As pride month comes to a close, I have been reflecting on my spiritual journey as a priestess in a tradition that supposedly does not welcome LGBTQ people. I was initiated into the Yoruba-Ifa religion 10 years ago. My introduction to this path began when I met Babalawo (a male Ifa priest) Olaoluwa 15 years ago. During one of our early spiritual consultations I noticed he began to intentionally use gender neutral language when referring to the person I may one day choose as a life partner. I knew the time had finally come to find out what his views were about sexual orientation and decide if Ifa was a religion and spiritual path I would continue to explore.
After the spiritual consultation was completed, I asked if Ifa condemned same-sex relationships. He said, “No, Ifa is not like other traditions.” While this was a relief, I needed more confirmation and asked if he and his wife personally disapproved of people in same gender loving relationships. He laughed and replied, “No. What we care about is your character.” He and his wife accepted me as a bisexual woman. When I eventually found my life partner and introduced her to them, she was embraced with open arms. It was this foundation of love that opened up the space for my spiritual mentors to become another part of my extended family.
It is life sustaining and enhancing to be loved unconditionally by one’s family (biological or of one’s choosing). I imagine there were some people who attended the PULSE nightclub in Orlando who had come to feel like it was a safe place where they could connect with family. “Family” is a common term used by some LGBTQ people to acknowledge that another person is a part of the community. I am not related or personally connected to anyone who was killed or injured on June 12th but I felt like I lost 49 members of my family.
Immediately, I started receiving announcements of Interfaith vigils and prayer services throughout New York City. On Monday, June 13th, my wife and I joined members from our Interfaith-Interspiritual community at The Church of the Village in Manhattan, NY. It was comforting to see familiar faces and be with people I love. Towards the end of the service, a minister read the names of those who were murdered while the pastor rang a bell for each person. As I listened to the bell toll, I wondered, “Who among them worshipped Orisa? Is anyone pouring libations and calling the names of these new ancestors?”
After the vigil, we marched from the church to Stonewall Inn singing, “We are all Orlando. And we are singing, singing for our lives”. Thousands of people of all races, sexual orientations, religious beliefs and backgrounds came to mourn, grieve and show solidarity to end gun violence and homophobia. It was uplifting to feel this connection. Wanting more, I decided to look up well-known Orisa religious groups in New York City as thousands of practitioners live here. “Orisa religion” is an umbrella term, occasionally used to include all of the African diasporic religious traditions that originated from the Yoruba people of Southwest Nigeria (Ifa is included in this grouping). I went to websites and social media pages of local and national Orisa affiliated organizations hoping to find news of a vigil or simple prayers of comfort. While I did not find any vigils, there was one on-line Facebook post that gave me hope.
Alafia Stewart was one of several people featured in the 2014 PBS documentary, Sacred Journeys: Osun-Osogbo, during her initiation into Ifa. The June 13th message she displayed after the horrific events in Orlando has been viewed over 32,000 times in a post entitled: FACT CHECK: Homosexuality in Orisa Worship. Alafia’s passionate words not only supported the LGBTQ community in our time of grief; she offered an affirmative healing balm to many Orisa religious practitioners who believe in equality and LGBTQ inclusion. Hearing Alafia speak about the intersectionality of her own marginalization as a black woman who practices an indigenous African religion in the United States, reminded me of Audre Lorde’s sage words in her powerful essay, There is No Hierarchy of Oppression. Lorde states, “Freedom from intolerance does not belong to one group… when they appear to destroy me, it will not be long before they appear to destroy you.”
Homophobia is no more condoned by God than racism or sexism. It has been long overdue for practitioners and initiates in the spectrum of Orisa religion to stop discriminating against LGBTQ sisters and brothers. As a religious minority in the United States whose practitioners are overwhelmingly people of color, we should know better. We know what it is like to have religious text used to justify oppression and say we are inferior based on our race and gender. I do not understand why some of our heterosexual identified sisters and brothers would repeat such hateful and fear based behavior. Could it be that the problem of excluding others is a fear based expression of internalized inferiority?
Historically people of the African diaspora were fed lies about our bodies and sexuality. Instead of doing independent research and becoming empowered through education, some of us buy into religious based sexuality myths and go overboard trying to prove that we do not reflect the racist stereotypes that oppressors and colonizers projected unto us. While I can have compassion for people who are misinformed and afraid, I refuse to remain silent and simply hope for the best when it impedes on my ability and divine right to live freely.
In an effort to build a spiritual foundation of love and disrupt the ignorance that produces hate, I encourage sisters and brothers in Orisa communities to show your fellow LGBTQ family that you love them. While it is wonderful to be embraced behind closed doors in small communities like I was, it means more to publically take a stand and let us know that you see and value us – especially in times like these. Go beyond toleration. Accept and include us on all levels. Ask yourselves if any LGBTQ practitioners are making themselves small just to fit into your ile’ (community)? Reach out and ask if we feel excluded and how you can show support. After all, aren’t spiritual and religious communities places where people are supposed to be able to find comfort, heal and grow?
I may never know for certain if any of the 49 killed in Orlando called on the Orisas, believed these deities or engaged in practices to connect with their ancestors. So in a small act of solidarity I offer this written libation in English (a Yoruba prayer traditionally done with water), to honor the lives of those beautiful brown and black bodies who should still be singing, dancing and celebrating life with us.
Fresh water, fresh water, fresh water. To freshen the path, to freshen the house, to freshen the ancestors, to freshen the godhead, to freshen the soul, to freshen the world.
May evil be no more. May obstructions be no more. May worries and trouble be no more. Let us not see death and hardship anymore.
I pay homage to God who is beyond all creation, the creator and owner of superlative power who comes into the world as all the Orisa. I pay homage to the Orisas. I pay homage to the guiding ancestors.
I pay homage to all whose lives were taken at the PULSE night club in Orlando, Florida on June 12, 2016.
Ase’, Ase’, Ase’ (and so it is).