The Reverend Karen Sethuraman isn’t your ordinary, everyday minister.

For starters, she's the first and only female Baptist minister in Ireland. How so? Well, the Baptist Church in Ireland believe women just can't cut it as clergy. Heretofore, women who felt called to the Baptist ministry on this island of saints (and sinners) just bit their lips and got on with playing second fiddle to the male ministers.

 

However, that's not the Rev Karen's m.o..

Undeterred by the rebuttal, she went to England to link up with the Baptist Union of Great Britain — who promptly ordained her and sent her packing back to Ireland to spread the good news.

The newly-ordained cleric found herself fundamentally disagreeing with many of the Church’s practices and moved instead to reach out to people "who didn't fit" with traditional religion and feel let down by religious institutions.

But the difference with other clergy, Catholic or Protestant, doesn't stop there for the Rev Karen believes strongly that her mission is to serve on the streets where the least of these gather. 

Growing up a single child in Hyndford Street (the same street as Van Morrison) in East Belfast and cared for by a devoted mum who worked in Tesco, the young Karen Lancashire says she sensed a chasm between the way in which her faith was taught in church and her personal beliefs.

“From a young age I felt a call, as they say, to join the church but I felt a real disconnect between my theology and my reality," she recalls. "The Irish Baptist Church doesn’t ordain women so I felt it was a barrier to what I wanted to do. The Irish Baptist Church is quite conservative so I was ordained by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, now called Baptists Together. They baptise women, and have ministers in Scotland, Wales, and England. I was the first one from Ireland.”

I HAVE A DREAM: Rev Karen delivering the invocation at the 2021 Aisling Awards.
2Gallery

I HAVE A DREAM: Rev Karen delivering the invocation at the 2021 Aisling Awards.

The newly-ordained cleric found herself fundamentally disagreeing with many of the Church’s practices and moved instead to reach out to people "who didn't fit" with traditional religion and feel let down by religious institutions.

“My heart was outside the church," she says. "My heart was always for the people in the community and this is why I felt I needed to step outside the traditional church and do my work on the streets. I disagree with much of the church’s ethos, particularly in how they treat the LGBTQ+ community.”

Stepping outside the traditional confines of the church, Rev. Karen helped establish SoulSpace as a peace and reconciliation hub that welcomes believers from all sides of the local traditional divide and focuses on racial injustice, gender injustice and poverty.

“We don’t seek to be a church per se. We don’t go out with the agenda of trying to save people. Rather, it’s about living my faith with the community. It’s a community chaplaincy which reaches out to people who still feel spiritual but who don’t fit in with the traditional forms of the church or who have been let down by some of the traditional beliefs of the church.

"We marry people, bury people, and bless people. It’s a church outside of the church walls.”

Working as a chaplain to two Lord Mayors of Belfast, Sinn Féin’s Deirdre Hargey and Danny Baker also helped the Rev Karen see life from a different perspective.

"It opened up a window into our city and helped me see all the unsung heroes out there who are doing great things such as tackling poverty and loneliness," she explains.  "It was an honour to work with the first citizens and to be invited onto their teams especially considering that I am from a totally different background.”

More recently Rev. Karen has been involved with Ireland’s Future which is advocating for a shared and united Ireland – a far cry from her own East Belfast political firmament. 

“Growing up in East Belfast, I saw a lot of ‘us and them’ and ‘in and out’ mentalities," she says. "But those divisions really didn’t sit right with me and I felt obliged to question what the whole issue was about. I was never personally wedded to the Union and in the past was always quite ambivalent or centred on the issue but I believe Brexit in particular has catapulted us towards this new situation. Now we need to start asking ourselves, ‘Is there something better than what we have now?’ and I think there is.”

Rev. Karen believes it's crucial to ensure any future poll is properly prepared for. “Am I for Irish Unity? Absolutely. I think we deserve something better and I want to help create a vision for that. But the date of the poll isn’t as important as the preparation. We need to create and cast a vision which will inspire people. When the issue of Irish Unity is raised, people always say, ‘What about healthcare or education?’ but I don’t think it has to be one or the other. I think the conversation on Irish Unity also needs to include our health and our education.”

The belfastmedia.com columnist believes there is an onus on unionist leaders to fight their own corner in the evolving discussions around a New Ireland. “I think the onus is also on the Unionist community to create and advocate for their vision so that people can decide. I want to see a Citizen’s Assembly, North and South, for the governments to convene and for everyone to have their say, not just people from the traditional religious divide, but also people from other faiths, and those of no faith.”

Looking forward to 2022, Rev. Karen says she hopes to develop her new base in ForthSpring on the Springfield Road in West Belfast. "I will be marrying three couples in the upcoming year which I am very much looking forward to," she says.

And she also plans to walk a lot.  "I am inspired by St. Augustine of Hippo whose motto ‘Solvitur Ambulando’ means ‘It is solved by walking’," explains the Rev. Karen. “There is something so powerful about walking, just about putting one foot in front of the other. Keep walking, seasons will change, and we will get through.”