Monday, February 15, 2010

Vodou and Christianity

This question came up on American Voodoo Forum:
Can one serve lwa in an American community without the Catholic (Christian) piety and liturgy that is so much a part in Ayiti? Can one separate?
I have seen many variants of this question come up over the years. A lot of people who have turned to alternative spirituality have had bad experiences with Christianity.  Their religious choices stem from a rejection of the religious dogma which was forced down their throat at an early age.  For some Christianity triggers memories of childhood physical and sexual abuse. Others dislike the hypocrisy and self-righteous behavior of many who profess to be believers. And some of them were raised in non-Christian households: their families would plotz if they saw them wearing a Rosary and decorating their house with saint statues.

Our house (Société la Belle Venus) begins our ceremonies with the Priye Dieu -- prayers to God, the Virgin Mary, and the various saints. If you are initiated in our djevo, you will be expected to spend 41 days visiting a church and saying the Rosary in quiet meditation. This provides you with spiritual protection and helps to cement your dedication to your ancestral faith.  (Keep in mind that the majority of Haitians identify as Roman Catholic and even the Evangelicals have Catholic ancestors a generation or two back). When I asked Mambo Edeline St.-Amand about the requirements for a Jewish or Muslim initiate, she said that person could visit a synagogue or mosque for 41 days and say the appropriate prayers.

Most Haitian practitioners of Vodou also identify as Catholic and will attend Mass regularly, or at least on special occasions like Easter and Christmas. They see no disjunct between their sevis lwa and their Catholic faith.  The Church may not agree, but as good Catholics they've learned that there's a time when one smiles, nods and goes about one's business.  (If you really think that no practicing American Catholic uses birth control, you may be interested in a bridge I have for sale.  It would come in very handy when you're traveling to Brooklyn to attend a fet). 

That being said, there are certainly houses wherein the Christian imagery is downplayed or left out entirely.  Max Beauvoir's Temple of Yehwe and Peristyle de Mariani concentrate more on Vodou's African roots than its Catholic influences.  And while Sallie Ann Glassman (who was raised Jewish) practices a more eclectic style of New Orleans Voodoo, she certainly has Haitian roots: Glassman was initiated by well-known Houngan, artist and flagmaker Edgar  Jean-Louis.

And, of course, you're not obligated to join any house to serve the lwa, nor are you precluded from using non-Christian imagery on your shrines. My altar to Ogou includes a statue of Chinese war god Guan Ti near a bottle decorated with St. Jacques Majeur. My shrine to Freda features a very nice custom Barbie and my Damballah altar features a large shed from an albino Burmese Python and a white dragon statue.  Kathy and I once made a Ghede shrine for a Jewish friend using images of Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas

Telling Haitian Vodouisants they are "doing it wrong" or trying to save them from their "Christian conditioning" is the height of arrogance and cultural imperialism. But there is nothing wrong with searching for a house which is a good fit for your spiritual needs and expectations.  In fact, I strongly encourage you to do so. There are many paths you can take on your long road to Gineh: take your time and choose the one which is right for you.