Coming “out of the shadows,” an organization of priests from the Afro-Cuban Lukumí faith — known popularly as Santería — has officially joined forces with the religion’s most prominent Miami church.
The goal: establish a central and very visible hierarchy for a faith often associated by outsiders with mysterious rites, colorful deities and animal sacrifices.
“We have the top two hierarchies in our religion joining today,” said Ernesto Pichardo, head of the Babalú Ayé church. “This religion has evolved. We’re going from the chaotic to organization.”
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Wednesday night’s pact-signing ceremony was a low-key, family-like affair. About 50 followers, including some children, gathered at Pichardo’s South Miami-Dade home to enjoy food and desserts.
Reinaldo Ruiz, 69, a babalawo priest, dipped his fingers in a gourd and sprinkled water in the air during a rapid-clip invocation of Spanish and Yoruba, the West African language brought to Cuba hundreds of years ago by slaves.
“Ashé,” followers replied. Blessings.
Flanked by followers clad in all-white, Pichardo and Kola Ifa President Manuel Erice sat at a table adorned with a white porcelain dove. They signed the agreement amid applause and camera flashes.
“It’s one sole religion,” said Javier Aguilar, a spokesman for Kola Ifa, which boasts over 200 babalow priests. “We have the responsibility to bring this to society.”
The groups say they hope to morph into the go-to international information Lukumí hub for the press, law enforcement and, of course, followers. They want to create an “educational curriculum” in Spanish and English and work to standardize rites and rituals for a faith that has always been loosely organized and normally practices in secret in U.S. cities, Cuba and other countries.
The faith and its off-shoots have certainly grown over the decades.
Hundreds of years ago, slaves drawn from the Yoruba people of West Africa brought their beliefs to the New World. They practiced in secret, incorporating elements of other religions, usually Catholicism.
Many of the deities known as orishas were linked to Catholic saints — for example, Changó, the god of virility and drumming, became associated with Saint Barbara.
Followers seeking predictions or help with problems in their lives turn to dozens of orishas. To do so, they consult with a babalawo priest, who uses a chain and palm nuts in a process known as divination. Then, the babalawo prescribes certain rites, offerings or sacrifices — usually chickens or goats — to ensure good fortune.
Pichardo’s mother, Carmen Rodriguez, 85, who attended Wednesday’s ceremony, founded the Babalú Ayé church in Hialeah. In 1993, the church won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that sanctioned the sacrifice of chickens and legally recognized the religion.
In recent years, Lukumí has flourished, particularly in a digital age in which information on the religion is available with the click of a mouse. The faith has spawned a cottage industry selling paraphernalia and drawing increasing study from religious scholars.
Lukumí has also blossomed in countries such as Mexico and Venezuela. Groups of local practitioners have also begun flocking to Nigeria to embrace what some believe is a more pure strain of the ancient Yoruba religion — sometimes spurring tension and clashes with Miami Lukumí leaders.
As for Kola Ifa, it was formally incorporated in 2006. Its members come together every Dec.31 for a widely followed divination “forecast” ceremony that predicts events and offers spiritual guidance for Lukumí members for the upcoming year.
Last week’s alliance between Kola Ifa and the Babalú Ayé church was bound to happen in a young religion marked by various branches, said Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, a religious studies professor at the University of Miami.
“Institutionalization of a religion is a natural process. If it didn’t happen now, it would have happened eventually,” Maldonado said. “The more they spread, they thrive and need to have a center to hold on to, to be the centers of authority.”
But scholars and church leaders themselves acknowledge that some Lukumí followers — in Miami and in Cuba — will “push back” at the notion of a single spiritual authority.
Pichardo said he hopes the move will weed out “rogue” elements of the faith often criticized for scamming followers and not following traditional practices.
“There are going to be rules,” Pichardo said. “It’s no longer going to be such a free-for-all, do-whatever environment that we have now.”