Journey toward the spirits

Faith that fuses African rites, Catholicism gains in popularity

The beat of the congas thundered through the basement as the priestess called out to the spirits, praying to the orishas. It was hot that day in her South Side home, and the back room was crammed with people dressed in white. They had come for the sacred initiation ceremony into the Lukumi religion, also known as Santeria.

The two people being brought into the faith were dressed in satin, their heads completely shaved and covered with vibrant splashes of paint. Soon, the slap of the drums got faster. The priestess, Asabi Thomas, closed her eyes, moved her round body and sang louder. Sweat dripped down faces as the crowd chanted in the Yoruba language, dancing and clapping, transforming the Chicago basement into the African village that is the soul of Santeria.

“We’re taking them through a life and death process,” Thomas said later. “They have become new people today. They are starting a new life with the orisha as their core foundation. Today is a happy day, and we’re having a big party.”

Rarely seen by outsiders, the initiation rituals provide a window into the power, beauty and mystery surrounding Santeria. From behind the backrooms of botanicas and sacred basement shrines, the faith is moving into the religious and cultural mainstream.

In Chicago and elsewhere, religious scholars as well as followers see Lukumi growing not only among longtime devotees of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, but also among African-Americans, Mexicans and white Midwesterners.

Thomas and the others who gathered for the initiation, most of them young blacks from the Midwest, said they embrace the religion as a bridge to their African past. Others say they find spiritual fulfillment in the religion’s consultations, which focus on personal problems and provide resolutions through the orishas, or spirits.

Today, museums display exhibits about botanicas, the spiritual shops that supply herbs and other materials for rituals. High priests known as babalawos lecture at universities and a popular Cuban hip-hop group known as Orishas raps about Santeria. Recently, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said he also practices the religion.

Gaining legitimacy

New Lukumi leaders, like Thomas, seek to educate followers about the religion by organizing workshops and religious seminars. Several leaders have registered their houses of worship as non-profit organizations, another step toward legitimizing the faith.

But the move toward greater openness has not come without controversy, as shown by the concern among some leaders over the religion’s growing presence on the Internet. Some see the hundreds of Web sites that have emerged as a powerful tool for connecting the community, as well as dispelling prejudice about the religion and its misunderstood ritual of animal sacrifice. Others argue that the sites provide a forum for frauds not devoted to the true faith.

“The religion has grown beyond the control of the elders who originally transmitted it,” said Joseph Murphy, a Georgetown University theology professor and author of “Santeria: African Spirits in America.”

“There is so much information out there that anyone can represent the tradition in his or her own way. So it’s very difficult to determine what might be older traditional knowledge from what might be innovation. That’s upsetting for a lot of people.”

The roots of Santeria trace to West Africa among the Yoruba people in the region now known as Nigeria. The basis of the faith is the powerful orishas believed to watch over every force of nature and all aspects of life.

From the 16th to 19th Century, thousands of Yoruba were transported to Cuba, enslaved and forced by Spanish colonists to convert to Roman Catholicism. The Yoruba people in Cuba eventually came to be known as Lukumi, which means “friend” in the Yoruba language.

In a fight for religious survival, the Lukumi assigned a Catholic saint to each orisha so that slaveowners would think they had been converted. St. Barbara, for example, became the Catholic face of Shango, the orisha of thunder. The religion became known as Santeria, the way of the saints.

After the 1959 Cuban revolution, babalawos and priests known as santeros, and other Lukumi followers immigrated to Miami, New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Puerto Rico as pioneers of the religion in the U.S. Since then, thousands of converts have been initiated. Researchers estimate there are at least 50,000 practitioners in the U.S. and 2 million worldwide.

Initiation is a seven-day process rich with prayers, animal sacrifice and divination. During the ceremony, orishas are placed inside the initiate’s head, which is why the heads of Thomas’ initiates were shaved.

Growing faith

Frankie Ocasio, 37, a Puerto Rican who was born into the faith, plays conga at Lukumi ceremonies in the area. He said the religion has exploded in Chicago in the last 10 years.

“There are so many new houses, it’s really unbelievable,” he said. “People are beginning to see the truth to this religion and it’s a beautiful thing. For me, it has put my life in order and opened doors to good things.”

Kathryn, an Irish-American Yemaya priestess and scholar who lives in Chicago, said her faith is integrated into every aspect of her life, from daily prayers to her ancestors, to upkeep of her shrine to her talks with the orishas.

“Orishas are forces of nature and I can hear them speak,” she said. “When I have a problem, I sit by the lake and talk to Yemaya (orisha of the sea) because I know she’s there, alive in the water.”

Most followers of Lukumi do not consider themselves to be Christian, yet many still integrate orisha worship with elements of the Catholic faith and often attend mass on Sunday. In those homes, soperas, or soup tureens holding sacred stones of the orishas, stand near pictures of Catholic saints. Other practitioners reject the Catholic influence as remnants of slavery and prefer to follow the religion in its pure African form.

“People want to claim this is their public faith and they no longer need this Catholic dependency to shield this religion that has suffered such prejudice,” said Murphy.

Inside a small yellow house in Logan Square, Hector Rodriguez, one of the first babalawos in Chicago, still commands a powerful presence in the community. Rodriguez immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s from Matanzas, Cuba, the region he calls “the cradle of Santeria.” To his followers, he is a priest, psychiatrist, holy man and healer.

As a respected elder, Rodriguez, 67, practices Ifa, the spiritual divination system used to consult the orishas. Hundreds of people from across Chicago come to Rodriguez seeking help for health problems and financial difficulties. His consultations cost $40.

When a woman called him seeking advice, Rodriguez stroked his mustache, lowered his voice in a fatherly tone and said: “Dime, mamita.” “Tell me about it, dear.”

Rodriguez discovered his spiritual gift as a young babalawo in the 1970s, when a woman came to him with pains in her body. He asked her to lie down on the floor, placed a bird on each of her shoulders and began to recite Yoruba prayers as he had been taught.

Soon, he said, one of the birds fell dead and the woman’s body began to tremble uncontrollably. Rodriguez became nervous and asked the woman if she was all right. Within minutes, she stopped shaking and stood up, saying she was fine.

“That was frightening, but that was when I knew I had something,” said Rodriguez. “I had some kind of strange power in this religion.”

As the religion grows, elders like Rodriguez have become concerned that the religion is being corrupted and exploited for financial profit. In consultations, he said, he has encountered several people who had been given incorrect information about proper offerings for orishas, initiation rites and rituals.

“The religion is wide open, and we have a problem with some babalawos who are selling secrets,” he said. “We have to find a way to educate people who sincerely want to be a part of this, but we cannot give away those secrets to the wrong people.”

Miguel W. Ramos, a respected Lukumi scholar in Miami, said he developed a Web site (www.eleda.org) because the religion’s growth has created a need for accurate information.

“Though this may be an area of concern for some, including myself, modern Olorishas [initiated members] may not always have the opportunity to learn by participation in events and rituals,” Ramos wrote. “Obviously, the Internet and books can never substitute for actual exposure and practice, but it is definitely a very powerful medium to share our experiences and devotion.”

Perhaps the most important and misunderstood aspect of Santeria is the practice of animal sacrifice. Depending on the orisha being honored, animals such as chickens, roosters, goats or rams are offered, sacrificed, cleaned and eaten at important religious celebrations.

A string of bad Hollywood movies mistakenly linking Santeria to human sacrifice and devil worship contributed to misperceptions of the religion. But leaders secured a landmark victory in 1993 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a prominent Santeria congregation in Florida that animal sacrifices were a form of religious expression protected by the 1st Amendment.

Demystifying religion

In Chicago, a visit with Asabi Thomas contradicts any notion that the faith is a primitive one. From her South Side bungalow, Thomas, 52, keeps in touch with most of her godchildren by e-mail from her laptop or by cell phone. Godchild is the loving term for one who has been initiated into the faith, similar to baptism by godparents in the Catholic Church. Thomas has 16 godchildren, in all.

Born and raised in Chicago as a Catholic, Thomas said she always felt a spiritual calling. In 1980, she met someone who practiced the Lukumi religion and was intrigued. “At first, I thought it was crazy,” she said. “But, then it started to make more and more sense. I had been educated in schools that were predominantly white, and I felt like this was a part of African culture that I never learned.”

In 1986, she was initiated into the religion, and the next year she formed a small orisha community based out of her home. The name, Ile Osikan, translates roughly as: “house devoted to the orisha Eleggua,” the gatekeeper or trickster. Soon, she began traveling–to St. Louis, to Michigan–to educate others about the religion’s rich African history.

In the process, she has formed one of the largest and most respected Lukumi houses in the Midwest with nearly 100 predominantly young, African-American followers. She is known for an annual ceremony on the lakefront for Yemaya, orisha of the water. This summer 50 people gathered on a South Side beach before sunrise, filled a small boat with offerings of flowers and fruit, and cast the vessel upon the water.

“We want to demystify the religion and get rid of the wrong perceptions so people understand this is just another way of worshiping God,” Thomas said.

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Understanding Santera

Santera is also referred to as Lukum or la regla de ocha, the rule of the orishas

– Each orisha, or spirit, is attributed a special number and color. Followers must use the correct colors when making beaded necklaces, called elekes, according to which orisha they worship.

– Animal sacrifice is called for only in major situations such as sickness or serious misfortune. Animals are also offered during important religious ceremonies such as initiation or ordination of a babalawo.

– Santera is not the same as voodoo. Although both religions originated in Africa, important differences emerged in theology and rituals as the religions developed in the Americas.

– Famous practitioners: Desi Arnaz, Salsa singer La India, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen.

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