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The Varieties of Religious Therapy: African Spirituality

African Spirituality according to expert Suzanne Henderson

Psi and Oshe Shango, by WG

The Varieties of Religious Therapy (VRT) blog series features representatives from twelve belief systems discussing how they integrate faith with their approach to psychotherapy. This installment is an interview with an expert on African spirituality. See the Introduction for a full description of VRT and the table of contents.

Traditional African spirituality is practiced by over 50 million people who follow one of many tribal and regional religions. While each maintains their own unique identity, African religions generally share a belief in a supreme being above a group of lesser gods, the power of ancestral spirits, sacrifice for divine protection, and the necessity of rites of passage.

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We're going to mix things up for this segment. Rather than responses from a therapist, we have the honor of hearing from an African spirituality scholar.

Suzanne M. Henderson received her Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple University in 2007 and soon became Assistant Dean in the Graduate Division at St. John's University in New York City. She currently teaches African American Studies classes in the Sociology department. Dr. Henderson is an expert in the religious tradition of the Yoruba people of West Africa, particularly African Americans who practice the tradition in the United States. Today she graciously shares her scholarship with the VRT to help clinicians, students and interested readers better understand African spirituality. 

What is the role of religion or spirituality in the African-American community?

Religion and spirituality have always been essential parts of African-American life in the United States. Research has shown that religious practices and participation among African-Americans increases their self-esteem and has a positive effect on their perception of life satisfaction and well-being. African Americans' participation in a spiritual system may influence their psychological well-being by affecting their perceptions of themselves and/or their communities. Ellison & Gay (1990, link) contend that communal religious participation allows access to institutional settings and regular opportunities for social intercourse between individuals of like minds and similar values. For marginalized minority groups religious practice affords individuals a variety of life-managing coping resources particularly. Religious communities may offer marginalized groups such as African-Americans some sense of cultural autonomy by cultivating new modes for spiritual expression. If cultural autonomy is a key factor of religious choice, this raises the question "Do racial differences make a difference in the choice of religious practice?"

Some African-Americans may be choosing to practice the traditional Yoruba religious tradition of Orisha worship because of the African cultural specifics offered by the religious practice-a factor that may lead to more psychological satisfaction of its practitioners.

What is the Yoruba religious tradition of Orisha worship?

The Yoruba derived religious practice of Orisha worship is a religious system based on the veneration of a supreme god, various deities (Orishas), and ancestral spirits. Although one Supreme Being or God (Olodumare) is recognized, practitioners believe Olodumare to be beyond the events of humans and that he should not be approached directly by humans in worship. Instead, lesser gods--Orishas--and ancestral spirits are worshipped and venerated.

Why are some African-Ameriacns choosing to practice a traditional African religion?

Much of the literature confirms that the form of religious practice is an important variable in determining African-American worshippers' sense of well-being. African-American practitioners of the Yoruba religious tradition of Orisha worship stated this religious practice provides a means for cultural identity and may provide an opportunity for them to revisit and reclaim religious traditions that were denied to their ancestors' during enslavement. In addition, African-Americans who practice the Yoruba religious tradition of Orisha worship may have a greater sense of social cohesion because the fellowship within their religious grouping may sustain a sense of belonging for the members even if the larger society excludes them.

It has been suggested that African-Americans who practice of Orisha worship may be seeking a sense of reclamation of African rituals and traditions that support a lost yet relevant systematic framework of understanding their reality. African-Americans who participate in traditional African religions may find that the ritualistic practices help them remember their historical, spiritual and social past. African-Americans who participate in the ritual practices of traditional African religions may discover old religious customs by which they can define, establish, and maintain a relationship to what they consider to be sacred. Yoruba religious rituals offer the African-American practitioner affirmative tangible guidelines for behavior and communal interaction that are culturally specific. These rituals allow people to communicate their cultural meanings, thereby permitting the practitioners to reflect upon their own cultural reality.

How did the Yoruba religious tradition of Orisha worship arrive in the United States?

During the high point of the trans-Atlantic slave trade approximately 1.67 million Yoruba speaking Africans were transported to the Americas, the Caribbean, and Brazil. When enslaved Africans were taken to Cuba, the Yoruba people were intermingled with people from various regions of West and Central Africa. Nevertheless, the Yoruba people tended to cling to their traditions and they formed groups and derived distinct names for their groups. The Yorubas and the others within their group were called the Lucumi nation. The religious traditions of the Lucumi nation in Cuba were an amalgamation of the religious practices of Orisha worship of the Yoruba people, and other West and Central African religious traditions. The Cuban Lucumi religious tradition laid the foundation of the modern practices of Orisha worship. To this day some practitioners, priests, and scholars still refer to Orisha worship as the Lucumi religion.

The transference of the Yoruba religious tradition to the Unites States was achievable because Cuban practitioners who came to America simply brought their religion with them. However, the religious practice of Orisha worship was not formally introduced into the African-American community until the 1960's and there were marked differentiations as to why some African-Americans began to practice the Yoruba religious tradition of Orisha worship. In 1959 an African-American male named Oba Oseijiman Adefunmi Efuntola (born Walter Eugene King) was initiated in Cuba. He is the first African-American male to be initiated into the priesthood within the Yoruba religious tradition of Orisha worship. In 1963, Marjorie Banes-Quinones was the first African-American to be initiated in the religion in the United States in New York.

What is the relationship between sin and Orisha worship?

In the Yoruba religious tradition of Orisha worship the concept of sin does not exist. In the Yoruba belief system, each person that is born has a spiritual head, Orí, whose purpose is to choose and help guide one's destiny and a secular head whose purpose is to live out that destiny. To make the concept of Orí clearer, the Orí is said to control an individual's destiny. If a person is morally upstanding, productive and successful in life then it is said that person has a "strong Orí". If the person befalls much misfortune and makes bad decisions, that person is said to have a "weak Orí". Through the instructions given from divination by a priest or a priestess an individual's Orí gives guidance to one's destiny.

Another major religious tenet of the Yoruba religious tradition of Orisha worship is the concept of asé--pronounced (ah-SHAY). Abimbola (1975, link) defines asé as the divine and highly potent power with which Olodumare (God) created the universe and sustains its physical power. He states; "Asé or Ashé is power, generative energy, life-force."

What is the most difficult part of practicing this belief system for the practitioners?

In a study I conducted in 2007 (link), I used an ethnographic approach to explore and better understand why some African-American male and females between the ages of 20-90 are choosing to practice in the Yoruba religious practice of Orisha worship. Respondents from my study generally indicated that the practice of the Yoruba religious tradition of Orisha worship gives them an overall sense of well-being, provides a sense of direction for their lives, and gives them a sense of connection to spiritual aspects greater than themselves. However, many of the respondents stated that a significant liability of being a practitioner of the Yoruba religious tradition of Orisha worship was the isolation and the ostracism they have experienced from family, friends, and co-workers. Some of the respondents said they felt as if the religion is often subjected to outsiders' blatant falsehoods and misunderstandings of the practices, rituals and traditions of the religion. Because of this burden of misunderstandings many of the respondents stated that they do not openly tell others about their religious practices but when asked about their religion, they said they reply that they do not practice a mainstream Western religion.

Understanding the tenets, rituals, and traditions of the Yoruba religious tradition of Orisha worship may assist in mental health fields in better analyzing, diagnosing and treating patients who practice the religion. Alonso and Jeffrey (1998, link) contend that those in mental health professions may find that having knowledge about the Yoruba religious tradition of Orisha worship may increase their empathy and understanding of their patients who often are hesitant to speak about their beliefs due to widespread misunderstanding and ridicule of their religious practices.

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Want to follow the second half of the VRT? Bookmark the table of contents or like my facebook page.

Ryan Howes, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, writer, musician and professor at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, California.

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