One stumbling block discussed 9 more to go. There are many reasons why new comers to African Traditional Religions (ATRs) could have an interesting transition into these systems, some of those have to do with the way they see things and the way they are perceived.
The second most common stumbling block on a list compiled from years of observation has to do with acceptance and understanding, two words often times abused and taken for granted.
Assumption #2: The community will accept me and understand me.
Kal is an anglo, with an interesting DNA compiled from various races, but his genetic expression happens to be of fair skin and light colored eyes, disguising rather effectively his Hispanic, Native American, Irish, Creole and French background. Acceptance into a religion mainly dominated by Cuban and Puerto Ricans did not come easy for him. As a matter of fact, no one would give him the time of day when he would eagerly inquire at botánicas who could help him to get in touch with a Santero, and if he would dare ask about a Palero, there was some serious eye rolling to be had and a quick dismissive phrase would normally follow.
It took him nearly 5 years to be able to sit and get a Dilogún reading, you see, the Orisha community in South West was much smaller back in the late 80s than what it is now. Who would have thought that a simple pick up line, “I happen to notice you are Puerto Rican, do you know anything about Santería?” would open not one but two religious paths, his and mine.
When he went to see José B., who later became my godfather, he agreed to do a Dilogún reading but it seemed he was more interested in just being polite, until the first numbers rolled on the mat and he then was perplexed. He saw a glimpse into what the spiritual world held for Kal, however he struggled to reconcile why the spirits would so insistently want to bring blessings to what he perceived as an outsider.
I like to say that Orisha gets what Orisha wants. Acceptance and understanding are two words that we as humans struggle to balance. There is no reason why a new comer should not be given the benefit of the doubt in his/her sincerity to want to be part of the Orisha or the Lwa or to become a Pino Nuevo (newly initiated Palo brother or sister). There may be some limitations based on gender and sexual preference in some traditions, but there should not be self-imposed limitations when it comes to make room for people of different cultures who feel a call to belong to an ATR.
Now, there is the other side of the coin, when we see new comers wanting to be accepted while imposing their own points of views into communities that are well cemented and functional. For example, I had a godchild who told me that he had a preference for drugs. I was rather blunt and said, there is no space for that in my Orisha household. Drugs are a main producer of a pesky thing I like to avoid at all cost: arayé (trouble). I tried to explain the impact that using drugs would have on ritual life, such as opening a person up for spiritual and psychic attacks of all sorts, attracting deviant spiritual forms and of course, the Law. I did accept this young man into the house after he promised to Yemayá not to use drugs. One thing is to make a pact with me, the other one to make it with an Orisha. I would hate to be in someone’s shoes when such a pact is broken. My godfather says Orishas are slow but crushing when it comes to punishment.
Speaking about godparents, those who are about to embark in what should be a lifetime relationship with a godchild from another culture should try their very best to understand the social, educational and spiritual programming that person has. This will foster better communications, help to spot issues early on and help to avoid clashes with other brothers and sisters. Likewise, new comers should strive to observe their new environment, learn new social cues and ask politely when there is a situation where how to proceed is unclear.
To ease understanding here are a few things any new comer should take into account:
1. Timeliness. ATRs followers are not usually very punctual, but you should always be.
2. Cleanliness. Wearing dark colored clothes, being unshaven and unclean at ritual places and wearing short/cargo pants or short skirts and tops that expose too much skin is always in poor taste. Do cover your head with a hankie or hat.
3. Attire. Do yourself a favor and shop during summer for nice lose and long skirts, modest white tops, white shoes and for men white pants, shoes and a nice Guayavera (a Cuban shirt made of linen normally sporting a few pockets and ornate pleats), a white Polo or a buttoned shirt.
4. Be careful of what you say. Try not to become trapped in rumors, gossips and innuendos.
5. Keep your word. Do not promise the Orisha or any ATR spiritual being something you do not intend to deliver. They will collect eventually.
6. Don’t fish in your ATR pond. Your brothers and sisters in a house are off limits, so is your godmother or godfather to be. If you are in the slightest attracted to a potential initiator, do an about face and leave the house. There is no space for spiritual incest in our houses—at least in a proper Orisha or Palo house.
If you are a godparent, here are some things learned along the way to facilitate acceptance and understanding of new comers who are of a different ethnicity:
1. Treat them equally, fairly and be a good ambassador of your culture, they do not have the years of social conditioning you posses.
2. Help a new comer understand nuances of your culture, such as asking for blessings or “Bendición” to anyone older in age or initiatory years.
3. Find a person of like disposition in the household and assign that person the task to explain basic social and religious rules. You may be good at explaining, but sometimes it takes hearing it from a second person to truly click in.
4. Take time to break bread with your prospective godson or goddaughter, do the listening and let them tell you why they have chosen your household.
5. Explore their strengths and weaknesses and evaluate how they best fit with your other godchildren.
6. Earn their respect each and every day and ask they correspond equally with you and other members of the house.
7. Be patient with yourself and with your new comer, for I am sure there is a lot of learning to be done and joys to be discovered if the relationship is truly nurtured.
On our next post we will explore the often controversial topic of homosexuality and ATRs.
Kal & Omimelli
Olo Obatalá & Oní Yemayá