Sunday, August 25, 2013

Ancient African Religion Finds Roots In America

 Christopher Johnson/OPB/NPR

Priest Ifagbemi has an elaborate shrine to Yoruba's gods in his home near Seattle.
In the suburbs of Seattle, an ancient West African religion is gaining followers. Yoruba (YOR’-oo-bah), older than Christianity and Islam, comes from the Yoruba people of Nigeria.

Yoruba is particularly popular with African Americans, many of whom say it offers a spiritual path and a deep sense of cultural belonging.

Wesley Hurt is one of them. Hurt’s Yoruba story begins the night he met his wife, Cheri Profit.
It was nearly eight years ago, not long after a tour in Iraq. He had just gotten off for weekend release from an Army base in Tacoma, Washington.

“And the only thing I had on my mind, ‘Man, I want to go have a good time. Put on my nice clothes, get fresh, and just go do it!’” he says.

He and some friends went to a club, where he saw Profit. Hurt tried to meet her eyes, but she wasn’t really having it.

“I figured he was probably here looking for someone to have some fun with, which a lot of the soldiers are,” Profit says.

She tried to walk on by. But he caught her by the hand, bought her a drink, and not long after, Hurt and Profit were a couple.

They bonded quickly — over food, politics, and religion. These two seekers were constantly rethinking their relationships to the divine.

“With my mother, we were Jehova’s Witness, we were Seventh Day Adventist, we were Pentecostal,” Profit says. “It did not work for me.”

“I’ve been a Southern Baptist all my life — for up to 21 years,” Hurt says. “And a lot of things have brought me to try to find my spirit. So, of course you start off in church asking questions, and I didn’t get the answers that I wanted.”

So Hurt, a 32-year old Atlanta native, started exploring. First Judaism, then Islam. He was looking for something that spoke to his spirit and to his blackness.

About two years ago, he found a home in one of Yoruba’s esoteric branches, called Ifa (ee-FAH’).
“What brought me to Ifa was how close this tradition is linked to us as African Americans in this country,” he explains.

You’ll hear stories like his a lot from black Americans who practice Yoruba traditions today. From those newer to the faith, and from the elders — especially the ones who were in New York City in the late 1950s. That’s when African American Yoruba communities began to grow alongside a surging black nationalist movement.

For several decades, the religious tradition spread down the East Coast, and westward, to Chicago, to Oakland and Los Angeles — and to the Seattle area, where Hurt met an Ifa priest named Ifagbemi (EE’-fahk-bem-ee).

Hurt, Profit, and a group of about a dozen other believers worship in a circle on the carpeted floor in Ifagbemi’s bare bones dining room. The priest sits with them, shifting between English and the Yoruba language as he leads them through an Ifa ritual.

Entering A Sacred Relationship

Ifagbemi’s path has been a lot like Hurt and Profit’s. A black American, born in Topeka, raised in a Christian home. He embraced Ifa as a young adult, and later initiated into the priesthood.
For nearly four years, he has headed this small group of devotees.

“When you enter into this stuff, you enter into a sacred relationship with people that you’re working with,” Ifagbemi says. “I think it’s a privilege.”

Ifagbemi runs the group mostly from his apartment, where he has converted one of the carpeted bedrooms into a sacred space full of shrines to the gods of Yoruba’s pantheon, spirits called “orisa” (oh-REE’-shah).

There’s a long table covered with pure white cloth, and spread with sliced watermelon, bananas and gin — gifts to the divine.

Along with a life of worship, Ifagbemi says part of his job as a full-time priest is to help people adapt this ancient religion to a modern, American reality.

“We’re not African anymore!” he says. “I need to emphasize to a lot of African Americans: Yes, this is an African tradition, yes we want to connect with our roots. But our roots are here, too.”
It’s a lesson he’s been impressing on Hurt and Profit. Ifa’s tenets resonate with them: good character, respect for elders. Plus, there’s an element of homecoming in the ways this African faith speaks to them as black people.

But it was different for Profit in the early days, when her husband introduced her to Ifa.
“Initially — I’m not gonna lie — I was a little hesitant at first,” she says. “It was just the general notion, ‘You shouldn’t do that!’”

That hesitation happens to a lot of people like Profit and Hurt who were once Christians. With Yoruba’s shrines and statues, with worshippers going into trance states, some newcomers admit that the African traditions might disturb the folks at church back home.

What helped calm Profit’s worries was a ceremony where the faith came alive for her.

“They had the drums going, and the ladies were up dancing, and after a while, I was, ‘Hey!’ ‘Cause I was feeling it! I got up, I danced, I was dancing — me and the other women. It felt good. I’ve never experienced that in church, and I’ve been to church many, many times.”

Affirming Racial Identities In The New World

Tracey Hucks, chair of the religion department at Haverford College, says that blacks in America have been drawn to Yoruba for more than a half century because it offers them an ancient spiritual heritage, one that pre-dates slavery in the United States.

“For so many African Americans, this tradition has been a space of freedom, and a space of home,” Hucks says.

At the same time, she adds, it helps them affirm their racial identities in this new world.

“And it also allows them to affirm their black physicality, in a place that has said that, ‘You represent anti-beauty in this culture,’” she says. “It is this religion that comes and says, ‘No, you look like the gods of Africa.’”

Doing rituals for those gods, dancing for them, and fellowship with her community. Profit says Ifa just feels right to her.

“It gives you a sense of purpose, and when you feel that, there’s no other feeling like that in the world,” she says. “When you feel that, you know.”

Her husband, who had been searching for years for spiritual answers, has found his place, too.
“First, I was looking for God, but then I started finding myself,” Hurt explains. “And in finding myself, I started bettering myself.”

Ifagbemi’s congregation, seated together in the priest’s apartment for an intimate ritual, are all on paths a lot like Hurt’s. They’re trusting Ifagbemi as their guide.

To close the ceremony, he shakes a rattle and calls, and everyone responds with Yoruba’s most ubiquitous blessing: “Ase” (AH’-shay). It’s like saying “amen.”

For the young couple with ties down South, for the Ifa priest from Kansas, and for his small flock near Seattle — so far away from Ifa’s West African roots — this old tradition has given its followers a new home.

Funding for this story came from a Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life, a program of the University of Southern California.
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