Q. On my way to church in Brooklyn, I go by a place where they practice voodoo. When I asked my minister about it, he just said, "How could that stuff be anything but black magic?" So is it a religion?

You bet. It's one of the oldest and one of the most durable. There are an estimated 60 million followers of the religion with a proud history, though they haven't yet adopted the habit of going around bragging about being the "one true faith."

Despite the best efforts of the Catholic church, several Protestant missionary groups and "Christian" slave masters to stamp it out, the religion prospers on this continent. Its hub is Haiti, where it was able to preserve this African legacy largely because the country became an independent black nation in 1804, though not without a major effort by Catholicism to crush it. As it this were not enough, voodoo has had to endure lame-brained depictions from Hollywood which has never seen a zombie it didn't like.

Voodoo or Vodun, from the root word spirit, can be traced back to the west coast of Africa to what is now Benin and parts of Togo and Ghana. Some scholars believe its practices go back 10,000 years. Slaves brought the religion to North America. The ghastly slave trade actually unwittingly broadened voodoo's scope by forcing Africans from a wide variety of ethnic and religious groups to share the same terrible fate. Seeking means of survival, many found voodoo who might never otherwise have encountered it.

Black magic, including sticking pins into voodoo dolls to curse someone or allegedly raising a person from the dead (a zombie), may have grabbed the public's attention in the movies, but consorting with evil spirits accounts for less than 10 percent of all voodoo practice, according to the experts. Voodoo has no "devils" as such, but some priests encourage the foul-tempered spirits. For the most part, however, the religion is a highly energized, elaborately ritualized and deeply spiritual set of practices that fosters divinely inspired healing and contact with the gods.

If you want your spirituality blended with earthiness, look no further.

Voodoo teaches that there is one God and hundreds of lesser spirits in the form of those exemplary souls who have died and stay nearby. The lines between the living and the dead are thin indeed. Ancestors are summoned. Much of the ritual is aimed at being possessed by a spirit whose help is sought. Worship features drumming, chanting and dancing one's way into a trance where the spirit can be present. The focus is a pole, symbolic of the center of the universe, and an altar festooned with flowers and other decorations.

Priests can be men or women. Part of their responsibility is to induce trances and cast benevolent spells. During worship, however, everyone gets into the act. In most ritual, an animal is sacrificed -- usually a lamb or goat or chicken - to satisfy the needs of the god-spirits. The priest may drink a little blood before the offering is cooked and eaten by the assembly. A preview of Christian communion, perhaps?

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