Young black Americans fall under vodoo spell

The Observer, December 26, 1999
By Burhan Wazir

Thousands of young African-Americans are straying off the Christian path in the search for God. Increasingly they are turning to Yoruba, which they cite as the historical faith of young, black America. African-based religions like Yoruba, Santeria, Candomble, Lucumi and Vodou are grounded in the belief that ancestral connection is integral to spiritual well-being. Worshippers dance, drum, chant and recite prayers - messengers of God are sometimes believed to visit the bodies of the worshippers.

For many black Americans, the experience is more satisfying that the church services of their parents. 'This is not an alternative religion,' says Dorothy Ferebee, a Yoruba centre administrator in Philadelphia. 'It is not something that is just a fashionable trend at the moment: this is more than just a passing movement. A growing disillusionment with Christianity is only part of the explanation. There is a growing perception that if you're black, then this is something that is in your DNA.'

In the US, Yoruba has been pilloried as a satanic religion - ceremonies are held in underground basements and city apartments. Yet the religion prospers in many metropolitan cities, especially those with large immigrant populations from the Caribbean and Latin America.

Now it is estimated that there are more than 800,000 practising worshippers nationwide - New York and Miami are two of the religion's largest centres, with 300,000 and 70,000 followers respectively. But there are also pockets of Yoruba in cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco.

'Many black Americans are finding that Christian churches no longer satisfy their spiritual needs,' says Dr Tracey Hucks, an assistant professor in religion at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. 'There is an absence of people aged between 20 and 45 in the pew. They're leaving and cannot be persuaded to return.' Hucks adds that, while Christian ministries spawned a generation of civil rights activists - Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Jesse Jackson included - younger African-Americans associate Christianity with their slavery past. Many Haitians say Vodou inspired slaves to revolt against their French colonial masters.

In recent years, white and Asian people have also joined the movement. New Orleans has its own all-white Yoruba society; and in Bloomington, Illinois, one monthly meeting attracts around 10,000 followers. There are Yoruba-based centres that cater exclusively to gay and lesbian followers who feel ostracised by Christianity. But animal sacrifice - a Yoruban religious cornerstone - has provoked the outrage of many animal rights groups. Speaking of Santeria in 1993, Roger Caras, then president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said the sacrifice of animals 'is not legitimate in the context of modern America'. But others, including the US Supreme Court haven't always agreed -in the same year, the Court ruled that the town of Hialeah, Florida, couldn't pass a Bill preventing animal sacrifices.

'There have been minimum standards set up for animal slaughtering,' says Anna Charlton, a professor at Rutger's University Law School. 'Unfortunately, these religions don't match it.'

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