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Can the Lukumí Survive Trump’s America?

Updated: Oct 22, 2020

One of the few blessings of COVID-19, if we can call them that, has been having more time to consider subjects that are always in the back of my mind. Subjects like religious freedom, the growth of radicalism, the religious right, and the potential threat they can pose to other religions in their single-minded fanatical white-supremacist fervor.

The seeds of hatred and intolerance

I will make it clear from the onset that I do not advocate using religion to further social justice causes. The Lukumí religion for me is a way to be one with the Orishas. I practice this religion out of love and derive my pleasure and satisfaction from my relationships with the Orisha and with my religious family. However, I do see opportunities that religious groups have to better society as a whole. Supporting social causes is important if those causes benefit all Lukumí, not just one segment, and, particularly if those causes transcend our Lukumí communities and better society at large.

I grew up in the Catholic church. As a recovering Catholic, I do understand the great power the rigid structure of the Church wields. This power, when properly used, can move mountains. That said, not all churches are places of light. Darkness is found in all of them if you are willing to look. Consequently, there is also a mix of light and dark in the favored model of congregations for the Lukumí, the house temples, or ilés.

Will the Lukumí ever embrace such a model used by Christian churches? Do the Lukumí need to consider making themselves avail of the model that is successful for so many other organized religions?

Church and the Lukumí

When I think of the Lukumí agreeing on precepts and fundamentals, the first thing that comes to my mind is the herding of cats. Funny as it sounds, sometimes when I see elders and young ones in the same room arguing about rituals and initiations all I hear is the hissing and meowling of cats. As a larger community, we need to rise above these squabbles. We need to be smarter and to look at the big picture, set aside the nitty-gritty nuances of rituals, and contemplate the power of structures in today’s society which is becoming more intolerant every day. We all can agree to disagree on the fine print of some of our practices.

However, we cannot afford to succumb to a small-minded mentality that traps us in our isolated house temples while other religions grow strong and influential via their large member bases and deep pockets of money and resources. It is these unified numbers and resources that they use to effectively move their religious, social, and political agendas.

Why is it that the Lukumí can’t think this big?

Tribalism vs Church Model

Since my introduction to the Lukumí religion as a child, the notion of centralized practices was anathema to any practitioner of the Regla de Osha. This mentality has not changed.

Pichardo en un podio
Oba Ernesto Pichardo

Take for example, in the ’90s the hard-won battle in the Supreme Court spearheaded by Oba Ernesto Pichardo and the Church of The Lukumí Babalú Ayé (CLBA). The CLBA became a beacon of religious freedom. Strength in numbers, diligence, and intelligence propelled and won the battle. However, once the headlines dissipated, many Lukumí walked away embracing the freedom won for all and turned their backs on the CLBA. Favoring the autonomy of the house temples, along with the lack of accountability at large has always been the preferred status quo for the Lukumí.

Why are some Lukumí so inherently ungrateful? Why is this permissible in a religious community? What does this say about us as religious people? How are we perceived by others based on our choices?

I wonder if the Lukumí religion overall carries a 'stain' for a lack of a better description, that marks us from our inception in the Americas. This stain is a relentless spirit of individuality fed by the desire to continue the old Yoruba model of kingdoms in the New World. The New World the Yoruba encountered was brutal and survival was the order of the day. To survive, control and influence were valued on par with the devotion to the Orishas.

Nestled at the very core of the origins of the Lukumí religion in Cuba, there is a fierce sense of tribalism. We can see it manifested in the foundation of cabildos, societies, and the adherence to practices as dictated and favored by lineages, branches, and house temples. All of these things point to one thing, the tendency to isolate and the lack of understanding that truly, there is strength in numbers.

Perhaps this is why every attempt to centralize, to create structures that would be of greater benefit to the growing numbers of Lukumí practitioners in the Americas and beyond, meets with failure. The model where more autonomy is favored is so entrenched in our behaviors that we have stopped questioning its current validity.

Furthermore, we have stopped contemplating what the future will look like if we do not dare to imagine us, the fiercely independent Lukumí, going beyond tribalism, and learning to set aside the "in my house, we do it this way" mentality. Can the Lukumí understand and embrace a global mentality of diversity and inclusion?

We are so competitive and petty that we are all but inclusive. Because we do not like to be accountable in our practices beyond the walls of our house temples, we prefer not to dream of a future where we can stand together, respectful of individuality, yet taking full advantage of the importance that the strength of unified numbers has. A strength that can only be accomplished by using the structures that other organized and recognized religions understand and exploit.

Once upon a time, when I was a naive aleyo, I dared to dream about the Organization for Lukumí Unity (OLU). I wanted a place where we could support each other no matter the initiatory rank, or lack thereof. I found the support of many elders who shared my vision and regardless of me being an aleyo had my back.

During this time, I was close to making kariosha. When the time came, OLU was in its beginning stages. I made a tough choice and withdrew from the OLU for my year in white and placed the project in the hands of others. Eventually, OLU succumbed but I am not sure why or what happened. I suspect tribalism happened to it. Power struggles happened to it, or perhaps, it simply ran out of steam.

Nowadays, social media groups abound with most of them revolving around charismatic people. Some of these groups have yielded fruit and foster a greater sense of community. Some are centered around education, but none of them have accomplished what we are truly missing: National and international respect vis-a-vis organized and centralized religions.

We continue to be a fringe religion. The leadership and sacrifice of Obá Ernesto Pichardo and the vision of the CLBA won an important victory with the Supreme Court affirming the principle that laws targeting specific religions violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. The victory accomplished more than that. For the first time we, the Lukumí, had momentum, a well-articulated voice, and a central Church structure to lean on to grow our numbers, strength, and voice.

However, from my perspective, this hard-earned victory gave the Lukumí a place in the sun, and with that also came a morose sense of security and freedom. Some of us saw from the distance the immense sacrifice and toll the legal victory had on Babá Pichardo and those who supported him. Some of us remain to this day appreciative and thankful for his steadfast work and his dedication to uplift not just some of us, but all of us.

It is thanks to Babá Pichardo's stoic work as well as the backing of the Becket Religious Liberty for All, that when the same issue came to knock at the door of my godfather's ilé in Texas, we again emerged victoriously.

For yet another time, the Lukumí had to take to court the right to animal sacrifice. Jose Merced of Euless, Texas sued the city after officials told him in 2006 that he needed a permit to slaughter animals, including goats, sheep, and turtles. Merced had performed religious rituals sacrificing these animals for 16 years without incident. The 5th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Merced v. City of Euless that the city had violated Merced's religious liberty.

Few really know the heartaches, financial, spiritual, and emotional toll these cases took on both Pichardo and Merced. Few are truly thankful to these exemplary priests. However, I have heard countless times priests boasting about their rights and freedoms and endangering those practicing recklessly in urban environments without being informed of local regulations on animal sacrifices which are also important to follow.

Can the Lukumí Survive Trump’s America?

Under Trump's administration, one that panders to the conservative religious right and that even finds favor among the ranks of some Lukumí practitioners has successfully appointed almost a quarter of all active federal judges in the United States over the last four years. Think of what this means for a minute. Do you think that either Babá Pichardo or Babá Merced will be found sympathetic judges nowadays? I think these past battles would have been significantly harder to win in today’s present climate of racism and civil and social unrest.

It is paramount that we, the proud and fiercely independent Lukumí, get our collective heads out of the sand and truly embrace strength in our numbers. We need to stop just repeating, like a one-phrase parrot, Ogunda Masa. If we are to survive in the future, we need to start making ourselves avail of the power structures that serve other religions so well.

Perhaps it is time to start wearing those so-called crowns properly and thinking of the collective good and not of individual glory. Only then we will be able to have something of great value to hand over to future generations, something that goes beyond tribalism, beyond who is right or wrong on the nitty-gritty of rituals.

This article will come as a surprise to Babá Pichardo and to my own godfather Babá Merced and I am about to ask something of you. Take a moment to show them that what they did for all of us greatly matters. Their names have links to their pages in case you wish to express kind thoughts and your support for the hard-won battles they led and fought for all of us.

Furthermore, I kindly ask of you to please take a moment of quiet contemplation to ponder upon my words. I guarantee you; I am not the only one who stays up at night under the isolation that COVID-19 thinking of the future. I choose to believe that together we can create a future where we as Lukumí learn to be truly diverse and inclusive and to support each other instead of retreating to the comfort of the small islands of house temples.


Oní Yemayá Achagbá

PS. My sincerest thanks to Babá Antonio Mondesire for his support and trust, our history and battle to support the Lukumí has just begun.

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