Our tradition, Lucumi, is a branch of the West African Yoruba religion that took root in Cuba when the slaves were forcibly brought over in the Middle Passage. It's one of many variations [of Ifa] that reached the new world in the diaspora and survived in different ways. You have Vodou in Haiti, Candomble in Brazil. Lucumi is Afro-Cuban.
I want to emphasize that I am a very, very junior priest. And this is an oral tradition. Among my elders there's a huge amount of information, and my own grasp of it is only in the toddler stage.
What does the daily practice of Lucumi entail?
My practice has changed a bit since I've become a priest. It's become more intense. I have ochas in my home, and because my husband is a priest we have two sets of ochas.
What are ochas?
When you become a priest, you receive and bring into your home what you might call "god in a pot," born from the pot of your godparents. You receive-and this is a deep mystery-your own copy of each orisha [divinity] whom you receive that comes and lives with you. These go back to when the slaves came over in the Middle Passage-one of the things they brought with them if they possibly could was their ochas.
Are these physical things?
Yes, they are a consecrated thing, they literally reach back in lineage 300 years into Cuba and beyond that to Africa. They are treated and revered as living entities. You pay them respect and greet them everyday.
And what do they look like?
They're housed in what are called soperas or soup tureens, some kind of a pot.
Oh, I thought when you said `god in a pot' you were speaking metaphorically.
This is quite literal. And different orishas have different living accommodations [laughs]. Once they are born and consecrated they accumulate, ache, life force, power. They correspond to forces on the planet, in the universe and in ourselves. This is your own personal rendition that you live and work with, born of a very ancient lineage.
My day opens at my ancestor table (boveda) where I salute my ancestors and pray with them, with all of the spirits who have volunteered to be part of that. I am only beginning to learn my way in this realm.
I think a lot of people who come into the faith have spiritual experience with ancestral spirits and spirits of the dead. And to work your boveda, ultimately I begin to see, is to discipline that relationship-to keep it healthy and beneficial and not freaky or destructive or weird, but to really use these energies in a positive way and to serve them well.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest I had a particularly good and open channel to experiencing the natural world. And I think it was clearly there that I first met the orisha and had a sense of reverence and wonder and a sense of living entity that I came into relationship with as a young child.
I never had found any spiritual practice that ratified or addressed or honored all the things I sensed to be holy in the world. I never found anything that ratified my own sense of wonder and awe and relationship with the planet.
Were you raised in any particular faith?
I was kind of a third-generation atheist, and my rebellion was to attempt to be an Episcopalian at a young age. That really didn't do it. I remember getting confirmed and truly hoping for some transcendent spiritual experience as a result of that-and I was so disappointed.
I learned that way back my father's parents were called socialists with Ouija boards. So they probably had a touch of the espiritismo played against a very intellectual background. I know that there's a long line of Quakers in my background, and Quakers are called Quakers because they quake. They do seek a direct experience of God. I think all of this probably contributed to me being open to this spiritual tradition when I met it.
How would you respond to people who might say that culturally you're disconnected from this religion?
There is division in the African religions in general. Some people feel they should only be for people of African descent. And others strongly believe they're the healthiest spiritual practice on the planet today and need to welcome everyone as they open up and move into a new world.
I come from a house and tradition that is welcoming to anyone who is willing to learn to study, to be devout, to embrace the traditions. Our house is Spanish and African America and white and a little bit Asian. It's very multicultural.
Once you come into contact with your ancestors, you realize they are not only your direct lineage but they are the ancestors of the planet. You become spiritually aware that, yes, we all come from the same place. We're all inhabitants of the same fragile planet, we all have common spiritual concerns.