Voodoo priest debunks religion's stereotypes
Published: Thursday, November 1, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
Halloween has always been a misunderstood celebration, so perhaps it is fitting that on the eve of this holiday something equally misrepresented - voodoo - came to Boston College. No, there were no drums or sacrifices or even dolls involved, just students and staff talking and learning about what the religion of voodoo really means in today's society.
L'Association Haitienne, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year, invited voodoo priest Neite Decimus as a guest speaker along with Dr. Sandra Sandiford Young, the associate director of African and African diaspora studies at BC, to discuss the religion's origins and the improper way that voodoo has come to be represented in mainstream media.
Alexandra Bastien, vice president of L'Association Haitienne and A&S '08, said the idea for the presentation "came out of a discussion last year about how to discuss the important issues of the Haitian culture in a way that is interesting … and since this is a Catholic school and there's so much religious tension in Haiti [which is predominantly Catholic], we thought it would be good to talk about the different religions [of the country]."
Young said voodoo's bad rap originated after the Haitian Revolution when much of the population was pressured by the French Catholic Church, which still had a strong hand in ruling the Haitian economy, to give up their religion. The newly established republic needed money from the French government and much of the population was forced to follow its wishes, which included renouncing voodoo. Some of the population converted to Catholicism, but many continued to practice their own religion in secrecy.
Voodoo or vaudau, which is the proper spelling of the West African word for "spirit," is itself based in an ancient African religion that celebrates the relationship between the natural elements and people, who are expected to try and maintain a balance between themselves and the environment. The stereotypes that are familiar today began to form when people left Haiti and took slaves with them, settling in New Orleans, La.
Here the white population became fascinated with the religion of voodoo, due to its largely spiritual and natural elements, and they started to partake in the ceremonies and other practices. Some practitioners of voodoo saw this fascination as a chance to make money and started to sell dolls, spells, and love potions to the white people of New Orleans. One woman even institutionalized the "ritual" of orgiastic ceremonies, inviting members of the white population to such events and charging them large sums to watch or participate, all under the guise that this was a true "practice" of voodoo. The credulous attitudes of the whites that indulged in such behavior quickly fueled rumors and the stereotypes were born.
"This [type of practice] wasn't true when it started, and it isn't now," Young said.
Decimus said voodoo is a non-canonic religion, meaning that it does not follow any scripture like most Western religions do. It teaches the belief in one God, the creator, referred to as Bondyè. Humans come into the world and must learn that they cannot do anything by themselves, he says, and that there is an ever-present energy that embodies all things and people, which we have the power to transform.
"The human being has the same rights as a bird does in nature," Decimus said. "No matter what race, color, [etc.], you are born equal with equal opportunities. The only directions we have are from where the sun rises and where the sun sets, where you come from, and where you are going."
Decimus, who once wanted to be a lawyer, accepted the "duty" of becoming a voodoo priest because he says "life is about happiness, and in voodoo I find that happiness." He admits that he is poor as a voodoo priest, but he feels "rich" because he is able to connect with people and help them. In Haiti as well as in Boston, people come to Decimus when they have problems and he meditates, feeling the person's energy to come up with a solution to the problem.
"The most important thing is to open your heart truly [to the other person]. Even I don't know how I do it. [But] it's easy because you know it. When you come to me the solution is there … we just have to find it," he said.
Decimus admitted that many people, usually those desperate for money, will use the powers of voodoo for "evil," and try to sell "curses." But he said that there is "good" and "evil" in every religion and this shouldn't be used to make sweeping generalizations about the entire institution. He said "it shows" when people do evil, and it will harm them later down their paths in life.
Now, along with working on his Master's in psychotherapy, Decimus is working to raise awareness about the truth behind his religion.
"Voodoo is my life … but now in Haiti when you mention voodoo, people walk away. [It has become] an opportunity to make money. But you can't hate [something] until you know about it. More people don't know about it than do," he says.
Part of the problem about the religion is that it is largely intuitive, said Young. "You have to belong to it from the internal workings within yourself," she said. But the main ideas behind it are about helping, loving, and sharing with others. The sacrifices that have become so sensationalized over time were always followed by a process of cleaning, cooking, and sharing of the animal with the community. In this way, these practices were not so different from the accepting of the wafer and wine.
The major difference between organized Christian religions and this traditional African religion is its mystical component, said Young, which helps to keep the connection between the practice and the practitioner alive and well in daily life.
"But in Christian religion, unfortunately, the practice of staying in contact with that energy has dissipated," Young said. "If you read the early scriptures, it all had it … but that's gone now. And while we concentrate on the bad elements about what we've heard about the people who practice voodoo and use 'negative' energy, we must not forget the problems of the Catholic Church which have shattered so many of the faithful of the Catholic Church by the hierarchies' refusal to protect the congregation, but to instead protect the priests who were doing terrible things to the congregation … Bad things can be done in every single religion; it does not constitute a whole religion."