The placement of fallen fragments of coconut helped William Jones decide on whether or not to go to graduate school.
The Yoruba priest that Jones had invited into his Brooklyn apartment had examined the four coconut pieces he had strewn on the floor before telling Jones that it would be OK for him to further his studies.
That was more than a decade ago and today, Jones, 42, is still a practitioner of the Yoruba spiritual tradition. He said that consultations with Yoruba priests leave him with a sense of inner peace.
“I go to see a priest or a ‘babalawo’ when I need clarity on something,” said Jones, a well-known digital artist.
It’s the customized advice from babalawos (masters and diviners in the Ifa Yoruba tradition) and Yoruba priests (practitioners of the Yoruba spiritual tradition that have undergone the rites of initiation) that attracted Jones to what is believed to be the indigenous spiritual practice of the Yoruba ethnic group after realizing his dissatisfaction with the generalized sermons offered at Christian churches.
Jones had attended predominantly African-American churches throughout the earlier part of his life and had considered himself to be a spiritual person. The Christian church just did not give him the personal attention he wanted.
Another African-American, Ozahu Belagun, 37, could not accept the Christian teaching of the metaphysical space for torture and condemnation, known as ‘hell.’
“How can you tell me I’m going to a place [hell] that you’ve never been?” Belagun asked.
“And how do you know that you’re not going there?”
Belagun, known as Pompey Blocker before he acquired an indigenous African name, has explored a variety of spiritual orientations. His mother was a Jehovah’s Witness. He practiced Islam for three years and was inducted as a Freemason in 2005.
Now he practices voodoo and asserts that it’s nothing like the hocus-pocus sorcery depicted in Hollywood films.
“I’ve always been connected to things that other people would shun and say is evil,” Belagun said, referring to the tradition of voodoo.
Voodoo is believed to have historic roots in present day Benin and thus it shares similarities with other West African-derived religions.
The more popular of these are: Ifa Yoruba spiritual tradition, Palo, Candomble, Umbanda and Santeria (also known as Lukumi).
These practices are also known as orisha-centered religions because all of them recognize spirit-deities, known as orishas. Orishas, also spelled orixas or orisas, are spirits that control various natural forces and principles, including: fertility, water and love. Orisha literally translates in the Yoruba languages as ‘owner of head,” because it is believed that followers eventually take on the personality of designated orishas.
The Yoruba tradition has gained in popularity among blacks exploring African spirituality because of its accessibility in America. The Yoruba ethnic group is one of the largest three in Nigeria and those who have immigrated to the United States, have brought the teachings of Orisha and Ifa (the systemic basis of Yoruba spirituality) with them.
The fact is while West African-derived religions have historically been looked down upon, research shows that more African-Americans are exploring and adopting them. Many of these African-Americans were Christians and have either completely abandoned the Christian doctrine, like Jones, or are still incorporating Christianity with the West African-derived religions to create a unique, sort of ‘on-demand’ syncretism.
For example, Oluwole Ifakunle, or Baba Ifakunle, said he receives phone calls from Christians soliciting his babalawo services.
“The first thing they ask is, ‘you know how to read?’” Ifakunle said. (Consultations during which babalawos and priests communicate with the orishas through the use of items such as coconuts or cowrie shells are known as readings.)
After that initial inquiry, he said the Christians usually go on to explain that they are dealing with a problem that has not been resolved the ‘Christian way,’ which includes praying with a pastor or fasting.
Ifakunle said that one Christian woman called him after suffering from a series of what she believed were demonic nightmares. But according to him, it’s not only Christian parishioners who seek his spiritual counsel.
He said that a number of Christian pastors and ministers have visited his Harlem-based shrine.
“They usually come to me when they want to increase their church membership,” he said. “Then I’ll do a ritual to help them.”
Anthropologists say these examples of religious syncretism are nothing new. Black slaves, particularly in present-day Haiti, hid their African spiritual practices from slave owners by disguising and incorporating them into the Roman Catholic religion they were often forced to accept. In fact, voodoo orishas, called loas or lwas, were reconfigured to mirror Roman Catholic saints and vice versa. So Papa Legba (a powerful spirit intermediary) became St. Peter, St. Lazarus or St. Anthony. Ayizan (the loa of trade and marketplace) became St. Clare of Assisi.
So while syncretism has occurred throughout history, what is relatively new is the heightened interest of West African-derived religions in the United States.
“Since the ‘50s and ‘60s there has been an increase with more African-Americans embracing these religions,” said Sylvester Johnson, associate professor at Indiana University’s religious studies department.
“Today, the practice in the U.S. is mostly in urban areas.”
Johnson attributes the concentration of African-American practitioners of orisha-based religions in cities including Miami, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Sacramento and New Orleans can be attributed to the black pride movement of the 1960s and ‘70s.
In Atlanta, a city commonly referred to as the heart of the nation’s black middle class, black pride is still very evident today.
“Atlanta has attracted a lot of black professionals, who have tended to lean toward a more black consciousness and afro-centric attitude,” Johnson explained. The city has a number of Santeria and Yoruba followers. Africanized churches like the Shrine of the Black Madonna the First Afrikan Church serve the needs of those desiring a more African cultural experience.
The research of Harvard University African religious traditions professor Jacob Olupona reflects a greater tolerance and appreciation for not only African religions, but for other aspects of African culture. He said more African-Americans are traveling to places like Senegal, Ghana and mostly Nigeria where they gain a better understanding of indigenous spiritual practices.
“Part of it is a search for one’s roots and one’s identity,” Olupona explained.
While there are no concrete statistical data that quantifies the number of African-American practitioners of orisha-based religions, 70 million is the often-quoted figure for the number of “African and New World peoples who participate in, or are closely familiar with, religious systems that include Ogun,” based on research cited in the highly acclaimed book, “Africa’s Ogun: old world and new,” by anthropologist and professor Sandra Barnes.
Ogun is among the pantheon orishas.
In his book, “Orisa Devotion as World Religion,” Olupona explains that orisha devotion was preserved by captured Africans during the transatlantic slave trade and is manifested in various forms throughout the Americas.
Olupona notes the diversity among African-American followers of orisha-centered practices.
“It’s not just the lower socioeconomic class of African-Americans,” he said. “You have the middle-class and educated people and professors who are adopting African religions.”
One of these more educated individuals is Dianne Diakité, an associate professor at Emory University’s religion department who freely participates in Yoruba and other African-based religions.
She says that the recent spread of West African-derived religions in the Unites States arises from the impact of African and Caribbean immigrants.
However, the attitude she refers to as ‘Afrophobia,’ continues to generate fear about things related to African culture.
“Historical records indicate that most black churches and missionaries of the 19th century understood African religious traditions as a threat to the moral and cultural uplift of black communities and described anyone practicing those religions as barbaric, primitive and savage,” Diakité said.
She explains that contemporary stereotypes and distortions have characterized African religions as superstition, witchcraft and fetishism.
‘Afrophobia,’ as Diakité describes it, is a consequence of slavery and colonialism.
But perhaps that fear, or at least a hesitation, may be justified when investigating what is involved in West African-derived religions. Animal sacrifices, secret initiations, the chanting of the names of ancestors in libations, the personification of spirits in masquerades, shaving of body hairs, spirit possessions and refrain from eating tabooed foods are some of the aspects associated with the African religions that may be difficult for some people to accept.
“A lot of African-Americans are not ready to make that transition yet,” said Belagun.
“Christianity is basically a third generation belief system among African-Americans— they’re Baptists and their mother was a Baptists and then their grandmother was a Baptist.”
When it comes to religion, African-Americans tend to take it quite seriously. The most recent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Life reported nearly eight in ten African-Americans, 79 percent, say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56 percent among the general U.S. adult population. 16 percent of African-Americans attend evangelical Protestant churches and 59 percent attended ‘historically black Protestant churches.’
Among ‘historically black churches’ 85 percent say religion is very important. 30 percent of respondents among ‘historically black churches’ attended religious services more than once a week and 80 percent said they prayed daily.
Nearly two-thirds of members of historically black Protestant churches are Baptists.
Overall, not only are black Americans are most likely to report a formal religious affiliation, but they are also the most religiously committed racial or ethnic group in the nation, according to the survey.
However, the study also confirms that the United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country. Even African-Americans are exploring non-Christian alternatives.
The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found that those who claimed ‘no religion’ grew in every state within the last 18 years. Between 1990 and 2008, the number of nonreligious Americans nearly doubled, from 8 to 15 percent, according to the ARIS study. Among African-Americans, the increase was also nearly double, from 6 percent to 11 percent.
So, while increasing numbers of African-Americans are denouncing religion for atheism, others are adopting African religions, especially those from West Africa.
A growing dissatisfaction with Christianity among African-Americans seems to reflect disenchantment with the tradition of the black church.
“When you got churches full of pedophiles and crooks, people want to see what else is out there for them,” said Kenny Depeyster.
His reference to highly publicized scandals, including the sexual harassment accusations against Georgia mega-church pastor, Bishop Eddie Long, notes that these cases are now ‘bigger and in the public eye.’
Depeyster is a ‘palero,’ a follower of the Palo spiritual tradition that is believed to have emerged from the Congo basin region in central Africa. Palo was carried to the New World via the slave trade and was preserved by Afro-Latino communities in the United States. Today, African-Americans are also a part of the tradition. Depeyster has been a palero for about 16 years.
Christianity, he said, was not emphasized in his family.
But for Yoruba spiritual practitioner, William “Baba Bill” Mathews, 62, Christianity was a strong influence in his family’s life. Mathews eventually left the church because he felt it lacked spirituality.
He remembers an incident as a 7-year-old boy one Sunday when he had told his grandmother that he did not want to go to church.
“My grandmother smacked me on my head and she said, ‘why don’t I want to go to God’s house?’” Mathews recalls.
“I told her, ‘God don’t live there; God lives in nature.’”
According to Mathews, that childhood premonition was his calling into orisha. He openly practices Yoruba spirituality saying that it is no longer something to be ashamed of.
“During slavery, the blacks had to hide what they were doing, but that is no more,” he said.
Mathew appreciates the simplicity of West African-derived religions and its accessibility regardless of one’s educational status. He says Christianity has become highbrow and “difficult to understand.” According to him, that’s why the Yoruba tradition has grown “leaps and bounds” in the United States.
Mathews and his wife recently visited the Oyotunji African Village in northern Beaufort County, S.C.
Organized in the 1970s by the late Efuntola Oseijeman Adefunmi in an attempt to reclaim ancestral Yoruba customs and tradition, the Oyotunji village serves as a tourist attraction and a mecca for African-American followers of orisha-centered religions.
Adefunmi, an African-American born in 1928 as Walter King, served as a spiritual father for many blacks seeking knowledge about orishas. His historical significance and cultural relevance is well cited among religious scholars. The Oyotunji community that he founded is said to be North America’s oldest, authentic African village.
“The Oyotunji community is a utopia,” Olupona said. “It is a symbol of the black power movement that took place in this country in the 1970s.”
Reverend Terri Adisa, an interfaith spiritualist, asserts that African-Americans can find more spirituality in Oyotunji village than in a typical black Christian church. She says the church has moved away from teaching members how to apply practical spiritual principles toward a more superficial doctrine.
“Christianity today is not about God, it’s about ‘church-ianity,” Adisa said, referencing a term that is gaining popularity.
“It’s about how to act and behave and dress in church,” she said, “but when you get to the parking lot you’re cussing at each other.”
That disapproval of what Adisa perceives as a lack of sound spiritual commitment is not unlike the views of other African-Americans who have chosen to follow an African religion. Similarly, another Yoruba priest said that the Christian phrase of “being born again,” is really another way to say “hypocrite.”
Paleros, Yoruba spiritualists, voodoo practitioners and other followers of orisha-centered religions seem to be attracted to the tradition because they say it brings results. They enjoy going to a priest (which varies in name according to the tradition) and having the priest indicate their symptoms and the solutions.
“It’s like going to a doctor,” Jones said.
Nonetheless, that ‘doctor-like’ treatment may not suit everyone. Christianity still dominates in black America, but the ones who have ventured beyond say they are satisfied, at least for now.