Posted on October 28, 2011

Are Blacks Abandoning Christianity for African Faiths?

Chika Oduah, The Grio, October 19, 2011

The placement of fallen fragments of coconut helped William Jones decide on whether or not to go to graduate school.

The Yoruba priest that Jones had invited into his Brooklyn apartment had examined the four coconut pieces he had strewn on the floor before telling Jones that it would be OK for him to further his studies.

That was more than a decade ago and today, Jones, 42, is still a practitioner of the Yoruba spiritual tradition. He said that consultations with Yoruba priests leave him with a sense of inner peace.

“I go to see a priest or a ‘babalawo’ when I need clarity on something,” said Jones, a well-known digital artist.

It’s the customized advice from babalawos (masters and diviners in the Ifa Yoruba tradition) and Yoruba priests (practitioners of the Yoruba spiritual tradition that have undergone the rites of initiation) that attracted Jones to what is believed to be the indigenous spiritual practice of the Yoruba ethnic group after realizing his dissatisfaction with the generalized sermons offered at Christian churches.

Jones had attended predominantly African-American churches throughout the earlier part of his life and had considered himself to be a spiritual person. The Christian church just did not give him the personal attention he wanted.


Voodoo is believed to have historic roots in present day Benin and thus it shares similarities with other West African-derived religions.

The more popular of these are: Ifa Yoruba spiritual tradition, Palo, Candomble, Umbanda and Santeria (also known as Lukumi).

These practices are also known as orisha-centered religions because all of them recognize spirit-deities, known as orishas. Orishas, also spelled orixas or orisas, are spirits that control various natural forces and principles, including: fertility, water and love. Orisha literally translates in the Yoruba languages as ‘owner of head,” because it is believed that followers eventually take on the personality of designated orishas.

The Yoruba tradition has gained in popularity among blacks exploring African spirituality because of its accessibility in America. The Yoruba ethnic group is one of the largest three in Nigeria and those who have immigrated to the United States, have brought the teachings of Orisha and Ifa (the systemic basis of Yoruba spirituality) with them.

The fact is while West African-derived religions have historically been looked down upon, research shows that more African-Americans are exploring and adopting them. Many of these African-Americans were Christians and have either completely abandoned the Christian doctrine, like Jones, or are still incorporating Christianity with the West African-derived religions to create a unique, sort of ‘on-demand’ syncretism.


Anthropologists say these examples of religious syncretism are nothing new. Black slaves, particularly in present-day Haiti, hid their African spiritual practices from slave owners by disguising and incorporating them into the Roman Catholic religion they were often forced to accept. In fact, voodoo orishas, called loas or iwas, were reconfigured to mirror Roman Catholic saints and vice versa. So Papa Legba (a powerful spirit intermediary) became St. Peter, St. Lazarus or St. Anthony. Ayizan (the loa of trade and marketplace) became St. Clare of Assisi.


“Since the ’50s and ’60s there has been an increase with more African-Americans embracing these religions,” said Sylvester Johnson, associate professor at Indiana University’s religious studies department.


Johnson attributes the concentration of African-American practitioners of orisha-based religions in cities including Miami, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Sacramento and New Orleans can be attributed to the black pride movement of the 1960s and ’70s.

In Atlanta, a city commonly referred to as the heart of the nation’s black middle class, black pride is still very evident today.

“Atlanta has attracted a lot of black professionals, who have tended to lean toward a more black consciousness and afro-centric attitude,” Johnson explained. The city has a number of Santeria and Yoruba followers. {snip}


While there are no concrete statistical data that quantifies the number of African-American practitioners of orisha-based religions, 70 million is the often-quoted figure for the number of “African and New World peoples who participate in, or are closely familiar with, religious systems that include Ogun,” based on research cited in the highly acclaimed book, “Africa’s Ogun: old world and new,” by anthropologist and professor Sandra Barnes.


{snip} Animal sacrifices, secret initiations, the chanting of the names of ancestors in libations, the personification of spirits in masquerades, shaving of body hairs, spirit possessions and refrain from eating tabooed foods are some of the aspects associated with the African religions that may be difficult for some people to accept.


When it comes to religion, African-Americans tend to take it quite seriously. The most recent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Life reported nearly eight in ten African-Americans, 79 percent, say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56 percent among the general U.S. adult population. 16 percent of African-Americans attend evangelical Protestant churches and 59 percent attended ‘historically black Protestant churches.’


Organized in the 1970s by the late Efuntola Oseijeman Adefunmi in an attempt to reclaim ancestral Yoruba customs and tradition, the Oyotunji village serves as a tourist attraction and a mecca for African-American followers of orisha-centered religions.

Adefunmi, an African-American born in 1928 as Walter King, served as a spiritual father for many blacks seeking knowledge about orishas. His historical significance and cultural relevance is well cited among religious scholars. The Oyotunji community that he founded is said to be North America’s oldest, authentic African village.

“The Oyotunji community is a utopia,” Olupona said. “It is a symbol of the black power movement that took place in this country in the 1970s.”

Reverend Terri Adisa, an interfaith spiritualist, asserts that African-Americans can find more spirituality in Oyotunji village than in a typical black Christian church. She says the church has moved away from teaching members how to apply practical spiritual principles toward a more superficial doctrine.

“Christianity today is not about God, it’s about ‘church-ianity,” Adisa said, referencing a term that is gaining popularity.

“It’s about how to act and behave and dress in church,” she said, “but when you get to the parking lot you’re cussing at each other.”