Judith Mercado Short Stories and more ...

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I encourage you to visit my book's listing on Amazon: Peace on the Journey. I also encourage you to visit my primary blog Judith Mercado.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Peace on the Journey: The Book's Origins and Availability


The poems of my book
Peace on the Journey explore the theme of renewal in the face of adversity.

US order link. Or click on the above book cover image.

International links:

The Book's Origins - From Creation to Transformation

Writing my book Peace on the Journey was a joy. I also felt pride because of its potential for helping those about whom Dr. Joan Barice has said, “For those struggling with chronic illness, loss of a loved one, or any major life challenge, these Peace on the Journey poems affirm that one can still choose to smile and resolutely renew life. Facing hardship honestly but tempering it with hope, these healing poems light a path out of despair.”

While my joy and pride came in part from seeing my name on a published book, they also came from knowing that this book is a fundraiser as well. Ten percent of its net proceeds are designated for the Myelin Repair Foundation, a deserving research organization which might transform the lives of millions suffering from MS. 

Yet, I have dreaded the promotional stage of this book’s journey. Then I realized, how will anyone know about the book if I don’t tell them about it? How will potential readers benefit if no one feels motivated to purchase the book? I must enjoy promoting this book as much as I did writing it.

Still, promoting a book of poetry has felt strange.The thing is, I never expected to produce a book of poetry. I was, I thought, a published short story author seeking to be recognized for her novels some day. Then, in 2009, in addition to this blog focused on literary and cultural themes, I started another one called Peace Be with You. The reason was I wanted to write anonymously about my own journey with MS. Somehow, that MS blog segued from prose into poetry. Don’t ask me why. It just happened, and I went along.

After posting the blog’s poems, though, I was stunned at some of the reactions I started getting, and not just from those affected by MS. I received comments like: “With your words I see hope and understanding … At times, your words say what I’m feeling that I couldn’t find the words for.” Another reader said, “You always manage to speak the words that are in my heart and mind.”

Then, people began asking if the poems were available in a book. I kept saying, no, no, no. First, I didn’t know if I was physically up to producing a book. Second, I still resisted identifying myself as a poet. Then, one day, I realized that I might not be a poet with a capital P, but my writing was resonating with readers. Why not provide the book they were asking for?

I proceeded to winnow my blog’s roughly 1100 poems into 366. This format would offer a year's worth of poems for anyone dealing with loss of any kind, not just MS. Over the next two years, during which there was some teeth gnashing and, yes, a few choice curse words, I finalized the manuscript for publication. 

Now, the paperback and Kindle editions are available on Amazon. Not infrequently, I gaze at the book with a sense of wonder. Did I really write this? Daily, for my own inspiration, I read the book’s poems on my Kindle. Strangely, the poems read as if someone else has written them. They feel transformative, though I am already deeply familiar with their content. Indeed, Peace on the Journey  feels like the universe’s gift to me.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Short Story Credits

“Between the Amen and the Hallelujah” Rosebud Issue 24, 2002
“The Cry of Lares,” Nassau Review September 2004
“Below” North Atlantic Review 2006
“Asunder” winner of literary category, 2010 Literary Lab’s Genre Wars Anthology
“About a Boy” Gemini January 2011
“The Details,” Rose and Thorn, January 2011
“Til Next Year” Glossolalia, March 2011
“Visiting Zora,” Subtle Fiction April 2011
“Coins Dropping” Writes for All 2011
“Anna B’s Owner” SNReview, February 2011
“Janey’s Turn” Life as an…” January 2012
“"1 3/4 x 2 1/2" Motley Press January 2012
“The Barcelona Chairs” Variations on a Theme Literary Lab Anthology March 2012
“Orphans and Hoodlums” phati’tude 2012

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Multicultural Me

does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, January 28, 2012

My Father As Mentor

I learned from one who
through gentleness of spirit
embodied power.

With a quiet smile
he calmed the roiling waters
bringing clarity.

Trials never crushed
his gift of humanity
then bestowed on us.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Graceful, Wise, and Humble Man

The following is a translation of my remarks at the opening ceremony of the Mercado Library. The original in Spanish follows directly after the picture.

At this dedication and opening of the Biblioteca Mercado, also called the Mercado Library, the memory of a gentle, wise, and humble man, follower of God, is reborn in the memories of those who witness this inauguration. From this day forward, anyone who enters here will benefit from a legacy of respect for the written word, something which was essential in the life of Miguel Mercado. Poet, essayist, reader and preacher, he would have felt here as if he were in his own home.

As his blessed daughter, I am grateful to all those who have facilitated the establishment of this library; Doris Santiago, in particular; pastor Gilberto Novales also; and all those whose names I don't know.

I hope that this library will bring knowledge, spiritual formation and pleasure to all who enter here. I hope that each person will feel the warm welcome of the memory of my father. That memory is a heritage that everyone lucky to have known Brother Miguel has for the rest of his life.

Rev. Miguel A Mercado

En este día de dedicación y apertura de la Biblioteca Mercado, también denominada the Mercado Library, la memoria de un hombre gentil, sabio y humilde, seguidor de Dios, renace en los recuerdos de los que presencian esta inauguración. De hoy en adelante, todo aquel que entre aquí podrá beneficiarse de un legado de respeto por la palabra escrita, algo que fue fundamental en la vida de Miguel Mercado. Poeta, ensayista, lector y predicador, él se hubiese sentido aquí como en su propia casa.

Yo, como su dichosa hija, les agradezco a todos los que hayan facilitado el establecimiento de esta biblioteca; a Doris Santiago, en particular, al pastor Gilberto Novales también y a todos aquellos cuyos nombres desconozco.

Espero que esta biblioteca les aporte conocimiento, formación espiritual y placer a todos los que entren aquí. Anhelo que cada persona sienta la cálida bienvenida de la memoria de mi padre. Esa memoria es una herencia que todo aquel dichoso de haber conocido al Hno. Miguel lleva por toda su vida.

Dedicación y Apertura
Biblioteca Mercado (Mercado Library)
octubre de 2010
Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal, M.I., “Emmanuel”

Description of my father by the church:

"Un gran hombre de Dios, héroe de la fe, exegeta, erudito, poeta, y dedicado a la lectura y al estudio."

"A great man of God, hero of the faith, exegete, scholar, poet, and dedicated to reading and studying."


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Hero's Journey - A Son of Slaves Sparks an International Religious Movement

In 1906, William Joseph Seymour, a pockmarked, half-blind son of former slaves, began a religious revival in a former stable in working class Los Angeles. Within two-and-a-half years, members of his multiracial Asuza Street mission had fanned out across the U.S. and 50 countries. By the end of the 20th century, this spiritual gold rush had converted Pentecostalism into a mainstream, even dominant, form of Christianity in many areas of the world. Today, with half a billion followers on all continents, Pentecostalism is the world’s fastest growing religion. Some scholars describe Pentecostalism as "the most important event in religious history since the Reformation."

Before I proceed, I want to disclose that, in speaking of Pentecostalism’s vertiginous rise, it is not as adherent. Though I am the daughter of Pentecostal ministers, I left the religion in my teens. If I sometimes sound admiring of what has happened globally to Pentecostalism, it is because I appreciate a fascinating story about how an ordinary black man changed the religious landscape and, by extension, the world. In so doing, he met one of the Encarta definitions of a hero: "somebody who is admired for outstanding qualities or achievements."

On Azusa Street, William Joseph Seymour inspired viable multiracial and socioeconomic fraternizing at a time when such a thing was unprecedented; indeed, criminalized. Though the revival began with poor blacks, it soon spanned the color, gender, and socioeconomic spectrum. Seekers from around the globe—European; Asian; American Hispanic, white and black; et al.—quickly converged on Asuza Street, lured by the riveting stories heard about Holy Spirit baptism, prophesying, and physical healing. Charwoman, business owner, and university president worshipped side by side, drawn to Asuza Street’s fiery revival, which many believed hearkened back to the earliest days of Christianity. And all this was led by an impoverished black man with limited educational and social resources, a man whose dying words would be “a plea for love among the brethren everywhere.”

Unfortunately, Asuza’s early bridging of racial divisions soon ran into rough weather. Its racially diverse worship devolved in less than five years into numerous Pentecostal sects, largely organized along racially segregated lines. It would take until the latter part of the 20th century for these divisions to start healing, and todayPentecostalism is one of the least segregated forms of Christianity. What seems undeniable is that, despite the racial and theological conflicts that emerged later, what many recognize today as Pentecostalism unleashed its global spiritual storm at Los Angeles' Asuza Street under the direction of William Joseph Seymour. Several books about Asuza have been written. A feature film about the mission is in the works. William Joseph Seymour’s significant contributions are enjoying renewed attention.

Because many, if not most, of my readers do not know what Pentecostalism is, I provide this brief primer. Pentecostalism is a renewal movement within Christianity which places special emphasis on a direct personal experience of God through the baptism in the Holy Spirit as evidenced by speaking in tongues. Harvey Cox has referred to its primal hope, primal piety, and primal speech. Beyond this, I hesitate to venture for fear of treading on the same theological quicksand which nearly suffocated the nascent Pentecostal movement. Moreover, Pentecostalism has always resisted being a monolithic movement, in part because of its emphasis on direct personal experience.

What is generally accepted now is that while ... "some of the characteristics we now associate almost exclusively with Pentecostalism—such as healing, speaking in tongues, and prophesying—[have] a long history dating back to the earliest years of Christianity, and before ... they all came together [at Asuza Street where] the Pentecostal movement began its earth-encircling career. It was at Asuza Street that Seymour injected the rapturous intonations of African American spirituality into the ecstatic Holiness piety .... The mixture was highly flammable." [Harvey Cox]

In addition to Seymour's personal role in the rise of Pentecostalism, I find noteworthy the movement’s evolution from marginal to mainstream status in a relatively short period of time. I especially find interesting the religion’s early ability to transcend gender and racial constraints. Martin Luther King Jr. once observed that the most segregated hour in America was Sunday morning at 11 a.m., when churches hold their weekly service. While Pentecostalism later suffered its own glaring shortfalls in racial tolerance, its early days were markedly different. Seymour's dying plea for love was a, perhaps inadvertent, foretelling of Pentecostalism’s eventual global reach. In addition, it may have evoked a poignant reminder of his disappointment that the early multiracial cohesion had not lasted.

When I was growing up, I never heard about Asuza Street or William Joseph Seymour. What’s more, the thought of Pentecostalism becoming mainstream or the world’s fastest growing religion seemed ridiculously farfetched. One of the reasons, though, that the Asuza story resonates for me is that certain aspects of my parents’ ministry reprised those of the Asuza experience. Among these are the startling influence of people from humble walks of life and the complete and uplifting surrender of followers to the spiritual experience of speaking in tongues.

The other reason the Asuza Street story particularly resonates with me is even more deeply personal. Comments I still hear about my late father resemble those made about William Joseph Seymour by the people who knew him:

"He is the meekest man I ever met ... simple-hearted ... [yet] you feel the love and power every time you get near him ... The glow would be on that man's face .... He didn't talk much ... [yet when he spoke from the pulpit] His voice was like the roaring of a cannon." [Larry Martin, see below]

On a much smaller scale, the trajectory of my father's work also resembled that of Seymour's. For both, the original humble mission evolved into a more grand and institutionalized version of itself. After my parents left Puerto Rico for the mainland U.S., they served as missionaries for their Pentecostal faith. Meeting informally in apartments and boarding rooms, they spread the Gospel among Latino working class families. As the years progressed, they and other Hispanic ministers became seminal figures in the creation of Spanish-speaking Pentecostal congregations across the U.S. Midwest and eventually internationally. What started out in living rooms evolved into storefront churches which eventually became congregations now housed in expensive, high-tech buildings, producing TV and radio broadcasts, and experiencing socioeconomic diversity.

Indeed, it is sometimes startling for me to visit my parents’ successor congregation and see present the town’s mayor and council members or to watch the youth choir belt out a hip hop gospel hymn. My father did not live to see this happen, but I can’t help but think that, once past his surprise, he might have smiled at the broad reach of his beloved religion. After all, in their courtship letters, my parents talked more about “saving souls” all over the world than they ever did about being in love.

An interesting coincidence between my father and William Seymour is that the latter died the same year my father was born. Seymour represented the first wave of the Pentecostal movement. My parents and their evangelizing peers represented a subsequent wave into Hispanic communities. Today, Pentecostalism's mainstream status and breathtaking pace of growth are a fulfillment of the treasured dream both Seymour and my parents had about their beloved religion. For me, the irony is that in both instances the original missions they shepherded may have been the most pure representation of their Christian faith.

Related Post: Music in Pentecostalism

Additional Reading:

The Life and Ministry of William J. Seymour and a History of the Azusa Street Revival by Larry E. Martin, a Pentecostal minister.

Fire from Heaven: the Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century by Harvey Cox, a Harvard University professor. One of the most interesting chapters in this book is the comparison of jazz and Pentecostalism. Professor Cox, a jazz musician but not a Pentecostal, found parallels in the birth, development, and style of both movements.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

La Vida del Pastor - The Pastor's Life

Rev. Miguel Angel Mercado

The following is a poem-in-progress discovered after my father's death. When words are bracketed, it means he had x'ed out the words.

Cuando a tus puertas llegue el desaliento
When discouragement shows up at your door

y la tristeza minar quiera tu vida
and sadness wants to undermine your life

recuerda del Señor, su buen ejemplo
remember the Lord’s good example

cuando la embarcación estaba pereciendo
when the vessel was about to capsize

serenó a la mar embravecida.
He calmed the tumultuous seas.

Tu vida cual la mía va navegando
Your life like mine sails

con rumbo fijo a la eternal orilla
with sure direction toward the eternal shore

si en alta mar te asalta el desencanto
If disenchantment assails you on the high seas

no temas: persiste ante el quebranto
fear not: persist in the face of heartbreak

acude al Capitán de tu barquilla.
call for help to the Captain of your small boat

Si la duda nublare tu esperanza
If doubt should cloud your hope

y al parecer tu rumbo está perdido
and your course seems to be lost

clama al Señor, pidiendo su guianza
call on the Lord, asking for His guidance

Él te dará valor y confianza
He will give you courage and confidence

y te será cuan bonanza en tu camino.
And will be like great riches found on your way.

Arrecifes, tormentas, y huracanes
Reefs, storms, and hurricanes

hay en el mar por dónde va el Pastor
appear on the sea the Pastor traverses

corrientes de peligro y fuertes vendavales
Dangerous currents and strong windstorms

querrán hundir tu nave de sueños pastorales
want to sink the vessel of your pastoral dreams

pero no olvides que en ella va el Señor.
but don’t forget that the Lord is there with you.

El viento de dónde sopla
The wind from whence blows

El viento cesará, la mar estarase quieta
The wind shall cease, the sea will calm

habrá fuerte bonanza y a puerto llegarás.
You will have great success and arrive in port.

Podrás decir cuan Pablo, Acabado he mi carrera
You will be able to say, like Paul, I have finished the race

[Por lo demás me está guardada, una corona bella]
[Furthermore, a beautiful crown awaits me

y una corona de vida que Cristo me dará.
and a crown of life Christ will give me.

Los [fuertes] grandes desalientos, las luchas y las [pruebas] tormentas
[Strong] Great discouragements, struggles and [trials] storms

Incomprensiones muchas, [encuentras por doquier] jamás han de faltar.
Many misunderstandings [you find everywhere] you will never lack.

Muchos [no entienden del Pastor sus] no saben tus lagrimas, tus quejas
Many [do not understand the Pastor’s] do not know of your tears, your complaints

[Pero Dios que conoce tu vida y tus problemas]
[But God who knows of your life and its problems]

[te dará la Victoria, como Pastor que]
[will grant you Victory, like a Pastor who]

[cuando estalla el huracán de los problemas]
[when the hurricane of problems erupts]

[resolviendo los multiples problemas]
[resolving multiple problems]

[que estallan] ante ti, [con furia de huracán] cual huracán
[that erupt] before you [with the fury of a hurricane] like a hurricane

ante el rugir de múltiples problemas
facing the roar of multiple problems

que amenazan [cual] con la furia de huracán
which threaten [like] with the fury of a hurricane

Gózate en éste día, de pie, ante la bandera
Rejoice today, standing tall, before the banner

La Guerra será tuya, cuan vencedor
The War will be yours, as the victor

No hay que temer, la vida del Pastor
Fear not, the life of the Pastor

es vida puesta en aras [del] de la fé.
is one dedicated to the cause [of the] of faith.

It is

Translation by Judith Mercado who is fully aware of the difficulties inherent in translating poetry and furthermore is not a professional translator. If you have any suggestions, please share them in a comment.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Roundup of Lamento Borincano Interpreters

Bronx Latin Jazz All-Stars

Son Guajiro - Herencia Antillana



Renato Pérez Guitar

Marc Anthony

Thanks to Lars Johnson, I have discovered a good rendition by a female vocalist,which is in the música típica tradition rather than in the operatic vein. It can be downloaded for a fee here. You have to scroll down through the album selections to find "Lamento Borincano." I have not figured out how to make it available as I have the above selections, but it is worth a listen.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Preciosa by Rafael Hernández Marín

Yo sé lo que son los encantos
I know the enchantments

de mi Borinquen hermosa.
of my beautiful Borinquen.

Por eso la quiero yo tanto.
That’s why I love her so.

Por siempre la llamaré Preciosa.
I will always call her Precious.

Yo sé de sus hembras trigueñas
I know of her dark-skinned women

sé del olor de sus rosas.
I know of the scent of her roses.

Por eso a mi tierra riqueña
That’s why my Rican land

por siempre la llamaré Preciosa
I will always call Precious.

Isla del Caribe
Island of the Caribbean

Isla del Caribe
Island of the Caribbean


Preciosa te llaman las olas
Precious, you are called by the waves

del mar que te baña.
of the sea that bathes you.

Preciosa por ser un encanto
Precious, for being enchanting

por ser un Edén.
for being an Eden.

Y tienes la noble hidalguía
And you bear the noble standard

de la Madre Espana
of Mother Spain

y el fiero cantío del indio bravío
and the fierce song of the ferocious Indian

lo tienes también.
you also have.

Preciosa, te llaman los bardos
Precious, the bards call you

que cantan tu historia.
who sing your history..

No importa el tirano te trate
It matters not that the tyrant treats you

con negra maldad.
with black wickedness.

Preciosa serás sin bandera,
Precious you will be without a flag,

sin lauros, ni gloria.
without laurels or glory.

Preciosa, Preciosa,
Precious, precious,

te llaman los hijos de la libertad
the sons of liberty call you.

Preciosa, te llevo dentro
Precious, I carry you inside

muy dentro de mi corazón
deep inside my heart.

y mientras más pasa el tiempo
And as more time passes

en ti se vuelca mi amor.
My love turns on you.

Porque ahora es que comprendo,
because now I understand

porque ahora es que comprendo
because now I understand

que aunque pase lo que pase,
that happen what will happen,

yo seré puertorriqueño.
I will be Puerto Rican.

Yo seré puertorriqueño
I will be Puerto Rican

por donde quiera que ande, o,
no matter where I roam, oh,

por que lo llevo en la sangre
because of what I carry in my blood

por herencia de mis padres.
as inheritance from my forebears.

Y con orgullo repito
And with pride I repeat

yo te quiero, Puerto Rico.
I love you, Puerto Rico.

Yo te quiero, Puerto Rico.
I love you, Puerto Rico.

Y por eso es que me nace hoy
And that is why I am inspired today

dedicarle este canto
to dedicate this song

a ese noble jibarito Rafael
to that noble jibarito Rafael

y a mi isla del encanto.
and to my island of enchantment.

Yo te quiero, Puerto Rico.
I love you, Puerto Rico.

Yo te quiero Puerto Rico.
I love you, Puerto Rico.

Translation by Judith Mercado. Please comment if you have suggestions for improved translation.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Lamento Borincano by Rafael Hernández Marín

Sale loco de contento con su cargamento
Ecstatic with joy, he leaves with his load of products

para la ciudad ¡ay! para la ciudad
for the city. Oh! for the city.

lleva en su pensamiento todo un mundo
carrying in his thoughts an entire world

lleno de felicidad ¡ay! de felicidad.
filled with happiness. Oh! filled with happiness.

Piensa remediar la situación
He thinks of bettering the conditions

del hogar que es toda su ilusión, sí.
of the home representing all his illusions, yes.

Y alegre, el jibarito va pensando así,
Happily, the jibarito goes along, thinking,

diciendo así, cantando así por el camino:
saying, singing along the road:

“Si yo vendo la carga, mi dios querido,
“If I sell my products, my dear God,

un traje a mi viejita voy a comprar.”
I’ll buy a dress for my old lady.”

Y alegre, también su yegua va
Happily, his mare trots along

al presentir que aquel cantar
sensing that the song

es todo un himno de alegría.
is wholly a hymn of joy.

En eso les sorprende la luz del día
About then, daylight surprises them

y llegan al mercado de la ciudad.
and they reach the city market.

Pasa la mañana entera sin que nadie quiera
The whole morning passes and no one wants

su carga comprar ¡ay! su carga comprar.
to buy his products. Oh! to buy his products.

Todo, todo está desierto, y el pueblo está lleno
All, all is deserted, and the town suffers

de necesidad ¡ay! de necesidad.
from necessity. Oh! from necessity.

Se oye este lamento por doquier
This lament is heard throughout

de mi desdichada Borinquen, sí.
my unlucky Borinquen, yes.

Y triste, el jibarito va pensando así
Saddened, the jibarito goes along, thinking,

diciendo así, llorando así por el camino:
saying, crying down the road:

“¿Qué será de Borinquen, mi dios querido?
“What will become of Borinquen, my dear God?

¿Qué será de mis hijos y de mi hogar?”
What will become of my children and my home?

Borinquen, la tierra del Edén
Borinquen, Edenic land

la que al cantar el gran Gautier
which, in song, the great Gautier

llamó la perla de los mares.
called the pearl of the seas.

Ahora que tú te mueres con tus pesares,
Now that you drown in your sorrows,

déjame que te cante yo también. Yo también.
let me sing to you as well. As well.

Borinquen de mi amor
My beloved Borinquen

Yo soy hijo de Borinquen
I am a son of Borinquen

y eso nadie va a cambiar.
and no one will ever change that.

Yo soy hijo de Borinquen
I am a son of Borinquen

y eso nadie va a cambiar.
and no one will ever change that.

y el dia en que yo me muera
And on the day I die

en tí quiero descansar,
in you I wish to rest.

yo te adoro, Puerto Rico,
I adore you, Puerto Rico,

y eso nadie me lo va a quitar.
and no one will ever take that from me.

Translation by Judith Mercado. Please post suggestions for alternative translations if you wish.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The African Yoruba Religion and its Influence on The New World

The following talk was presented at Palm Beach Community College:

I will be reviewing Yoruba religious concepts presented in The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts by Baba Ifa Karade. I also use as additional reference Harvey Cox’s Fire from Heaven as well as numerous anthropological studies about the Yoruba religion in The New World.

The Yorubas are an African people whose empire until the nineteenth century was centered in western Africa where Nigeria is today. From the Yoruba nation came the largest percentage of the millions of Africans forcibly transported across the Atlantic in the slave trade. This diaspora brought with it a Yoruba culture that came to dominate the subculture of the slave societies in The New World, with an important distinction in the way this occurred in Protestant versus Catholic countries. Catholicism, as I will discuss later, lent itself to being used as a covert front for the ongoing practice of their Yoruba religion by the slaves. In the U.S., this proved more difficult, but aspects of Yoruba worship entered the Protestant religious practices of African Americans.

Today, the Yoruba religion, called Ifa, is practiced not only in its original form, but also in its syncretized form, i.e. in a blend of Catholicism and Ifa. The original form of Ifa is practiced today primarily in Africa, though a small number of African Americans have recently also started practicing it here. In Cuba, Haiti, Brazil, and other Latin American countries, the religion is practiced by substantial numbers in its syncretized form. Immigrants from these countries to the U.S. also practice the syncretized Yoruba religion here.

The influence of this African religion, however, does not end there. The roots of the ecstatic form of worship of today’s fastest-growing religion may also be traced back to the Yorubas. This new religion, which began about 100 years ago in the U.S. and which now numbers more than half a billion people worldwide, is growing at 20 million per year. It already comprises the largest non-Catholic Christian denomination. I’m talking about Pentecostalism, which Harvard professor Harvey Cox says is taking the world like “a spiritual hurricane.”

So what is the Yoruba religion? What are its origins and what are its beliefs and practices, both in original and in syncretized form?

“The origins of the people and culture known as the Yoruba are so wrapped in antiquity that to say exactly where and when it all began is impossible.” [B. I. Karade, p. 1] The oral tradition of the Yorubas maintains that they are practicing the original religion of humans on earth. We also know from their oral accounts that the Yorubas are thought to have lived in antiquity in the mid-Nile region or what is now knowm as Egypt. They then migrated west across Africa sometime between 2000 and 500 BCE to the area now known as Nigeria. Their religion came with them.

That religion, Ifa, embraces the concept of a single supreme god, called Oludumare. This god is believed to have created angels, called orishas, who are emanations of the One Source and whom Oludumare sent to Earth to assist in the spiritual evolution of humankind. In addition to the angelic forces, there are also demonic beings, the ajogun, who are forces whose destructive intent is to waylay the evolution of humankind’s salvation. Finally, the Yorubas believe in the egun. ancestral entities who after having distinguished themselves on the moral plane while on Earth are now guardian spirits. They are held up as models for the living to emulate and have left behind a set of codes for social conduct and individual behavior. These ancestral beings are also believed to reincarnate.

The Yoruba belief in reincarnation is not the Hindu belief of reliving on and on through karma, but one of a constant reliving of morals and values. In fact, reincarnation of good ancestral souls is desired because by returning to Earth, they strengthen the lives and spirits of their descendants. And this leads to another of the Yoruba central concepts, that the family and community take precedence over the individual.

The Yorubas also believe that when Earth was very young, sixteen heavenly prophets, called The Ancients or The Elders, were sent here by the Heavenly Council. Their mission was to elevate the consciousness of the people on Earth. These sixteen prophets also revealed themselves later to a Yoruba man, Orunmila, who is thought to have lived sometime between 4000 and 2000 BCE; that is, while the Yorubas were still in the Nile area. Born of humble parents, Orunmilla became the great spiritual teacher of his people and is now considered by them to be a deified person, comparable to the Son of God in that he is both human and divine. Orunmilla reformulated for his people a system of ethics, religious beliefs, and mystic vision that had already existed eons before his birth.

What are these teachings? In addition to the belief in a single deity with multiple angels, they include beliefs in:

· an earthly versus heavenly consciousness.
· that humans have the means and potential to reach alignment with the divine and reach a state of divine oneness,
· that the endeavor to reach the divine is arduous but that it is our destiny to return to our divine nature and live upon the Earth as a reflection of that divine state,
· and that this destiny can be fulfilled by following a system of moral ethics, by practicing certain rituals and sacrifices, and by divination.

I will speak of the divinatory, ritualistic, and sacrificial elements of the Yoruba religion later. For now, I will focus on its code of moral ethics. Handed down orally from The Elders is a body or work containing over 439,000 verses which express religious life through mythological, historical, and social development terms. It is the job of the Yoruba priests (who are both male and female) to learn and apply this knowledge and wisdom to facilitate transcendence and salvation for spiritual seekers. One example of these verses is the following:

No matter how powerful wickedness is, righteousness overcomes it in the end. The power of falsehood is transient and ephemeral. Truth although seemingly slow and weak overcomes falsehood in the end.

In addition, handed down from their revered ancestors is the Yoruba equivalent of the Jewish Ten Commandments, except that theirs are thirteen in number.

There is to be no:
1. no practice of wickedness.
2. no stealing.
3. no selfishness.
4. no covenant breaking or falsehood.
5. no hypocrisy.
6. no act of atrocity committed against one’s neighbors.

There is to be:
7. honor and respect to the Elders.
8. protection of the women.
9. truthfulness and uprighteousness.
10. kindness and generosity.
11. sensitivity in respect to person-to-person relationships.
12. chastity in respect to the vows of mates.
13. hospitable directives.

Prayer is also an essential aspect of Yoruba worship. It is done for three reasons: supplication, purification, and elevation of base human qualities. Prayers are often sung or chanted in rhythm or harmony with music. The setting can include candles, incense, water in bowls, and fruits.

Ritual music and dances are also a defining aspect of this religion. Much of the ritual revolves around the belief in the orishas. In some ways, these resemble the angels of our Judeo-Christian-Islamic culture, but they can also be called lesser gods who form a bridge between the human and the divine. Through specific dances and songs, devotees believe they can call upon the orishas to take possession of their bodies, thereby enabling the human to experience the divine. These ritualistic dances and music can also be considered to be a form of prayer.

The Yorubas have identified many orishas, but there are eight who predominate, almost equally divided between male and female deities. A devotee usually identifies predominantly with one of these eight entities, so that all their lives they are considered a “daughter” or “son” of that deity. Each deity has distinguishing characteristics. For example, Oshún is described as the goddess of unconditional love. She is associated with the rivers as a symbol of clarity and flowing motion, but has may manifestations ranging from short-tempered to calm and fluid. She is also the divinity of fertility, and women appeal to her for child-bearing and alleviation of female disorders. Brass, gold, and shining gems are often used in the rituals of her worship.

Divination is at the heart of the ritual ceremonies to the orishas and also of a devotee’s character development. Divination in essence is an attempt to understand the mindset of the gods. It is performed by male and female priests and has three specific objectives: to understand and control the forces in one’s life, to inquire what offerings are expected by the orisha, and to enquire if the offerings have been accepted by the orisha. The priests and priestesses use different implements to aid their divination process, including cowrie shells, kola nuts et al.

Animal sacrifice and other offerings are part and parcel of Yoruba worship. To our Western minds, the nonanimal offerings of fruit, flowers, tobacco, cloth or foods may not be much of a stretch, but the sacrifice of animals perhaps is. The thinking behind this sacrifice though is as follows: the essence of primal power must be replenished and, apart from air, blood is the single most powerful representation of life’s essence. To describe it in an analogy more understandable to us today, when we eat meat, through a transformation of energy within our bodies, that meats coverts into and replenishes our life force. To the Yoruba, blood sacrifice accomplishes this on a more global level.

Finally, Ifa is a nature-based religion. All of nature is viewed as a manifestation of God Essence and as such is revered. But it is not the tree or rock itself that the Yorubas “revere and worship, but the deep energy that brought about its being.” [B. I. Karade, page 21] Think of this concept in terms of our American flag. When we pledge allegiance to the flag, we do so because it is a symbol of something greater, our nation; and that nation, in turn, is a symbol of something else, our sense of the importance of community.

We might better understand the Ifa religion if we accept that “it is through rituals and initiations that the essence beyond the intellect is awakened. That essence is spirit. [But] the culture of the religion must be accepted, for culture and religion cannot be separated.” [B. I. Karade, page 109]

I have described briefly the religion of the Yorubas as it is practiced in the homeland. What happened when this African religion was transported to The New World? The newly arrived Africans were not permitted to practice their native religions. In the Catholic areas, they discovered that Catholicism with its Trinity, the many representations of the Virgin Mary, and its canonization of humans into saints provided them with an opportunity to practice their religion, just with new names. In fact, to this day New World ceremonies are performed in the original African language and in much the same way. However, in the Middle Passage, as the crossing of the Africans is called, the religion suffered one important change in that “the mysticism [of The Old World] has been overshadowed by occultism.” The New World forgot that “the aim of the mystic or priestly powers is not to dwell upon occult powers but to seek that divine essence.” [B. I. Karade, pages xi-xiii]

In the Protestant U.S., the Africans were also not permitted to practice Ifa. Unlike those transported to Catholic lands, however, they found no easy way to disguise their religion. In addition, a greater emphasis on inbreeding rather than on importing slaves minimized the renewal of religious fervor and purity via the newly arrived Africans. Just as importantly, however, the religion of their oppressors lacked the numerous patron saints and the deification of women of the Catholic religion. The lack of a tropical environment also made it difficult to maintain the integrity of their rituals. Even so, slaves maintained the Africanness of their religious expression through spirituals, shouting, intense preaching, etc.

Which leads me to Pentecostalism. This religion is a very experiential one. It believes that each person can directly and personally experience God through receiving the Holy Ghost. In its more demonstrative form, this is manifested through “speaking in tongues,” also called glossolalia. To the extent that Pentecostalism has a theology, it is one that is often sung. It would startle many, including perhaps the majority of its practitioners, to find out that the roots of its ecstatic worship possibly could be traced to the Yoruba religion. The elements of trance, ecstasy, visions, dreams, and healings were very familiar to the Yorubas, and certainly dancing, jumping, and speaking in tongues have many parallels with orisha possession. So how was the link made between the Yorubas and Pentecostalism?

The Pentecostal religious movement began in 1906 in a former stable on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. Under the leadership of a black American, William Seymour, a community of humble servants and tradespeople—black, white, Asian, and Latino—joined in unprecedented equality to worship God in a new way. Principally, but not exclusively, that new way incorporated the direct experience of spirit through speaking in tongues. According to Harvey Cox, “At Azusa Street, a kind of primal spirituality that had been all but suffocated by centuries of western Christian moralism and rationality reemerged with explosive power.”[H. Cox, page 101]

The mission’s leader, Seymour, had grown up in the enthusiastic milieu of Southern black religion. Led by this descendant of African slaves, the multiracial Azusa community sparked an international spiritual revival. Word spread out quickly about the exhilarating and unorthodox Azusa Street revival, and visitors came from all over the world to observe. Within two years, the movement had fanned out to fifty countries. About this, Harvey Cox says, “[The] resurfacing of archetypal modes of worship, elements that lie close to the surface in some cultures but are buried more deeply in others, helps explain why the movement raced across the planet with such electrifying speed.” [H. Cox, page 101]

Yet even in the early days, seeds of dissension emerged in the movement. Among the mission’s early visitors was Seymour’s former theology teacher, a white man. Upon visiting, he was shocked to discover a highly exuberant atmosphere marked by songs, testimonies, spontaneous sermons, joyous shouts, prayer punctuated by sobs and tears, intercessions for the sick, and speaking in tongues. But he was even more appalled by the mixing of the races. He went away vociferously condemning the mission for being too much of a ‘darkey revival.’” [ibid. page 61] Sadly, a movement that had begun in a spirit of racial equality soon divided in the U.S. along rigidly racial lines. But the fire of that revival would not go out completely, and today the spirited expression of an enslaved people whose soul would not die dances across the globe in the Pentecostal movement.

Copyright Protected, 1995, 2009

About Me ¿Quién soy?

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My writing frequently explores multicultural themes. Born in Puerto Rico, I moved at a young age to the U.S., where my parents became Pentecostal ministers. Early immersion in Latino and religious cultures preceded later experiences as a businesswoman, a White House Fellow, and life aboard a trawler cruising from Martha’s Vineyard to South America. These sometimes incompatible worlds have given me a respectful outlook toward differing points of view. My short stories, poems, and essays reflect my own inclusive, yet sharply defined, journey across cultural and socioeconomic boundaries. I recently published Peace on the Journey, a poetry collection which explores the theme of renewal in the face of adversity. @peaceonjourney