Rev Karen Sethuraman is the first female Baptist Minister in Ireland and is currently a Pastor of SoulSpace, a Peace and Reconciliation hub, based in Belfast.
Her passion is peace and reconciliation/social justice and she is a champion of gender equality.
The Rev Karen is also one of the founders of Spectrum - a space set up in Belfast for LGBT+ people of faith. Karen feels particularly called to minister outside the Church walls, journeying with people who feel they ‘don’t fit’ in Church.
She has served as Chaplain to two Belfast Lord Mayors.
A NUMBER of years ago I stepped out of Institutional Church. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Church and that many people of faith have found a spiritual home in their chosen place of worship. This is something to be cherished. I grew up in a Protestant Evangelical church, and when I started to study theology I was encouraged to think outside the box. As I stepped into ministry life a few of us often questioned the limitations of the Church regarding peace and reconciliation, particularly in our context where Churches generally remain one or the other: Catholic/Protestant.
I LOVE a good conversation. We are wired for human connection and nothing beats grabbing a coffee, getting together, and having a good chat. What I love the most about being a minister are all the amazing people I have had the honour of meeting. One of the key components to my ministry life, and indeed to peace-making, is the willingness to engage in all sorts of conversations, including the difficult ones. There is something very humbling when sitting face to face with others as they entrust snippets of their story to you. I have loved... • All the coffees (and sometimes wine) together.• All the stories shared.• All the laughs.• All the tears.• All the challenges that shape and hone who we are.• All the opportunities to learn and unlearn from each other, and so on. We all know that conversations have the ability to leave us inspired, deeply moved, wounded, encouraged, discouraged, determined, deflated, wanting change. But let’s never underestimate the power of a good healthy conversation. Colossians 4:6 reminds us: “Let your conversation be always full of grace.” What a difference the world, our country, and our communities would see if we handled all our conversations with grace.
I AM a fan of the Dutch priest, theologian and writer Henri Nouwen. His tender words tend to cut deep, causing me to be challenged to think and push beyond myself and my own circumstances. Nouwen wrote the following words concerning compassion: “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.” Aren’t these words challenging?
RECENTLY, I came across the following words penned by Vicki Harrison: ‘Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.’
JESUS was a gifted storyteller. He would often tell parables that not only captured the imagination of his listeners, but contained hidden gems still waiting to be discovered even to this day. Similar to the Rabbi teachers of his day, Jesus would tell a short story and leave it open for healthy debate and discussion. I’m sure we are familiar with the story found in Matthew 18 about the lost sheep.
RECENTLY I watched the movie Nomadland. Not only did this film achieve international recognition, but the Director, Chloe Zhao, is the first female Asian film director to win an Oscar. Beforehand, I had read mixed reports about the movie, ranging from the movie being brilliant to it being slow-moving and boring. It tells the story of a woman (named Fern) who after losing everything due to recession, embarks on a journey through America in her van, living as a modern-day nomad. I confess I loved the movie and found it deeply moving and challenging. On one hand, I was touched by her sense of loneliness as she drove from place to place. There were times you could really sense her grief over a life that was ripped away from her. Yet on the other hand, I was captivated by the sense of community and the stories shared as she encountered many people on her journey. Every place, each person, each moment was truly treasured.
I GREW up in church and from a very young age was sent to church and Sunday school. I was that kid who sat wide-eyed and fascinated by the stories being taught such as Moses and the Red Sea, Daniel in the lion’s den, David and Goliath, and so on. I remember being told that I was an awful sinner and if I didn’t accept Jesus ‘into my heart’ (they call it getting ‘saved’) then I was heading for hell.
RECENTLY, I’ve been pondering on the words of C.S. Lewis: ‘“Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no-one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable. To love is to be vulnerable.” Every few weeks I meet with a mentor who walks ministry life with me. We talk through all sorts of things, and this time is one of the few safe places that I feel I can truly crack open my heart. As I discuss various things happening, she always asks: “Karen, how is your heart in this?” It’s an interesting question that usually causes me to have to pause, think and contemplate my answer. The truth is, as we journey through this life we engage with all sorts of people and circumstances. This can leave our hearts exposed to love, joy, freedom, hurt, discouragement, bitterness and even brokenness. To name but a few. All of our life stories are made up of laughter, joy, trials, tears, lessons learnt and lessons unlearnt. The author of Proverbs penned the words, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4:23.) In other words, what is on the inside of us (deep inside) will always surface. Every single time.
THIS week I received a card from a reader of my column. She told me that she reads my column every week and so I have no doubt she is reading this. Thank you for your card and please know I will be in touch. There’s just something about the kindness of strangers that touches the deepest part of our souls. Kindness has this amazing ability to interrupt our day, our attitudes, our cynicism, and our discouragements. Matthew tells us ‘so in everything do to others what you would have them do to you’ (Matt 7:12). In a world that is so often cruel, we are called to be kind.
Recently our city hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. As we watched the scenes of violence unfold across media outlets, it would have been very easy to allow hopelessness to have the final say. But no. Not Belfast. Instead, in the midst of chaos we saw courage and hope rise. During one of the nights of rioting on the Springfield Road, I put my clergy collar on and joined the team of community/youth workers, local residents, politicians, and many others who were determined to help ease the tensions.
WE all receive insults. We know what it is to be offended and hurt by the words of others. Over the course of my ministry life I have received many unpleasant messages. The majority of them are simply because I am a female minister. I always tend to ignore such negativity and move on, but one particular blog caught my attention. I remember sipping my coffee and reading the article in which the author called me a “bizarre feminist character”. I shared the blog with some friends, and one particular friend responded with “I’m going to get that printed on a T-shirt for you.” We always have that one friend. Humour has this amazing ability to keep me sane in the midst of the chaos.
WE have journeyed through Holy week taking time to reflect on the final days of Jesus’ life. In His final days, He arrived in Jerusalem on a donkey, washed the dirty feet of His disciples, shared a meal with misfits, forgave His enemies, and went to the Cross because of His love for humanity. This is grace. This is amazing grace. Then we encounter Easter Saturday... I’ve often wondered about this particular day – the day after His death, but the day before His resurrection. I cannot imagine the pain His mother must have felt as she faced the grief of losing a son, or how the disciples must have felt coming to terms with the death of the One whom they had followed and devoted their lives. Let’s not forget the importance of Easter Saturday. So often we tend to learn some of our toughest life lessons as we dwell in the place between; the place between what was and what will be. For me, Easter Saturday reminds me of the following: • We must keep going through the darkness even without the answers• There is pain in loss and a feeling of not knowing what is next• Even when we feel as though God is not present – He is still here• Our faith can be rocked when all appears to be trampled on• When we choose to follow Jesus, it can look like the enemy is winning• It is okay to question – why?• Easter Saturday reminds us that the place between can be hard, dark and lonely. But then comes Easter Sunday...I have always loved Easter Sunday. For many years I’ve led services and joined the many Christians who gather around the world to celebrate that Jesus is risen. And I believe He is risen. This is the day when we remember that there is hope, there is life, and there is a better way to live. But there’s something about Easter Sunday that causes me to think and feel differently. Maybe it is because we have come through (and are still in the midst) of a pandemic that has rocked so many of us. Even though we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, we still live with the reality and sting of death. This particular Easter Sunday I have been wondering, what does this resurrection day mean for the many broken, hurting and grieving lives? I often wrap myself in His promise that the day will come when ‘He will wipe every tear away. There will be no more death or mourning, or crying or pain, for these things will pass away.’ (Rev 21:4.) If we learn anything from the Easter story, it is that God knows our sorrows and heartaches.
PALM Sunday marked the beginning of Holy Week. For many Christians this is an extremely significant week as we begin to reflect on the journey to the cross. I can’t help think about how Holy Week was both beautifully human and divine. This would be the week when the disciples would betray, doubt, argue over who is the greatest, deny the One whom they chose to follow, and even draw a sword to cut the ear of a soldier. This would be the same week when Jesus would wash feet, cry, ask for another way, serve His final meal, and be beaten, abandoned and crucified. And yet before He draws His final breath, He cries out, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ and declared ‘It is finished.’
WITH the celebration of International Women’s Day, Mother’s Day and the beginning of the 65th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women over the past couple of weeks, it has been a busy season for women. Yet in the midst of all this we have been brutally reminded how far we have to go regarding gender equality. As the scenes unfolded regarding the murder of Sarah Everard in London, and the police handling of women at her vigil last weekend, countless women took to social media to share snippets of their painful experiences about being a woman in society, under the hashtag #ReclaimTheseStreets. I was deeply moved as I read the many stories shared, to include: • Being sneered and taunted at while out running or walking.• Women who have been assaulted: sexually, emotionally, physically, verbally• Texting to say they are ‘home safe’/wearing flat shoes at night so they can run if they need to.• Women feeling they always have to carry car keys in hand and lock car doors.• Being told to be careful what she is wearing in her workplace or on a night out And so on and so on. The stories were endless and completely heartbreaking.It is tragic that in 2021 we still have to be campaigning that every woman should feel safe. But the cold, harsh reality is – they don’t feel safe.
I HAVE had the privilege over the course of ministry life speaking at many Mother’s Day services. I have loved celebrating the significant roles our mums play in our lives – their love, their guidance, their wisdom and their influence to name but a few. Every mother deserves to be celebrated.