the first black female pastors on Hilltop, Travis founded the New Covenant Pentecostal Tabernacle. Friends and family recall the outcry and rebukes from men in the local ministry.

At the time, many believed a woman had no place behind the pulpit.

During the 1980s, when gang violence and crime ravaged the neighborhood — a fellow pastor at Peace Lutheran once referred to the area as “the murder center of the Hilltop” — Travis doubled down on her efforts in the community.

She stood fast, as was her way.

In a legacy forged over nearly 50 years of service — spent at the corner of South 23rd Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, where the nondescript church with the white facade Travis founded still stands — stories like these make up the volumes of a life’s work.

The meals served and lives touched comprise the chapters she wrote by hand.

Taken together, according to those who knew her, loved her, or were inspired to serve because of her, they reveal the resilience of not just of one woman — but of a neighborhood, and the power of perseverance.

Rev. Travis passed away on Wednesday, Jan 2, at the age of 90. Speaking from a packed local funeral home — where it took more than five minutes to tally Rev. Travis’ 12 grandchildren and 29 great-grandchildren — the youngest of Travis’ five daughters said her mother wasn’t ill prior to her death.

“She went home to be with God,” Lisa Bowman-Macklin said simply.

“She was active at the church up until her dying day.”

This, of course, comes as no surprise. Even with the rapid change on Hilltop — and, yes, the recent gentrification — Rev. Travis was a fixture to be counted on.

“There’s no retirement in God’s army. We have to press on,” Travis, who was 72 at the time, told The News Tribune’s Steve Maynard in 2000 for a story marking her church’s 30th anniversary.

It’s just one quote, but it captures Travis’ spirit.

The meal program — which Travis started at her church in 1985, known to serve up to 1,800 meals a month — still feeds the hungry on Hilltop five days a week.

The prison ministry work Travis championed — built on a core belief that no one is beyond redemption — still brings the gospel to those behind bars.

And the hope and unwavering grace she offered — whether viewed through individual stories, or through the positive community changes she helped galvanize — continues to bear fruit.

“She helped me change my life, because I was totally lost, living in a big world of fears. She helped me to come out of that. Drugs, alcohol — all of the above. You name it. I lived a terrible life,” said Patricia Richardson, who first came to Rev. Travis’ church in 2005.

Todays, as she has since 2008, Richardson lives two doors down from the New Covenant Pentecostal Tabernacle, in a house the church owns.

“She’s just a light. … The light of the community, and the world, in my life,” Richardson said.

Travis came from predictably humble beginnings, described by her grandson, Joseph Bowman — a founding pastor of Integrity Life Church in Federal Way — as a woman who spent her life fighting for “the underdog, the marginalized and the dispossessed.”

Born the youngest of three children in Hattiesburg, Miss., Travis arrived in Tacoma in 1948, living the last 63 years of her life at her home near South 16th and M Streets. After a divorce in 1962, Travis raised her daughters alone — supporting her family by working as a licensed practical nurse at Madigan Army Medical Center.

In 1982, Travis earned a bachelor’s degree from The Evergreen State College. Over the course of her life, she also earned degrees in theology and education, her family says.

But it was Travis’ ordainment, in 1957 at God’s Pentecostal Church in Tacoma, that set the course of her life. Thirteen years later — in 1970 — Travis and about 20 members left the congregation to start New Covenant Pentecostal Tabernacle.

It wasn’t easy, from the very beginning — on that corner, or at that time — but Travis never relented.

“She started pastoring in Tacoma when it was unpopular for females,” remembers the Rev. Gregory Christopher, leader of Shiloh Baptist Church on Hilltop.

“There were a lot of pastors who wouldn’t even fellowship with her. … And that was during the time when they had that bar across the street (the notorious Office Tavern), gang shootings, and all that stuff,” he added of the challenges Travis faced.

“She hung in there.”

She did, because that’s who she was, her family remembered Friday.

“She just wanted the best for everyone, just like she wanted the best for her children,” said Beverly Barker, one of Travis’ daughters.

“Hilltop will never be the same because of (her).”

Some information for this column came from The News Tribune archives.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.