On Stereotypes about African Religions

Managing Director’s Note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.

It is hard to believe that, as little as six years ago, I was spiritually in the closet. In my professional work as a psychotherapist and professional development trainer, people had often sensed I was deeply spiritual. Yet, no one asked me about my spiritual belief system. Being an African American woman, most of them automatically assumed I identified as Christian. While I was raised in the Baptist faith as a young person, the few people I had the courage to reveal my full self to were very surprised to learn I was a practitioner of Indigenous African religion.

I am an initiated priestess in a spiritual tradition that originates from the Yoruba culture of southwest Nigeria known as Ifa. This has been my path for more than 12 years. Today I can share this part of myself with little worry or fear of possible discrimination, but it was not always this way. You may wonder, “What changed for her?” The answer is, “Becoming an ordained minister.”

Attending a two year Interfaith and Interspiritual seminary program has been one of the most transformative and healing experiences of my life. I witnessed firsthand the growth that happens when people from different ethnicities, sexual orientations, religious backgrounds, professions and all walks of life come together to learn and maintain a sacred container that can hold each other’s stories and experiences.

Due to some of the mis-perceptions and stereotypes about African Religions, I carried preconceived notions that only certain people would value my experience without prejudice. My first year in seminary completely dismantled my own assumptions about who and how other people would judge me. Instead of people reacting with apprehension and fear, I was embraced with open arms and encouraged to share this part of myself publicly.

If I had not studied religions and philosophies with people who truly believed we are all one in spite of our differences, I never would have realized the similar connections that Ifa has with other traditions. My Ifa teacher often says, “S/he who knows one book knows none. The truth is the same everywhere, only the lie is different.”

Since my ordination and graduation, my work has expanded to educating people about sexual abuse and providing healing services in faith based communities. I would not have had the capacity to do this work, nor been requested to, if my view of the world did not change. I believe in Interfaith & Interspiritual work that builds bridges across difference because it expands our capacity to be present.

I once heard a workshop presenter say, “All folks really want to know is: Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say matter to you?” I was given a precious gift of freedom when I was truly seen and heard. It is my personal vow to put love in action by passing on this precious gift to others.

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4 thoughts on “On Stereotypes about African Religions

  1. DeShannon,
    Thank you so very much for sharing yourself and your tradition with us! I have often longed for the conversation that included non-traditional religious traditions, for lack of a better word. Please do a few articles on the basics of your tradition. Ifa 101 and Ifa 102 would be wonderful way to help those of us without any knowledge of that faith to learn how it compares and contrasts to other faiths, but more importantly how those traditions inform your everyday life! I look forward to so much more from you!

    1. Hi Ellie,

      Thank you for your response! I’ll be happy to write more about Ifa and African spiritual view points in future posts. In April, I’ll be heading to Harvard University to present at the African Diasporic Religious Studies Association (ADRSA) conference with other scholar-practitioners. Its a free event and people come from all over the U.S and abroad. If you are ever in the area or know anyone who’d like to attend, there is more info at http://adrsa.org. Looking forward to connecting with you and other beautiful souls in this space.

  2. Hi DeShannon, i was inspired after reading your article. I am an African student who is pursuing my masters degree in Literature. I love to read, most especially when the literature is from the horse’s own mouth, it is so refreshing. My late grand uncle was a very great fetish priest himself. He could conjure fresh tilapia from the sky for his family most especially when the rains were not forthcoming in order for the family to harvest some fresh fish. Interestingly, he became born again and he received Christ before he died. But the lesson both you and late grand uncle taught me was your powerful social role to humanity, most especially aggrieved victims in our societies. My late grand uncle had great knowledge about herbs and he in various ways heals all manner of sickness, ailments and afflictions that were brought to him. He was a great man indeed. Thank you for the wonderful work that you doing. Keep it up. You are the kind of people society truly needs.

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