“All This Sainted Difference is What God Wants”

Robert Farris Thompson wrote those words in reference to the Black Atlantic religions that he lovingly documented over the course of more than 60 years of teaching and writing. The rituals and practices he studied – Vodou, Santeria, Palo Monte, Abakua, Candomble, Umbanda and their antecedents throughout West and Central Africa – were means of preserving the dignity and humanity of communities that were shaped in the cauldron of enslavement and colonialism. Too often those traditions continue to be misunderstood and mistreated by outsiders. That’s been especially true of Protestant Christians, who have been some of the fiercest (and benighted) opponents of those ritual traditions. All this sainted difference may be what God wants, but much of the world has behaved otherwise. It’s time to change that.

We at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme have a long history of reaching past ignorance, prejudice and misunderstanding to learn from and embrace people and faith traditions that have too often been maligned. That was true when we began our Green Grass Partnership (Native rituals had actually been outlawed by the federal government until 1978, just a few years before our partnership began). It was true when members of our community first visited Soweto and other townships during the height of the apartheid era in South Africa. It was true after 9/11, when public fear of Muslims was at a fever pitch. And it was true during the worst of the anti-immigrant backlash of the previous administration, when we adopted our practice of providing sanctuary to those threatened with deportation.

Building on that legacy, the first and best way that we can recognize and affirm all that sainted difference is to educate ourselves. The ritual expressions that moved from Africa to the Americas are some of the principal means by which communities shaped by legacies of enslavement and colonialism have claimed and affirmed their own humanity, dignity, worth, and beauty amidst a world of violence, persecution and indifference.

Part I

Featured Speakers: Professor Elizabeth McAlister & Vodou Houngan Jean-Daniel Lafontant

Learn about Haitian Vodou and the life of a specific Vodou Temple in Port-au-Prince, Temple Nah-Ri-Veh, in this conversation with Professor Elizabeth McAlister from Wesleyan University, author of Rara: Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora, and Jean-Daniel Lafontant, a Vodou Houngan (Priest) who guides the Nah-Ri-Veh community and is much in demand as a lecturer for museums and universities that are exploring the sacred arts of Haitian Vodou. Both are sources of profound wisdom about Haitian history and its religious practices.

Part II

Featured Speaker: Dr. Ivor Miller

Enjoy this presentation from Dr. Ivor Miller, a renowned scholar of the rituals and traditions of the African diaspora. Ivor has done years of research into the secret world of Cuban Abakua, a New World tradition that is practiced mostly in Havana and Matanzas, but that has roots in Southern Nigeria and Cameroon. This is a powerful ritual system that has shaped the history of the greater Atlantic world, and it’s another of the traditions that have been mostly ignored by Protestant Christians, or maligned. We need to do what we can to shift that, first and foremost by becoming more educated about the rich tapestry of traditions and rituals that continue to shape the lives of people on both sides of the Atlantic. As we become more educated and informed about the rich tapestry of traditions and rituals that continue to shape the lives of people on both sides of the Atlantic. Ivor is the author of several books, among them The Voice of the Leopard, about Abakua and its African cousins, and Aerosol Kingdom, about early graffiti artists in New York City. He is on the faculty of the University of Calabar in Nigeria.

Part III

Featured Speaker: Professor Todd Ramón Ochoa

This presentation provides an opportunity to learn from Todd Ramon Ochoa, an expert on Palo Monte, a faith practice with roots in ancient Kongo. Of all the African cultures that contributed to the creation of New World traditions, Kongo is the deepest and most pervasive, the ground upon which many of the new Atlantic faiths were established. Palo stands as one of the strongest expressions of Kongo culture within the New World, a faith practiced throughout Cuba and the Americas. While remaining a singular tradition, Palo shares many features with Haitian Vodou, which was strongly influenced by the culture of Kongo as well. Traces of that same culture can be found in New Orleans, and even as far north as New England, where many enslaved people from Kongo arrived. Contemporary expressions of Palo thus provide us with a unique vantage into a culture and faith that has shaped the entirety of the Americas, even while remaining unknown to most people. Todd Ochoa has written beautifully about this tradition in his book Society of the Dead: Quita Manaquita and Palo Praise in Cuba. He has spent years learning its language and rituals, and he has undergone an initiation into its sacred mysteries. Ochoa is also the author of A Party for Lazarus: Six Generations of Ancestral Devotion in a Cuban Town, which touches on related Black Atlantic practices, Santeria and Arara.

Part IV

Featured Speaker: Professor John Mason ​

exploring Yoruba culture, which originated in present day Nigeria where, through the violence of the slave trade, it was exported to the Americas. The Yoruba people grew deep roots in two places in particular – Brazil (where it is known as Candomble) and Cuba (where it is known as Lukumi, or Santeria – but aspects of their culture and religion also grew in other places throughout the Americas, such as Haiti. These days, this charismatic and effervescent form of ritual expression can be found in most urban centers of North America, including New York and Boston, Miami and Los Angeles, and many other locations as well, including here in Connecticut. It’s a beautiful system of music, dance, healing, and resistance that has helped to uphold the spirit of a people. Mason is regarded around the world as a thought leader on Yoruba culture and practices. He is a priest in the Yoruba tradition, and he has authored more than 12 books, each containing histories, stories, songs, rituals, and traditional meals that he has collected across decades of study. Mason is a frequent lecturer at universities around the world, but he resides in Brooklyn, where he founded and continues to run the Yoruba Theological Archministry. It is a privilege to be able to welcome him into our series of presentations.