One my favorite things about kids and youth is their transparency and honesty. If someone is there to listen, kids are bound to talk and this is especially true when they come from backgrounds or situations where attention is sparse. Because of this, I have learned so much about the families I work with through the kids within those family networks.
Recently, I was having a casual conversation with a 5th grade girl that I mentor. In fact, this was our very first conversation and my new friend, May, surely wasn't shy at all. As we were walking to Starbucks, May began to tell me about a celebration she had been a part of the night before. "It was a birthday party for some santo (saint in Spanish), I don't remember which one, but it was LIT (term meaning insane or awesome, as in “on fire”), you should have been there!" she began. "It was at a party hall across the street from my apartment and everyone was there, it was really crowded. The santo really likes tobacco so everyone was chewing tobacco and spitting it all over the floor. We also put seeds and rosewater in our hair to stay safe. And his favorite color is red so we all had to wear a red bandana on our wrists in honor of him in order to protect ourselves."
"Protect yourselves?" I asked.
"Yeah, you have to protect yourself from the spirit of the santo entering you. Just like when you laugh. Because if you laugh at the spirit or don't wear the bandana, he will take over your body and make you do something really, really embarrassing. It happened last night to my mom’s friend and it was really scary at first, but then it was funny. During the bembé...”
“Bembé? What’s that?” I interrupted
"Yeah you know like, how do you say in English... um… like witchcraft, but really it’s praise? You know like when the drums are playing? Well anyways during the bembé* time my mom’s friend- she has really long hair right? Well she laughed and the spirit of the santo went in her and made her dance like a snake and crawl on the floor and get all the tobacco spit in her hair. It was really funny and when it was over she was really embarrassed and had to leave."
Once again, I can't fully describe the mix of emotions I felt in that moment or throughout the rest of that day. I think the main emotion I felt was sadness. The story she told and the joy and excitement in her voice brought me so much pain and sadness that I wanted to kneel before the Lord right there in the street to cry and pray. I also think that the overwhelming sadness was coated in a layer of shock although through my research and ethnography, I knew just what she was talking about.
Briefly, Santería is an animistic faith that became mixed within Latin and Caribbean Catholic culture through Cubans demanding that the slaves they brought from Africa abandon their tribal faith and become Catholic. Instead, the slaves took the Catholic figures as symbols for their own deities; so when it looked like they were praying to a saint they were in reality praying to a deity they had assigned to that saint due to similar characteristics or attributes. Years later, the two belief systems have become incredibly intertwined and the practices have been taking place for many years here in the US. For example, you know the infamous song Babalú sung by Ricky Ricardo in I Love Lucy? Yeah, that's really a song written to praise Santeria's deity Babalú-Ayé..
So why was I going through this shock? I've read books and articles about this. I walk by the Botánicas (stores where goods are purchased and gatherings happen for this faith practice) in my neighborhood daily and have seen signs of the practice in the streets as well. However I realized that although I knew this was happening around me and that it wouldn't be long before I would be trying different ways to communicate the gospel to those who were practicing it, it didn't feel exactly real. As far as I knew, the close ministry contacts I had so far were not major followers of Santería. I had no face or relationship in mind when praying against these false beliefs and Botánicas within my community. But then, all of the sudden and unexpectedly, I did. And it was the face of an innocent 11-year-old girl.
I don't wish to follow this common theme, but I'm at a loss to effectively communicate how I feel. I think I'm still in the phase of processing that this is real and as a mission catalyst to this community, it is my job to enter into these conversations. But I also have to realize that through entering these conversations, it's only my job to lovingly and wisely communicate truth. The rest is up to God. My job is to engage and share, not “save them.” It's not easy to eliminate that pressure and feeling of responsibility to “save them,” especially when I’m working with youth.
Will you pray for May, her family, and her community? Will you pray for wisdom within the future conversations that will take place between May and I? Will you pray for wisdom and strength as both I and our current Latino team in the Equip training program begin to encounter more and more contacts whom are involved with Santería? Will you pray for breakthrough and truth to infiltrate this faith system in our neighborhoods and communities across the world?
* Bembé is a ceremony full of dancing and drumming to encourage the deity to manifest itself.