Okú Odún is the expression the Lukumí use to mark a kariosha or ordination anniversary. However, okú odú is not just the passing of another year. It should be a milestone of service. It should be a moment to reflect upon the gifts Orisha has imparted in our life. It should be a moment to thank Olofi for the blessings of a godparent and an oyigbona who opened their home and heart and uplifted a person for life.
Today, my thoughts turn to orisha anniversaries. They are a reason to “dress up” the Orisha in fancy fabrics, deck them out with shiny tools and accouterments, and do a celebration in their honor. Setting aside the present situation with COVID-19 and its unholy mutations, I am all for a good party, but I am equally happy laying down a simple offering on a mat at the foot of my Orisha to spend my okú odún the day in quiet contemplation.
However, today is not my okú odú day. It is the okú odú of Yeguede, or padrino Junior as we affectionally call him. José R. Merced celebrates 42 years of ordination to Oyá.
Forty-two years of service to Oyá and the Orisha, a milestone indeed. Let’s take that in for a moment. As a Babalosha and oriaté, he is responsible for more than 24 ordained godchildren. To that, add three children of Yemayá, Turi, Laura, and myself, he has chosen to represent and other Oloshas who were not born from his Orisha yet have trained with equal love and care. His job does not stop there. He also keeps tabs of an ever-growing list of Orisha ordained grandchildren and has a long list of people he has ordained as an oriaté. However, this is not a game of numbers. The measure of a priest of integrity and respect exceeds an exercise in arithmetic. There is where I come in. As a writer dedicated to documenting the Lukumí experience from a personal perspective, today, my job is to honor my godfather.
Padrino Junior is only human. I have known him to have a temper, be exacting, and not take slack from anyone. That is why I love him. Without grit, direction, and a good measure of discipline, these 42 years would not be as successful as they have been for him. Likewise, he has always been thoughtful, kind, and generous. I love his laughter, his sense of grace and beauty, and I like how tidy and meticulous he is at home and in ritual settings. He can also cook pretty well, and that is always a plus in my book.
Being an exemplary godfather is not just the mechanics of running a house or knowing all rituals to precision. To me, it means rising to the challenge of educating, mentoring, and dealing with the lovely bundle of issues each godchild at one time or another brings home to babá. In the years I have shared with him, I have observed him knowing when to be there for godchildren, letting them err, and lifting them if they fall short of their duties and responsibilities.
As a priest, he is also a rock for the Orisha community. Padrino Yeguedé raised to the challenge of defending Lukumí rights in Texas in 2009 when the City of Euless tried to stop him from performing rituals at his house. The case Merced vs. Kason was defended by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The case is also documented in Gods, have Merced! I was there when the police arrived up during a kariosha, and I know how taxing this legal battle was for godfather. Did he shy away from a fight? No. The legal struggle made him stronger, and it made him appreciate who supported him and who silently chastised him, for there were those who wagged their tongues from the impotence of their shadows. His victory was a victory for all Lukumí, and it had the support of babá Ernesto Pichardo following the footsteps of the case Church of the Lukumí Babalú Ayé vs. the City of Hialeah.
I was placed in his path more than 20 years ago by invisible powers at play. I am born from Yemayá, but it was a daughter of Oshún, his late mother Sylvia, igbaé, who introduced us. Oshún is my second mother, and without her, I would not have found my third mom, Oyá. It was Yemayá during a batá who placed my son in your hands, in your care.
What else, beyond my words, can I offer this birthday guy who has it all? You have my admiration, my love, and my loyalty. You also have what matters most in my life: My children. Thank you for uplifting my eldest son and giving him a new life with Orisha. Oggún Addá Araí is devoted to the Orisha following in your footsteps in zeal and disposition. You also have my youngest son, Ayótomíwá, your Orisha grandson, who will also make you proud in time. We all wish you the greatest of days and many years of happiness and service to the Orisha.
Happy okú odún padrino Yeguedé!
Oní Yemayá Achabá