Marisela Sookraj was two months away from her Catholic Baptism in 2008 when her boyfriend of almost a year battered her and left her with a fractured skull.
Her Baptism class at Mission Dolores was shocked but supportive, and Sookraj, now 34, went through with the Baptism and then began the lengthy process of healing.
“I think with any victim of violence, there’s always that question of why did God let this happen to me?” she said recently in a cafe near Mission Dolores. “And it’s really difficult to find that answer.”
To make it easier, Sookraj formed Ministers of Light, a ministry that aims to train and install a trained domestic violence lay minister at each Catholic church in San Francisco, San Mateo and eventually Marin counties.
Twelve Ministers of Light candidates, all female and from 10 parishes in San Francisco and San Mateo counties, will be blessed in a ceremony Friday at Mission Dolores cathedral. Three of these candidates represent local Mission-based parishes — two, including Sookraj, from Mission Dolores, and one from St. Peter’s Church on 24th Street. Being a survivor of domestic violence is not a requirement, but more candidates identify with the category.
Though not required for the ministry, most of Friday’s ministry candidates are survivors of domestic violence. This sets the Ministers of Light apart from other domestic violence agencies. “There’s a difference between the perspective of a survivor versus a survivor ally, whether it’s alcoholism or violence,” said Sookraj.
Sookraj said she and fellow candidates are advocating for a “fully recognized and supported domestic violence awareness ministry within the San Francisco archdiocese.”
Ministries are organizations focused on specific issues or activities within a church or archdiocese. Often they are run by lay officials from within the congregation.
Ministers of Light have partnered with Mission-based nonprofit Woman’s Inc., which serves battered women. Together they have a primary goal of training and installing 20 ministers each year over five years. Each minister needs to pass a 40-hour training session run by Woman’s Inc. The next official session will be held in January.
Afterwards, Sookraj would like pastors to install the new ministers in an “official, public way.”
Sookraj also hopes the formation of the ministry will continue to reform the way the Catholic church handles domestic violence.
“The church is a place where people seek sanctuary, but often when they get there the people there don’t know what to do,” said Christopher Martinez, who works as program director of refugee and immigrant services at Catholic Charities in San Francisco.
The nonprofit is working as a support resource for Ministers of Light. “Pastors often don’t know where to refer them. It’s hard trying to reach all the parishes and really get them educated as far as what is out there.”
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement in 1992 and again in 2002 condemning domestic violence against women and called for a “moral revolution to replace a culture of violence.”
Nevertheless, a 2003 study found that among the 200 domestic violence survivors surveyed in Marin over two years, less than half a percent said they would first approach someone in their church, according to the Marin Abused Women’s Service, an organization that hopes to install Ministers of Light in Marin County churches.
“We interpreted it as this faith community needs more information. They’re interpreting religious texts for general marriage counseling. But none of that is actually domestic violence education,” said Kate Kain, deputy executive director of Marin Abused Women’s Service.
Kain’s organization held 24-hour training sessions with priests on penal codes and impacts of domestic violence, focusing specifically on how to interpret religious texts and also follow the law.
Sookraj thinks a general lack of domestic violence awareness and education will take work to overcome. “There are many testimonials shared where clergy members have not said the right thing, and have made very damaging comments in the past,” she said.
Martinez agreed, saying that some priests wanted women to “stick it out” and “forgive.” Ministers of Light are trying to get out the message that first priority is to “seek safety for yourself.”
Some domestic violence survivors think “they’re breaking that sacred covenant of marriage,” Sookraj added. “But it’s important for them to know that it’s not divorce that would break that covenant. The covenant has already been broken by violence.”