I have written about spiritual pillaging. And about spiritual tourism. And now I write about spiritual guests.
In some traditions I have been a guest; more than just a visitor, but not a full member of the community. My time with the Religious Society of Friends, also called the Quakers, and my time with African Diaspora religious communities fall into this category.
So I’m going to take a risk, and tell you some things I have learned from a community into which I was graciously received, and which had a reciprocal relationship with my own spiritual community. Any errors here are my own, and I welcome feedback from those with whom I have shared this experience.
Courage of Welcome: People of the African Diaspora
For twelve years, I was a very active member of an interfaith, Pagan, religious organization called Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary. Four Quarters is a community in southern Pennsylvania surrounded by low mountains and a little river, Sideling Hill Creek. People come for summer festivals from as far away as the West Coast, and many people from the Washington, DC area make the two-hour drive each full and new moon weekend throughout the year.
Over time, several members of Four Quarters were invited to become part of a house, a religious community, of la Regla de Ocha. You probably know Ocha by its more common name of Santeria, or maybe as Lucumi Libre. This house, called an ilé, is in DC and headed by a babala’wo, a Santerian priest named Eloy, and his wife Fanny. Eloy is Cuban and Fanny is Colombian, and their house has become a place of multiracial and multicultural understanding. Baba Eloy decided about twenty years ago, to begin initiating white people from the US who were interested and committed to learning about his religion.
Though his house is recognized as an orthodox one, and previously only populated by Latin and Central American initiates of various races, Baba Eloy and Fanny felt called to invite and welcome Euro-Descended white people from the US. Eloy came to believe that the orishas of Santeria, the gods and goddesses, for lack of better words, had mysteries and healing to offer all the people of Earth, including those descended from Europe.
Baba Eloy and other babala’wos of the house, including Baba Jimmy, a quiet, contemplative drummer who was once a Black Panther, began initiating white people around the year 2000. And not only did they initiate white people, but they even invited those of us who were not destined for initiation to come to ceremonies held by the house.
So Many Gifts!
Eventually, I began to learn stories of the orishas and even to be welcomed at ceremonies in honor of particular orishas. I learned to acknowledge my ancestors as my closest links to the Divine. I learned that if I were to speak of orishas, I must always welcome Ellegua, the trickster and opener of the way, first and foremost.
The orisha who first caught my undivided attention, was Yemaya. Known by other names in other traditions and other parts of the world, Yemaya is primarily the orisha of the ocean. Her name is the Mother of the Fish, or, by extension, Mother Whose Descendants Are as Numerous as the Fish. In Yoruban Nigeria, Her birthplace, she is also the orisha of a particular river. As I learned it, She is also sometimes called the mother of all beings.
Before I Go On
Before I continue, let me make something crystal clear: I am no initiate of Yemaya or of any orisha. I am someone captivated by an image of spirit, and someone who learned about Yemaya from those who ARE initiates, who know Her dances and Her drumbeats, who know the offerings and sacrifices sacred to Her. I do not wear Her ilekes, the beaded necklaces of groups of seven crystal and seven blue beads. Nonetheless, knowing seven is a sacred number to Her, I keep a blue-and-white china ball bearing a seven-pointed star on my altar partly in Her honor.
Furthermore, each ilé, each house, has their own teachings. I bring to this space only what I have learned from those in one particular house in one particular tradition. This is from one house in one version of one tradition among many who revere the yeye of the oceans, the Mother of the Fish.
S0 I dare, with some fear, in this time and this space, to bring what was given to me to share.
Yemaya is often depicted as a black mermaid, or sometimes as a large woman with pendulous breasts wearing a white and blue dress and white headwrap. Sometimes she is shown as a slender woman surrounded by shells and sea creatures, rising out of the water under the moon.
Yemaya Assesu Yemaya Olodo
Just as Roman Catholicism has many titles for Mary the mother of Jesus—the Blessed Virgin, Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Charity, Our Lady of Guadalupe, etc.—there are also various titles for Yemaya.
In the Americas, the title “Yemaya Assesu” is Yemaya of the Brackish Water, the estuaries, the places where salt and sweet water mix. Yemaya Assesu is in some very real way, the matron saint of places like Astoria, Oregon and Charleston, South Carolina, if you will, of the estuaries and the places where rivers come to the sea.
It came to pass some sixteen or seventeen years ago that I learned a song sacred to Yemaya. I offer it to you here.
Yemaya Assesu. Assesu Yemaya.
Yemaya Olodo, Olodo Yemaya
This chant may be understood roughly as “Yemaya is the Gush of the Spring. The Gush of the Spring is Yemaya.
The Mother of the Children of Fishes is the Owner of Rivers.
The Owner of Rivers is the Mother of the Children of Fishes.”
From One Family to Another
I share this song with you not only like a recipe passed down through someone else’s family and offered to me to share with juts anyone, but as a particular gift to people where rivers meet the sea.
The first time I stood on top of the hill in Astoria, Oregon and looked out toward the river, I saw where the Columbia met the Pacific. I saw a great river meet a great ocean. The sight stole my breath. Here, I thought like Jacob of the Bible after dreaming the angels ascending and descending, here is a holy place. And here was a place sacred to that orisha who had always called to me in image and in song.
Yemaya Assesu, I sang, in the wind and the mist, looking out over the Columbia, Yemaya Olodo, Olodo Yemaya.
I can only bring this image of Yemaya Assesu, Yemaya of the estuary and of the waters of one’s life meeting the ocean of eternity to you because I have been invited to do so. Because I was welcomed to learn and to offer. Because I have a relationship with people who know Yemaya in ways I never will. Because I was given the honor of being told that Yemaya is the Mother of All and would turn away no devotion. Because what I had learned, I was welcome to share.
Let me also speak of reciprocity among the blessings of the ilé. They not only welcomed white practitioners into their house, but they came to our “house,” the land of Four Quarters. They invited us to make worship in a Wiccan way to honor Yemaya. They invited us to bring Her into our communal life, and I was honored to be the priestess at the center of that welcoming ceremony. Just as they had shared their ceremonies with us, and their understandings, so they invited us to express our devotion in our own way.
Yemaya Assesu, the people sang, Assesu Yemaya, and all the biggest, roundest, fattest women of the community came forward in a circle and we danced a dance of the rolling sea, of the waves and the ripples, of the tides and the pools, of the lowlands and the wetlands, and their bodies called forth the spirit of the great Mother Whose Descendants Are as Numerous as the Fish.
We had built an altar of glass and water, ocean water I had saved for a special occasion. We used mirrors and shiny blue fabric, and atop it all was a blue-green statue of a mermaid coming up out of the water in blessing. The altar glowed under the light of the full moon and of the torches set around it.
A priestess who was also a member of the ilé danced the circle with a watermelon filled with rum. She danced and danced in the moonlight until she stopped only to offer pieces of the sweet, spiced fruit to others.
And Fanny said how beautiful it was for people to share together and how happy it made her to see us honoring Yemaya in our own way. She remarked on the energy of the people and how the ceremony was done in a good way.
Yemaya Assesu, Lady where the freshwater meets salty, seemed to me the perfect orisha to be welcomed on the Land of Four Quarters, a place aspiring and dedicated to interfaith understanding, sharing, invitation, and welcome.
How Might We Welcome?
May our own hearts become places dedicated to understanding, sharing, invitation, and welcome?
I encourage you to reach out to your neighbors, irrespective of their religious or spiritual leanings. To call them up, invite them in, and share a potluck with a church, temple, mosque, or other community of worship nearby. Look for times and places where you might make an appointment with a religious leader nearby and ask to meet with them—call them on the PHONE—just to learn and for no other reason besides human connection.
To grow takes risk. Human connection takes risk. Living through risk takes courage. Courage, which is deciding that other things are more important than fear, dismissive judgment, or stereotyping.
Whom might you welcome, and whose welcome might be courageous enough to graciously accept?
May we all be welcoming.
May we all be respectful.
May we all be gracious.
Blessed be the river meeting again and again and again, the embrace of the sea.