True Believers

True Believers

Brazil has endured a history of political instability
and poverty. The belief in divine intervention, common to both Catholicism
and the Candomblé, often provide spiritual sustenance to fragile
lives. In a sense, the religious history of Europe and Africa came together
and formed a third religion in the New World.
By Kathleen de Azevedo

The smell of ripening fruit drew me to a little captive. In a cage hanging
from a tree, a blackbird nipped at a piece of fresh orange. The ground
was covered with split apples and stiff darkened banana peels. Nearby,
the Igreja Nosso Senhor do Bonfim in Salvador overlooked the Bahia de Santos.
The gold cupola like a crown, reigned over the neighborhood. The squat
brick houses lining the hill seemed to carry the cathedral on their shoulders.
Just blocks away, stood the houses of the affluent where palm fronds covered
the sidewalk from gardeners trimming trees. Broken glass glued to the tops
of the walls surrounding these elegant homes, threatened all possible intruders.

Inside Bonfim, a large crowd for Friday Mass spilled into aisles and
doorways. I stood in back of the church and scanned the heads, a sea of
morena hair, a variety so Brazilian: tight oiled curls, free-flowing
waves, straight coarse manes. Black men and women dressed in white, took
the empty seats nearest the altar. These seats used to be reserved for
the wealthy, but times have changed. Now in spite of the standing-room
Mass, the congregation left these seats vacant on purpose. It was hot.
The collective murmur of the Glória mingled with the thick flutter
of missals. The worshippers in white followed the mass with familiar ease;
the white clothes boldly displayed their devotion to Oxalá, the
most powerful Yoruban deity of the orixá.

The orixá are worshipped by practitioners of Candomblé,
the African-Brazilian religion of Bahia. There are many theories of its
origin, but one belief is that mankind sprung from a single ancestor, and
some of the descendants achieved divinity which enabled them to control
natural forces such as disease, thunder, and the oceans. These ancestors
with special powers make up the orixá, and their spiritual
energy, or axé, enters their contemporary descendants during
a ceremonial trance.

The Catholic Church, the official religion of Brazil, does not officially
accept Candomblé. In fact, many Brazilians are embarrassed by its
presence. Alfredo Dias Gomes’ play and award winning film O Pagador de
Promessas (The Payer of Promises), tells of Zé do Burro, a simple
and devout man from the country, who has dragged a cross a long distance
to fulfill a pledge made to Santa Bárbara. Zé’s wish is to
place the cross inside the church, but the priest finds out the pilgrim
has also prayed to Yansã, Santa Barbara’s orixá counterpart,
and forbids Zé from entering. The penitent refuses to leave, and
as exploitation and street drama swirl around him, he is killed on the
steps. Only then does he enter the church, carried Christ-like atop his

Gomes’ play illustrates the church’s historical resistance and grudging
tolerance of Candomblé. The Portuguese settlers brought to Brazil
Counter-Reformation Catholicism, which in its efforts to hold back the
Protestant sweep of Europe, revitalized saint worship and its mysticism.
At the same time, the slaves brought their deities from Angola, the Congo,
Ghana and Nigeria. Brazil’s expansive area became difficult for the clergy
to exert its control over New World Catholics. The power centralized around
the latifúndios (large estates) instead of the church, and
came under the authority of the patriarch and the guardian saints of his
family, instead of the priest.

As a result, the orixá and the saints were honored side
by side, each gradually taking on the identity of the other. The official
laws forbade the practice of Candomblé, and in an act of resistance
that forever affected Brazilian culture, the faithful "hid" their
orixá in the identity of the saints, and continued practicing
their African religion at will. For example, Oxalá is often portrayed
wearing white garments and a silver crown. Oxalá’s reputation for
his beauty, purity and as the creator of man syncretize him to Jesus Christ/the
Lord of Bonfim. When the Portuguese placed O Menino Jesus dressed in a
white gown and small imperial crown on their altars, it was as if master
and slave ironically spoke in almost the same spiritual tongue.

Historical habits don’t survive without present need. Worshippers don’t
necessary choose between Christ and Oxalá, on the contrary, the
two deities are often worshipped together, their divine forces combined.
It is a way to "cover your bases" so to speak. Brazil has endured
a history of political instability and poverty. The belief in divine intervention,
common to both Catholicism and the Candomblé, often provide spiritual
sustenance to fragile lives. People can’t exist without hope. I was raised
Catholic but share a lot of the cynicism of my generation. Witnessing the
ambivalent relationship between the Catholic church and the Candomblé,
I began to admire the tenacity it takes to sustain faith in lives beset
by uncertainty and hardship.

The religious gift shops around Bonfim, which sell crucifixes and rosaries,
were overshadowed by efforts outside to sell colorful ribbons, or fitas.
Fitas come in a variety of colors, each color representing a particular
orixá. As my husband and I got off the bus to come to Mass,
small children flew at us, waving ribbons in the wind. Others draped ribbons
over my shoulder, enticing me to buy. "Pra você, Oxum,"
one said handing me a yellow fita. Oxum, daughter of Yemanjá,
is the orixá of wealth and of freshwater, as delicate as
the bubbling streams and as forceful as the raging waterfalls. Should I
be flattered? Dowels heavy with fitas, were propped up on the iron
fence surrounding the church and attracted those coming from a distance
like bold colorful banners. These ribbons, purveyors of good fortune, are
worn around the wrist; the wearer makes three wishes and must let the ribbon
break on its own, or risk bad luck. I met a small girl, selling acarajé,
wearing two fitas on each wrist and three on her ankle. She explained
the matter simply: "I just have so many wishes."

I removed my fita the day after I got it, impatient with its
chafing. Since I was raised Catholic, I ignored the warnings of bad luck
as superstition, yet wondered later if my subsequent near-mugging had to
do with this act. My husband wore his ribbon until it frayed away months
later. One of his wishes was for my cousin’s husband, a highly educated
engineer in Rio, to find a job in a job-scarce Brazil. I wanted so much
for this wish to come true, and even tried offering prayers too. Wait.
Was I in fact, following the same logic as others at Bonfim by eliciting
as many heavenly powers as possible? Not quite. I lost patience with my
fita as I tend to lose patience with prayer. Yet faith is about
having patience. The patience of many here put me to shame. The ex-voto
room at the side of the main church is an example of this faith. This room,
sweetened with the resin smell of incense, filled my ears with pleadings
and prayers. On the ceiling, hung the ex-votos, molded plastic arms and
feet and heads and hearts, translucent and yellow — offered by faithful
parishioners whose prayers for cure had been answered. The walls of this
chapel were covered with photos and with testimonials on slips of paper
thanking Senhor do Bonfim for His miracles. The photos presented heartache
fearlessly: pictures of torsos taped by adhesive, skin peeled and raw,
car crashes, a drawing of an electrocution and a consequent apparition
of a crucifix — evidence that a life had been spared, a note concerning
a depressed friend living in São Paulo "the city of stone."
As further thanks, people had given away their most prized possessions,
now displayed in the small museum: bullets extracted from just-near-the-heart,
watches, sports jerseys, keys to cars and houses.

In the U.S., Masses offer prayers for the sick and the dead, but the
sense of human travail is not as strong as in Brazil. In America, the envelopes
for mission donations may show a hungry child "asking for your help,"
but the hunger is far-off. The envelope can be tucked away, leaving only
the image of earnest eyes peering from the rack in the backs of the pews.
Here, suffering is veiled and many do not see sickness graphically because
medical advancement hides the wounds. If a family member dies, the body
disappears in the flurry of funeral home arrangements. The hymns in American
masses are often cheerful; remanents of 60s folk mass tunes crop up as
do religious lyrics set to the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. God is our
friend, never vengeful, and the priests do not speak to us sternly. Because
life is easier here, U.S. Catholics as a whole have not had to experience
the same type of hardship as the Bahians. Hardship for Americans seems
distant and often God’s charity is taken for granted. All this "ease",
however, robs us of experiencing the tension between hope in moments of
pain, and joy in its relief.

The portrayal of suffering is prominent in Brazil’s churches, but oftentimes,
the torment of slavery remains in the periphery. In the cobblestone square
of the Pelourinho stands the Igreja Nosso Senhor do Rosário dos
Pretos painted in bright porcelain blue. The church was built by blacks
for blacks. I stepped into a late afternoon Mass. The congregation clapped
and sang to music belting out of an electric organ. A little cat ambled
around their feet, gave the corner of the pew a rub, and slipped out the
door and through the iron gate. In a courtyard off to the side of the church,
I found the shrine of Anastácia Escrava (Anastácia the Slave).
The weathered picture painted on tiles showed Anastácia Escrava
with her mouth strapped in a muzzle. Small jars of flowers had been set
at foot of the picture and small candles burned in her honor. Anastácia,
an Angolan princess, was brought to Rio as a slave and became the mistress
of her white master. When his wife found out of the affair, she had Anastácia
"silenced" with a ceramic disk secured by a leather strap. This
form of torture eroded the mouth which led to starvation. Anastácia
is sanctified, thought not considered a "saint." In other words,
many followers regard her as holy and claim miracles on her behalf, but
she has not been canonized by the Catholic church. Nevertheless, Anastácia’s
attempt to voice her oppression and her martyrdom became an inspiration
to other blacks who pay their respects.

To get a sense of the African voice, I needed to step away from the
churches and look to the terreiros around Salvador, where Candomblé
celebrates black heritage and the vigor of their community. I had mixed
feelings about going to a Candomblé ritual. I was warned not to
go by one family member. I was encouraged to go by another. There were
Candomblé tours for tourists, which conjured up the idea of a ritual-as-show.
In the Pelourinho, I was plied with offers to buy tickets to a Candomblé.
I refused them all. Then I met a tour guide in one of the church museums,
a Bahian. When he spoke of rococo art, his manner was animated, his smile
wide and generous. When he spoke of his Salvador — his people — his eyes
softened. "Many people think of Candomblé as superstitious
and don’t take it seriously," he said as he rubbed the three worn-out
fitas on his wrist, "but you must think of it as a religion.
You don’t need to worship it. Just consider it the religion of my people."
And so, I went with him and a small group of others, to a

Candomblé ceremony that night.

Golden streetlights glowed over the women carrying grocery bags up the
steep hills. From outside, the terreiro, was much like other small
red brick homes; a small iron gate opened to a porch where everyone removed
their shoes. The larger terreiros have several rooms, with the peji,
or altar, being in one room, and the dancing taking place in the adjoining
barracão. Many poorer communities have the peji and
dancing in one area. This terreiro was one small oblong room. Fringed
white crepe paper flags covered the ceiling. The men and women were separated
and instructed to sit on the benches alongside two walls, facing each other.
Two congo drums stood at one end of the room near the front door. On the
other end, the peji was covered with vases of flowers, a statue
of the Virgin Mary, a brown bottle of water, ceramic dishes and paper bags
of bread. Hidden in every peji are the stones which contained the
axé, the spirit of the orixá.

The iaôs, the young women who have been initiated into
the religion, the "brides of the gods," greeted each other before
the ceremony. They wore white lacy blouses, colorful graceful skirts that
swept just above their ankles, and scarves tightly wrapped around their
heads, emphasizing the dark bold beauty of their full faces and graceful
cheekbones. Three elderly women, the equedes, moved with confidence
as they placed their hands on the young women’s shoulders, giving advice.
The equedes act like priests, supervising and protecting the ceremony.

A large man with strikingly white skin, worked his way through the crowd
a bit clumsily, knelt in front of the altar, and covered his face with
his hands. Two young men, drummers, set themselves at the congas and their
fingers hit the leather, rolling out a rhythm. The three equedes
sat together near the drums. One by one, the young iaôs reverently
bowed low to the ground at the elders’ feet, brought their hands to their
lips then with the same hand, stroked their own hair as if anointing themselves.
With the same motion, they paid respects to the drums.

With the drums’ constant rhythm, the younger women began dancing gently,
gracefully lifting their elbows so their arms helped to undulate their
ribcages. The tall man rose from his meditation, and started dancing. I
recognized him to be the babalorixá, more commonly called
the pai de santo, the spiritual leader of the Candomblé.
He stamped his feet and lunged forward, hooted and whirled around, his
dark loose curls flopping over his eyes and the sweat flinging off his
skin. Meanwhile, a young man who had been sitting in the sidelines, began
to waver, his eyes half-closed. Suddenly he jolted up. An equede
lead him to the floor. He gave another jerk then began spinning, elegantly
bent forward and sweeping the air with his curved arm. He stopped, dazed
and the old woman gently guided him back to his seat.

The babalorixá stopped dancing and went to one of the
young iaôs, took her face into his hands, and chanted a short
incantation. Others, including the practitioners sitting in the sidelines,
lined up and he cradled their faces and blessed them as well. The pai
de santo picked up a small boy and lifted him high. The little one
grinned, tickled by the crepe paper fringe on the ceiling.

The iaôs began slipping into trances as if falling asleep,
some nodded back resisting, while others let themselves be taken by the
persistent drums. People broke out singing samba songs; others made the
sign of the cross. Remarkably, the dreamy-eyed danced so gracefully, while
trashing and shuddering and sinking down onto their knees. The old equede
caught the celebrants before they dropped and eased them down. One of the
iaôs, a beautiful lean woman, collapsed with her head falling
forward; her turban slipped off, letting loose beautiful thick wavy hair.
An old woman gently picked her up, and pulled her locks away from her sweaty
neck, then helped her to the altar. The more lucid celebrants looked at
each other knowingly and murmured the names of various orixás.
The pervasive drums and singing had the strange ability to grow on me,
and though I remained un-tranced, I felt cleansed.

The ceremony ended as everyone returned to a waking state. They looked
happy, relieved, their faces shiny with sweat. They stroked each other’s
hair and embraced. As people left the terreiro, the pai de santo
stood at the door with the bags of bread and handed each one a roll,
a bit like communion. He was gregarious, if not a bit jolly. I wondered
what he did during the day when he was not functioning as a pai de santo.
Outside, voices coming from the lighted houses on the hill tinged the cool
and quiet evening.

The practice of Candomblé and Catholicism varies between Brazilians.
Some ignore the African element completely. Others see the African religion
as a source of identity, resistance and liberation. In the case of Candomblé,
I saw a joy that is a part of worship. The strength and drama of these
two religions make the spirituality found in Brazil unique. In a sense,
the religious history of Europe and Africa came together and formed a third
religion in the New World. The glory of three continents!

No wonder the white of the Eucharist and the white of Oxalá’s
robe could not help but come together in celebration of misery and hope,
enslavement and freedom, and death and resurrection.

Additional Sources:

African Religions of Brazil: Toward a Sociology
of the Interpretation of Civilizations by Roger Bastide, The Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1960

Divine Inspiration by Phyllis Galembo, University
of New Mexico Press, 1993

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