“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts…” –William Shakespeare
One could have thought that Oba Ernesto Pichardo had had his place in the sun due to his accomplishment in the championing a landmark case in the Supreme Court of the United States. That was a great deed for the good of all orisha practitioners, and, for freedom of religion overall. However, it seems as though Oba Pichardo is coming back in 2015 with renewed purpose, re-emerging as a strong and incisive visionary ready to help the community maximize the strength of the winds of change.
For those who may not know, here is some historical background before delving ahead into the future and a conversation with this remarkable priest of the Lukumí religion.
In 1993, Oba Pichardo and the Church of the Lukumí Babalú Ayé, Inc. took on the City of Hialeah in a case (508 U.S. 520) in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that an ordinance passed in Hialeah, Florida forbidding the unnecessary killing of an animal in a public or private ritual or ceremony not for the primary purpose of food consumption, was unconstitutional. The Church and Oba Pichardo filed a lawsuit and won. Justice Anthony Kennedy stated in the decision, “religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.”
I would be naïve to think that Oba Pichardo has been resting on his laurels for the last 21 years. As a matter of fact, in 2009 he helped my adoptive godfather Jose Merced, from the Templo Yoruba Omo Orisha to succeed in a similar case in Texas.
See the following link for further background: http://www.becketfund.org/merced/
His work has not stopped because there are no giants to be defeated in courtrooms. His work has continued diligently building bridges as he likes to categorize it.
His penchant for religious, social and political activism has been revitalized in the public eye since President Obama’s administration announced on Dec. 17th, 2014 the intention to renew relations with Cuba. Oba Pichardo has been since in a storm of action and following a clear vision: build bridges.
TMC: Could you describe what has been your work as of the past 12 months with the orisha community in Cuba?
TMC: Recent public attention has shinned the spotlight on the Orisha and Ifá community. Are you satisfied with the public perception generated with recent press coverage of the conferences held in Miami and Havana?
Oba Pichardo: I am satisfied. The media is evolving and treated us with professional respect. Our message was presented accurately in press, news broadcast, and live programs. The public perception has been unusually positive. In terms of politics we have not received any pushback from the U.S. or Cuba which is a significant change from previous attitudes. It is important to note that for the first time in our history Lukumí is directly associated with a U.S presidential policy. According to several journalists our bridge with Cuba was the first major announcement following the historic presidential policy shift. Our news conference made top news and front page of the Miami Herald. Days later, the news conference from Cuba also made top news and front page Miami Herald.
TMC: What is your ‘to do list’ like? What would you like to accomplish on the next 3 months? On the next year?
Oba Pichardo: We are transitioning into a new paradigm shift. In the past twelve months we have grown our membership in ten countries. The seeds of Lukumí globalization have been planted and we must update the configuration of our Church to efficiently manage our mission. This year we are activating updated modules of education to meet various geographical needs. At our local level lectures, cultural activities, further synchronizing new alliances, and international membership growth, are at the top of the agenda. This includes taking measures of ensuring our Lukumí identity. In the next three months we shall begin recruiting new professionals to fill required church positions for the forthcoming decade.
The seventies was all about educating ourselves and designing a strong church structure. Then came the eighties which was critical period for our religion. That’s when our strength was put to the test facing secular challenges. Our community needed to shed away primal colonial retentions which conformed to patterns of unequal treatment in the society, as well. This crucial period meant changing attitudes and behaviors in the mainstream and within our religious community. It was a time of creating a foundation and pioneering standards. During our Federal trial judge Spellman labeled me as a harbinger. I accepted his characterization on the record.
The seven year legalization process hindered our ability to grow at a fast pace. However, in the nineties we adopted a passive aggressive approach in compliance with spiritual directives. Once the Supreme Court ruled in our favor the benchmark came to a completion. Our new role was focused on sustainability and allow our community to assimilate and randomly grow. The role of harbinger has come to fruition.
TMC: What can oloshas and Babalawos do to support the changes about to take place once the U.S. Government ratifies the reestablishment of relations with Cuba?
Oba Pichardo: I believe it is a historic opportunity for Lukumí to rise onto another level as a mainstream religion. Our religion in Cuba since colonialism has been reduced to a subsistent subculture that endures the trials and tribulations of the broader society. The government has always exercised its formal social sanctions favoring white privilege, and its partner, the Catholic Church-State has always maintained the informal social sanctions, therefore, Lukumí has been denied fundamentals of upper mobility as a mainstream religion. Our religion has survived as a practical socio-magical cult but has not reached its utmost potential as a mainstream religion.
Although some observable gains have taken place our religion in Cuba has been degraded to a folkloric commodity and commercialism. The symbol of Church, prestige of Priesthood, and internalized ideology of religion are still viewed through the prism of the Catholic Church. One example was the refusal of the Archdiocese to allow a meeting of Lukumí leaders with the Pope during his first visit to Cuba. Church authorities said Lukumí were represented by the bishops. Our Church in Miami filed a formal complaint against the Cuban Church authorities.
Compelling evidence indicates that the Catholic Church redemptive movement is well on its ways to regain its colonial Church-State powers at the expense of our African based religions. On the other hand, our people are widely unaware of the manipulation and coercion strategies that are being used. Our people are highly at risk. Our Church mission in Cuba shall focus on the education of our people, empowerment, and preservation of Lukumí identity, free from psychological and religious Catholic schemes.
We encourage our community leaders to educate themselves on the forthcoming sociological reconstructs and support our Church vision. This requires a major shift in the values which we have been conditioned to accept for generations. The community needs to further internalize that we are a religion with our own Lukumí scripture, religious modalities, priesthood, rites of passage, etc. It is critical at this time to focus on our collective mutual interest as a religion and break away from extreme individualism or lower ego values. Otherwise, I believe the condition of our religious leaders and status as a religion will be significantly marginalize and voiceless. Our concern is less about the political changes and more of the re-colonialization of the Catholic Church-State.
TMC: While there are many educated and professional oloshas and Babalawos in our ranks, there is a significant number of people who remain practicing the Lukumí religion like cavemen, meaning in the basest and cruder of forms. These initiates could hinder the image and future of the religion. How do you propose to ‘enlighten’ people who see the religion as a means to their own ends?
Oba Pichardo: The professionals should study the Outlaw Archetype which describes the attitudes and behaviors that shock most of the silent majority. These oloshas and Babalawos that have been empowered through ordination represent corrupt values. It can be reversed if the professionals become visibly active reinstating the values of a religiously thoughtful brand. Standing on the margins and allowing mischief to govern, in many instances supported or rewarded, can only contribute to increasing the numbers of misfits where the jail house attitudes and behaviors become normal. In these terms, the professionals should rethink the sole or exclusive allegiance to their respective elder and implement modules corresponding to universal values as a religion. The cult of personalism, ile or elder, must be modified in order to succeed. Change requires leadership and consistency. Ordination into the priesthood should be a transformational vocation of quality, not quantity.
TMC: On the other hand, there are those who are creating inroads to educate future generations in the proper management and practices of iles. What would be your advice to them?
Oba Pichardo: Management skills differ from religious practices. The leader should establish a clear operational system and group discipline where the collective understand the work flow and protocols. It is similar to business management. The leader should have a systemic training module in place, definable roles, and methodology of addressing grievance. An observable problem in many ile is poor group management skills which leads to dysfunction outcomes where unintentional victimization takes place.
I suggest visiting our Church web page and read “Selecting a Priest” which was published as a guideline for the community years ago. The ile leader may have wonderful skills but it is wise to observe the leader as a religious symbol. Worldview attitude and behavior are important. Often the leader is contaminated with secular values that tarnish the religious symbol. The leader is a person that represents the Lukumí religion 24/7 in a holistic way. For example looking and behaving like a thug is not an appropriate Lukumí symbol regardless of his/her ashe and religious functional knowledge. The leader is a community role model and not a layperson. Cultural values and conduct must honor priesthood.
TMC: You have already created a legacy for generations to come. If you could re-write your legacy, what would you do differently?
Oba Pichardo: I was granted life with the condition of serving the will of Shango. It is His legacy and I am the missionary. The life of a missionary is not easy. There is always sacrifice and, a material and emotional price is exchanged for the deeds. A re-write would ignore the realistic nature of the mission. I look to the past and what I see is a blur. The palpable present is what can be rationalized. What is certain is following the mission every moment that Shango blesses me with new revelations and directives. As the saying goes “cuando hay guerra, el soldado no duerme” when there is war, the soldier does not sleep. I only look forward to our next victory for the benefit of future generations.
TMC: What is your vision for the Lukumí religion for the U.S.? Globally?
Oba Pichardo: My vision is those that recoil becoming more religious and humane shall become the gifted leaders. Those that continue on a path of lower ego will not survive. Our religion will become more organized and institutionalized as we continue to evolve. Our religious community has survived very hard times, in great part, because there has been a select few that unite under common effort. In every period of our history the few made progressive contributions benefiting the whole. Lukumí should not expect to be taken seriously in society without institutional representation. Cuba’s history shows how Cabildo’s and other social organizations benefited the community at large. Our church history has a strong legacy of success that would have not been possible using the ile model. The legacy has proven that institutional approaches do advance community upper mobility while being mindful of preserving ile sovereignty.
TMC: If you could convey a message to the media with regards to the way in which they portray us as initiates and religious community, what would it be?
Oba Pichardo: Although our Church has made significant inroads in media relations and public branding our community shares responsibility for its image problems. The media should consider that most internet blogs are popular sites with much misinformation. Journalist should always maintain contact information of reliable sources. Every sensationalist head line or content offends the sensibilities of our religious members which are part of mainstream America. Whatever may be considered anti-Semitic or Christian generally is afforded respect. We expect equal treatment. The misdeed of one person cannot be used to offend and tarnish a whole religious community.
TMC: Any final thoughs?
Oba Pichardo: Our community should beware of using some contemporary operational terms generally originating in Cultural Anthropology. One example is the popularization of the term initiates when referencing priest or priestess. Our religion has definable terms for every level. When referencing a Catholic priest, Nun, Cardinal, Rabbi, Imam, Pastor, Reverend, the term initiate is not used. When speaking of adherents of mainstream religions the term initiate is not used. Initiate is generally used denoting someone or thing unrelated to religion. Accepting or using the term initiate when speaking of Lukumí unconsciously contributes to the concept of “other” which trigger cultural biases.
Thanks to Oba Pichardo for the time dedicated to answering these questions and sharing his perspectives and vision.
We all have our exits and entrances in this world stage. We all have a role to play. Therefore, it is important for all orisha and Ifa practitioners to always be thoughtful about their role as leaders in the community and to find ways to contribute to improving the future of us all. There are no small leadership roles, we all have the potential to change and inspire others–for better or worse.
Oni Yemaya Achagba