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"Amen" and "Ashe": African American Protestant worship and its West African ancestor.

In this essay I am going to explore and reflect on similarities between the expressions of ecstatic African American liturgy and its foundation within West African Yoruba tradition. Initially, it may seem unlikely that there would be much similarity between the two, especially given the difference in geography, history, and the divergent religious symbolism that is expressed in each. On the one hand, African American Protestantism is iconoclastic and places a strong emphasis of Jesus as the exclusive focus of salvation. On the other hand, West African Yoruba religion incorporates what seems to be a pantheon of images and deities into its practices. However, a closer look at the respective liturgies and religious practices reveal a closer kinship that transcends time and space. There is a real ancestral legacy in contemporary African American worship.

In one sense, this should not come as a surprise. Most African Americans in the United States (and. throughout the Americas) are descendants of West African slaves who were taken from ancient nations such as Dahomey, Yoruba and Ibo lands, and the Congo. They brought a sacred cosmology along with them as they traveled through the infamous "Middle Passage." Since the Yoruba belief system is illustrative of most West African belief systems, I shall describe its major features in order to give a better understanding of the sacred cosmos.

This universe is brought into existence and populated by a creator/creatrix. He/She hands its more immediate operations over to intermediate spirits. These are extraordinary personalities or aspects of the creator that are different expressions of a power that permeates the universe and everything within it. In the Yoruba language it is called "Ashe." "Ashe" is something like an all-pervasive spiritual energy. But it is also a term comparable to "Amen." It could be translated as "so be it." But actually, the connotation is more imperative, in the sense of "it definitely shall be so." At any rate, Ashe is the power that animates all of creation; it comes from the source of creation and is available to everything within the universe. In the Yoruba tradition one name for this source is "Olodumare," "the owner of heaven." Olodumare creates the universe and is expressed in a more personal and immanent manner through a variety of other spirits that are known collectively as the "Orisha." Etymologically, orisha mean s "select head" or consciousness. In a sense, therefore, a particular orisha is a specialized form of the consciousness of Olodumare. For example, Eshu Elegbara, the messenger orisha, is the one who "opens the way" between the world of the spirits and that of everyday experience. Eshu is the first to be summoned in religious ceremonies. Sometimes Eshu is called the trickster. It is more accurate, however, to think of Eshu simply as the force of disruption, justice and rectification. Eshu may create challenges in one's life in order to direct one in the proper direction for experiencing the beneficial and interactive will of the creator. There are many other orishas such as Oshun, Yemaya, Shango, Obatala, Ogun, and Oya. Each represents a different aspect of the creative spirit and/or force of nature. Moreover, each is a conveyer of a specific expression of Ashe.

In addition to the creator and the orishas, the West African sacred cosmos includes both familial and tribal spirits of those who no longer live within the physical dimension. These are the ancestors. The ancestors are familial in the sense that they may be the "elevated" spirits of a particular family. They also may become tribal when an entire clan, tribe or nation venerates an extraordinary human being (as for example, the cases of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X within the African American religio-cultural experience). The important observation here is that ancestral spirits are venerated for their great accomplishments in life and out of respect for one's genealogical connection to a past. They are not worshipped. Instead, they are recognized and respected. In some instances, they may be feared, especially when their descendants do not render them proper respect. It is important to acknowledge that they are present even though they exist in another dimension beyond, yet adjacent to, the physical one . They continue to be part of the human family and community. The same is true of the unborn. Sometimes, newly born babies are thought to be reincarnated ancestors. Both the very young and the elderly live on the cusp of the visible and invisible domains of the West African sacred cosmos. In sum, the human community is populated not only by those of us who are alive in a physical body, but also those who have gone on from and are yet to come into the physical world. Moreover, the visible and invisible dimensions exist simultaneously and interact with each other. The universal Ashe is multidimensional.

It follows that plants and animals, biological and botanical life forms, also possess and convey this universal energy. Therefore, when West Africans seem to pray to plants or talk with animals, they are actually communicating through them to a much greater power. Moreover, far from worshiping idols, they are expressing appreciation for the vital life forces that are eventually transferred from those sources of nutrition and sustenance that plants and animals provide. In their nonconsumeristic mode of expression, they are acknowledging the fact that without this delicate ecological sensitivity, their own physical life would perish. Therefore, it is with reverence and gratitude that they approach plants and animals as co-inhabitants of this world and as gifts from Olodumare for their own survival. This same sensitivity is what informs offering a sacrifice to a particular orisha. It focuses one's attention upon a particular aspect of universal power in the forms of thanksgiving and petitions through prescribed ritualized procedures. Moreover, the sacrificed animal is not disposed of carelessly. In contrast to mass production and consumption, it is shared via a communal meal among Awos (students of the "mysteries" and practitioners of the Yoruba religion).

Finally, even the ritual objects are viewed as being infused with the universal power or Ashe. Everything in the universe vibrates with this power. So too, specially consecrated objects possess an additional infusion of this numinous energy through its contact with the priest or priestess. Therefore, they are sacred and bear specialized properties that tend toward the supernatural. This is also related to their attachment and/or association with the consecrated space in which they are located. Typically this is the "Ile" or place of worship where the community gathers. It incorporates all of the particular shrines that are dedicated to the various orishas, as well as other paraphernalia that is necessary for the maintenance of a functional Ile.

So, what does a typical West African, Yaruba ceremony look like liturgically? My own observations have been within the North American context. A Babalawo (meaning "father of the mysteries"), who is a seventh-generation Yoruba chief-priest, leads these services. A priestess in the same capacity is known as an Iyalawo ("mother of the mysteries"). There are different ways for conducting such services throughout modern-day Nigeria, and I am confident that this Babalawo has made some adaptations to the more traditional format and content. Nevertheless, what remains is consistent with the belief system I have described above. This system and the rituals related to it have been handed down from one generation to the next. In what follows, I shall describe the components of the service. I should add that the Yoruba-based belief system and ceremonies are among the most widespread of the traditional West African religions. Syncretized elements that have been taken from this system and combined with other West African traditions, Native American beliefs and Euro-centric Christian beliefs and liturgies can be found among persons of African descent throughout the Americas in the following religions: Santeria (Puerto Rico, Cuba, New York and Miami); Candomble, Umbanda, and Macumba (Brazil); Vodun (Haiti); and Lucumi (Cuba). Among them all, the Yoruba-based system is the most (cross-culturally) identifiable one.

Some Dimensions of a West African Liturgy

The ceremony begins with the participants entering the Ile and greeting the Babalawo, other priests and priestesses, and one another. They also greet the orisha shrines. Once the Babalawo calls the Awos to order, there is a series of libations (pouring water on the ground or within a vase containing plants) and invocations to Olodumare and the orishas. This is followed by the same pattern for the ancestors. Next, individual silent prayers or petitions are made to the ancestors. This includes expressions of gratitude for their presence and influences in the daily lives of the Awos. There is an appeal to Eshu Elegbara to come and "open the way" between this world and that of the other orishas. This is accompanied with singing, drumming and dancing until the participants almost enter into a state of possession. After a brief interlude, participants are invited to share individual testimonies. This takes the form of a call-and-response series of acclamations to the orishas. Once the testimonies are complete, the Babalawo speaks from the "Odu" (Yoruba sacred [oral] text), delivering the message of the day. Offerings are presented to Eshu, the orisha being honored on that day, and for the support of the Ile. If someone has been initiated into the priest-craft, they will also receive gifts from the other participants at this time. As participants bring their offerings forward they also engage in a ritual of consuming small portions of the following: salt, honey, sugar and atari (pepper). This is to remind them of the bitter and sweet aspects of life. As the service draws toward a conclusion, there is more singing, drumming, dancing, and possession. The Babalawo concludes the ceremony with a benediction. After the ceremony is completed, everyone enjoys feasting upon a communal meal.

Next I will discuss some features of an African American Protestant liturgy, especially as it would be experienced among African American Pentecostals or in some form of a "Spirit-filled" service.

Some Dimensions of an African American Protestant Liturgy

The service begins with church members and visitors entering the sanctuary and greeting the pastor, other ministers, church mothers, ushers, deacons, and one another. Once the presiding minister calls the congregation to order, there is a series of songs and invocations to God (read "libations"). The choir may sing, accompanied by the organ, drums, and other musical instruments. In many instances, there is a time for testimonies. This is an opportunity to tell other members about "trials and tribulations" one has endured and to praise God for the victory over them. Members may sing, shout and dance under the influence of the "Holy Ghost." Once the Spirit has arrived, others may join in during this "praise" session. The choir will sing another selection or two before the pastor or designated preacher of the day takes the pulpit. Once the preacher comes to the podium, he or she will offer "appreciation" (read "more libations") to God, the ministers, other leaders in the church and the congregation as a whole. A text is selected (read "Odu" of the day) and becomes the basis for an ecstatic call-and-response litany. The sign of a good, anointed and "Spirit-filled" sermon is the moment when the Spirit overpowers the entire congregation. This usually culminates with more singing, shouting, and dancing. Afterwards, an offering is raised (on some occasions, more than one offering is collected). The congregation is reminded that life is bitter and sweet, with both its challenges and victories. The pastor concludes the service with a benediction. Sometimes a common meal is served. At other times some or all of the members reconvene elsewhere for a common meal.

Theological Distance; Liturgical Kinship

Although the descriptions I have given in both examples are overly simplified, they do indicate that there is a strong correlation between some dimensions of West African and African American Protestant liturgies. At the same time, there are important differences between them. The relationship might be described as one of "theological distance, liturgical kinship."

The theological distance may be typified by the way in which participants in the representative liturgies would not recognize the similarities between them. In those instances where they might acknowledge the same, there would still remain the challenge of affirming a strong kinship in the face of doctrinal differences. On the one hand, those who participate in traditional African practices tend to be more open to African-derived religious practices in the Americas (like the ones listed above). On the other hand, many African American Protestants maintain an exclusivistic attitude toward doctrinal purity and fail to perceive, appreciate, and affirm the Africanisms that are present in contemporary African American liturgies. Of course, these are generalizations and there are always exceptions to the rule. Ironically, the more one engages in research and observation of traditional African religious theology and practices, the deeper one's appreciation for its African American "descendants" increases.

Beyond this, the contemporary advantage of understanding the African roots of African American liturgical practices is that both "ancestral memory" and "prophetic vision" can be cultivated simultaneously. Ancestral memory simply means acknowledging and incorporating a form of consciousness that has roots in a sacred cosmos and psychology that is holistic and multidimensional. It appreciates all of life as being derived from and returning to one source. It experiences the universal "Ashe" at all times, in al[ spaces. Likewise, prophetic vision refers to the capacity to see beyond present reality and project a transformative wholeness. The African-derived religious traditions have done this in some amazing ways throughout the Americas. While this has not been explored in detail in this essay, it is nevertheless the case that the various permutations of African beliefs have found their way into African American religious practices in a testament to the survival and vision of African slaves. The challenge and op portunity of contemporary African Americans is that of acknowledging and appreciating the religious genius of our ancestors while cultivating our own through what we pass on to the next generation. Ashe and Amen!

Will Coleman is co-founder of the BT Forum and the Black Kabbalah Institute in Decatur, Georgia, and author of Tribal Talk: Black Theology, Hermeneutics, and African/American Ways of "Telling the Story"
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Author:Coleman, Will
Publication:Cross Currents
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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