New Orleans

New Orleans, Day 5

Priestess Miriam Chamani, Voodoo Spiritual Temple

We sat in the temple for nearly two hours. It was a rather enlightening visit, and it was not at all what I expected. Although, to be honest, I’m not quite sure what I expected.

As our time drew to a close, I said, “I feel like you have not given me the answers I wanted. And yet, it seems you’ve given me the answers I needed.” She smiled. It was the smile of a sage.

It was time to say goodbye and I found myself at a loss for words. “You have given me a lot to think about,” was all I could say. “Well, don’t think about it too much,” she replied.  And so, that’s what I’m going to do.

Priestess Miriam Chamani

Priestess Miriam Chamani

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New Orleans, Day 4

Saint Augustine Church

Saint Augustine Church. Faubourg Treme, New Orleans

Saint Augustine Church. Faubourg Treme, New Orleans

“Today we celebrate the 173rd anniversary of St. Augustine Church,” said the woman from the pulpit, moments before the procession began. While I’ve been traveling for this project, one of the hardest decisions has been which church to visit on a Sunday morning. I only have one Sunday morning in town and there are always so many great options. By the time I woke up this Sunday, I had narrowed it down to two churches. So, I did what any sensible 21st century netizen would do. I crowdsourced my decision. My Facebook friends resoundingly voted for St. Augustine. When I arrived, I was very happy to learn I was there during an anniversary celebration. How auspicious! (Thank you, FB friends.)

Saint Augustine Church stands on a piece of land that was part of the original Claude Treme plantation. Treme eventually subdivided his estate and began selling large tracts to free blacks and other buyers. A pamphlet at the church explains, “When the free people of color got permission from Bishop Antoine Blanc to build a church, the Ursuline Sisters donated the property at the corner of Bayou Road and Saint Claud, on the condition the church was named Saint Augustine, after one of their patron saints. And so it came to pass.”

"We Are Standing On Holy Ground!"

“We Are Standing On Holy Ground!”

“We are a church that is rooted in our history, but present in this moment,” says Pastor Rev. Emmanuel Mulenga, O.M.I. That history is rich and groundbreaking. In 1842, a few months before the dedication of the church, people of color began buying pews for their families. The pamphlet continues, “Upon hearing of this, white people in the area started their campaign to buy pews. Thus the War of the Pews began and was ultimately won by the free people of color, who bought three pews to every one purchased by the whites. In an unprecedented political and religious move, the colored members also bought all the side aisle pews. They then gave those pews to the slaves as their exclusive place of worship.”

This is a Catholic mass unlike any I’ve attended. All of the elements of the mass are there, but the music is joyous, loud and distinctly New Orleans. The choir consists of some eight to twelve singers who are accompanied by piano, saxophone, drums and percussion. Music is conducted by choir director, Carol LeBlanc, who alternates between piano and electric keyboard. The congregation claps, sings aloud and a few have tambourines. It is a soulful celebration, without a doubt.

Photos are only allowed before and after mass, so this is what it looked like after the pews had cleared.

Photos are only allowed before and after mass, so this is what it looked like after the pews had cleared.

It is one thing to visit this church and stand in awe of its history, of the role it played in the development of this city. It is a powerful thing to sit in the very pews that, as a sign indicates, “were reserved for and used exclusively by slaves from the date of the church’s dedication, October 9, 1842, until the slaves were freed after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.” This sacred space is a house in which faith, politics, slavery, freedom, and race are inseparable. And it is yet another powerful thing to experience the mass here and see that this is not a museum or a monument, it is a living and thriving community even to this day.

Father Mulenga, who is originally from Zambia, has been at the church for only about three months. He preaches a fiery and uplifting service that challenges parishioners not to dwell in the past. In alluding to the rich heritage of this church, he says, “We like to say, ‘We used to…’ a lot.” He talks about times when the church has had to hold three masses on Sunday to accommodate the numbers of people. Today, the congregation has dwindled significantly. “We have a history to celebrate. But we must move forward.” I look around and it seems to me the place is quite packed, it doesn’t look like a dwindling congregation to me. And it certainly doesn’t sound like one, either. People agree with resounding “amens,” there’s applause, there’s a sense that this is the pastor the church needs right now.

The entrance to the church.

The entrance to the church.

One of the perhaps unintended results of the “War of the Pews” in 1842 was that Saint Augustine became the most integrated congregation in the country. The pamphlet states that there was “one large row of free people of color, one large row of whites with a smattering of ethnic folk, and two outer aisles of slaves.” Today, this is still a diverse congregation, racially and generationally.

After the mass, as we make our way to the fellowship hall for an anniversary reception, Father Mulenga greets me warmly. I mention how much I’ve enjoyed the mass and he tells me this is an exciting place. I have to agree, as I’m still glowing from the impassioned rendition of “We Are Standing On Holy Ground” with which the service ended. This is indeed holy ground, in every sense of the word. And I’m so grateful to have been here.

The Tomb of the Unknown Slave is located in the garden plot of Saint Augustine Church. This shrine, consisting of grave crosses, chains and shackles is dedicated to the memory of the nameless, faceless, turfless Africans who met an untimely death in Faubourg Treme.

The Tomb of the Unknown Slave is located in the garden plot of Saint Augustine Church. This shrine, consisting of grave crosses, chains and shackles is dedicated to the memory of the nameless, faceless, turfless Africans who met an untimely death in Faubourg Treme.

 

New Orleans, Day 2

Congo Square, Saint Louis Cemetery Number One, Touro Synagogue

Tonight’s entry is more of a photo essay. I’ve been walking all day and I’ve just returned from a Kol Nidrei service at Touro Synagogue. It has been an exhausting, but most rewarding, day.

I joined a walking tour of Saint Louis Cemetery Number One, which took us through several places of interest. Here you see our tour guide, NU’Awlons Natescott. It’s a funny name, but he was very serious about his history and storytelling.

NU'Awlons Natescott stands in front of where Marie Laveau's house once stood. The plaque reads, "1020-22 Rue St. Ann - Marie Laveau and her children lived at this site between 1839 and 1895 before the circa 1905 construction of the existing cottage.

NU’Awlons Natescott stands in front of where Marie Laveau’s house once stood. The plaque reads, “1020-22 Rue St. Ann – Marie Laveau and her children lived at this site between 1839 and 1895 before the circa 1905 construction of the existing cottage.

Congo Square, another highlight of our tour, is in the heart of what is now known as Louis Armstrong Park.

Between the 17th and 18th centuries, slaves would gather here on Sundays to sing, dance and drum in West African tradition. The sculpture seen here commemorates this history.

Between the 17th and 18th centuries, slaves would gather here on Sundays to sing, dance and drum in West African tradition. The sculpture seen here commemorates this history.

The area surrounding Congo Square was considered sacred ground by the Houmas Indians even before the arrival of the French. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Square was well-known for the Sunday gatherings of enslaved Africans, with attendance ranging from 500 to 600. Some of the dances practiced here were the Bamboula, the Calinda and the Congo. And, according to our guide, these are significant dances in Voodoo religion. It is important to note that these dances are the genesis of Mardi Gras, jazz and rhythm and blues.

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Opened in 1789, this is the oldest of the Saint Louis Cemeteries and among the notables buried here is Marie Laveau. However, there is controversy and confusion surrounding this fact. The tomb believed to house her remains bears a plaque stating that this is her reputed burial place. The tomb is a main attraction for tourists and devotees, and as such has suffered a great deal of vandalism. It is currently being restored.

This is the tomb of Marie Laveau's daughter and it is believed to also be the final resting place of Marie Laveau herself.

This is the tomb of Marie Laveau’s daughter and it is believed to also be the final resting place of Marie Laveau herself.

Our tour guide is an excellent storyteller, he builds up intrigue and tells us he is going to show us where Marie Laveau is actually buried. We walk down the narrow street of this City of the Dead, as these cemeteries are known, and come upon this tomb.

Aside from the XXX markings, this tomb is unmarked. Our tour guide assures us this is where Laveau is actually buried. The XXX markings are left by practitioners and devotees, they are petitions to Laveau. At the foot of the tomb we see various offerings and artifacts.

Aside from the XXX markings, this tomb is unmarked. Our tour guide assures us this is where Laveau is actually buried. The XXX markings are left by practitioners and devotees, they are petitions to Laveau. At the foot of the tomb we see various offerings and artifacts.

Tonight I attended a Kol Nidrei service at Touro Synagogue. This beautiful liturgy of repentance, confession and atonement marks the beginning of fasting for Yom Kippur. Rabbi Alexis Berk delivered a wonderful sermon, of which I’ve requested a copy. I hope to have permission to post it here, either in its entirety or in fragments.

Congregants arrive for Kol Nidrei service.

Congregants arrive for Kol Nidrei service.

Touro Synagogue is one of the oldest synagogues in the country. It was founded in 1828 and it was the first synagogue outside of the original thirteen colonies. The present sanctuary was built in 1909, in the Byzantine style. It is an impressively beautiful space and it was full to capacity for tonight’s service.

A few minutes before the service began.

A few minutes before the service began.

New Orleans, Day 1

Voodoo

This is my first visit to New Orleans. Technically speaking, it’s my second, but I was barely three years old the first time so I don’t remember it at all. My mother tells me I got lost in the middle of a crowd and that she’s forever grateful to the police officer who found me and carried me on his shoulders so my parents could spot me. If ever there was a city preceded by its reputation, it is this. Even months away from Mardi Gras, the French Quarter is bursting with revelers. Walking through these streets after dark is an assault to the senses, all five of them. This is not a place to go in search of the sacred. Or, is it?

Voodoo Spiritual Temple

Voodoo Spiritual Temple

New Orleans was on my list from the beginning of this project. I came here searching for a unique spiritual landscape, and half a day into my visit, I’m convinced I’ve found just that. My first priority was to explore the culture, tradition and practices of Voodoo. To that end, I headed straight for the Voodoo Spiritual Temple and Cultural Center. I would have missed the nondescript, little building had I not known exactly what it looked like from the photos I found in my research.

As I walked into the place, I found myself in the middle of a shop filled with voodoo dolls, incense, and all sorts of paraphernalia and artifacts for sale. The attendant at the desk was very kind and informed me that the priestess was in the middle of a reading and wouldn’t be available for another hour. I explained I’d called a few times and left messages, I didn’t mean to simply barge in. After I explained the reason for my visit, she asked if I’d been to the Voodoo Museum and said it was just a few blocks down. We agreed I’d go visit the museum and come back to talk with Priestess Miriam Chamani, founder and Queen Mother of the temple.

In the Voodoo Museum

In the Voodoo Museum

All I knew about Voodoo before today was the Hollywood narrative and the scary stories I heard in church youth group about evil forces and dark spirits. It is a very marketable story and it makes for excellent entertainment. But beyond the kitsch and the lore, there is a very rich history and tradition that thrives to this day among private societies where true Voodoo is practiced. But it’s not easily found. Walking into the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, I find myself again in a store with all sorts of paraphernalia and gifts. At the back of the shop, behind a desk, sits Dr. John T. Martin, Voodoo Priest and museum keeper. I ask a few questions, pay my admission fee and walk into the museum area. It is a small space, but it is chock full of altars, artifacts, portraits, statuettes and other various items.

The room at the back houses a main altar and a legend that reads:

“This is typical of the type of altar that may be found throughout Louisiana. This is a working altar and is frequently used in rituals and changed around to invoke and propitiate different spirits. The Catholic Saints represent the Voodoo Spirits. Candles, incense, oils, cigars and other such items are used as offerings. A glass of water is present to absorb negative energies and a few drops are sprinkled on the altar daily to refresh the spirits. The center pole is believed to serve as a channel for the Spirits to come down. During a ceremony, offerings of food and drink are made, then may be consumed by the participants after they have been blessed. The drums are used to summon the spirits and various dances are performed as offerings and to facilitate possession of the dancer by the spirits.”

Voodoo Altar

Voodoo Altar

Although my knowledge of Voodoo is minimal, there is a lot about this room and these artifacts that feels familiar. I’m reminded of spiritual healers and practices I grew up around in Mexico. The way that West African practices mixed with European Catholic beliefs in Louisiana, is reminiscent of the way Prehispanic spiritual traditions mixed with Catholic beliefs in Mexico. I’ve always been interested in this syncretism that breeds a new kind of spirituality. In Mexico, for instance, Day of the Dead is the product of Prehispanic spiritual practices and Catholic tradition. Dia de Muertos as we know it did not exist before the clash of these two worlds.

Voodoo originated as a collection of socio-political-religious practices native to West Africa. In this religious practice, devotees experience a direct contact with the spirits. And the word “voodoo,” well, it simply means “spirits.” The Museum’s guide dispels the notion that Voodoo is evil and black magic. Instead, it claims that Voodoo is benign, “A selfish desire is considered an evil intent. Usually a Voodoo Priestess (Queen) or Priest (Doctor) will reject any request to make an evil petition to the spirits. A portrait of Marie Laveau is one of the centerpieces of the museum. Laveau was a famous healer and is considered the matriarch of New Orleans Voodoo. Born a “free woman of color” in 1801, she came to be known as a devout Catholic and humanitarian.

Dr. John T. sits under the portrait of Marie Laveau

Dr. John T. sits under the portrait of Marie Laveau

After visiting the corridors and rooms of the museum, I had a brief conversation with Dr. John T. He was holding a small python in his arms, which I don’t remember noticing when I first arrived. We exchange a few pleasantries and then I tell him why I am in New Orleans. “I’m here looking for sacred spaces,” I say. His face changes, I feel like I’ve just said something wrong, then after a second or two, almost whispering he says, “They are few and far between.” He is speaking so softly I’m actually struggling to hear him, so I lean in a little closer. He bemoans the fact that the practice of Voodoo has lost its true meaning, and I think of all the “Voodoo” t-shirts and tchotchkes I’ve seen walking down the streets just this afternoon. And then he tells me, again in the softest whisper, that most practitioners keep private altars. He himself doesn’t much open his home altar to outsiders. He tells me of a few other places I should visit and people I should talk to. This is great, it’s what I was hoping for, and I’m still surprised that the mention of “sacred spaces” brought this on, as though I spoke a code word I didn’t even know I had.

Back at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple, I finally meet Queen Mother Miriam. She is a joyous presence, dressed in bright colors and looking quite regal. It has been a long and draining day for her, filled with private consultations. But she kindly entertains a few of my questions and regales me, the attendant, and a couple other visitors with parables about seeking. This, because when asked what tradition I practiced I answered that I was a seeker. She asks me to come back for a proper visit and we make arrangements for Monday. I can’t express how thrilled I am, this is my first contact with Voodoo and I get to visit with a Queen Mother.

It’s getting late and I haven’t had lunch or dinner, so I look for a place to eat. Night has fallen by the time I leave the restaurant. My walk back to the hotel takes me through Bourbon Street, and what an experience that is. People, people, and more people, walking, laughing, drinking, having a good time. It’s exciting, it’s what the French Quarter is all about. And it’s also a little strange for me, I feel a little lost. These are profane spaces, what am I doing here? My answer comes moments later when I notice a man and a woman praying over a bar tender on the sidewalk. They each have Bibles in their hands and they are wearing t-shirts with Christian slogans, “Ask me how Jesus can change your life,” “Not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” I wait around for them to finish praying and I approach them. “Are you with a church?” I ask. “Yes,” the man replies. He goes on to explain that they are here just about every night, expecially on the weekends, and they go around praying for the workers on Bourbon Street. He is very warm and genuine, there isn’t an ounce of judgment in his words. I look around and see nothing but the kind of environment an Evangelical Christian would typically stay as far away from as possible. “It must be very difficult to do the work you do here,” I say. “Not really,” the woman affirms. The man (I didn’t get their names) tells me ther rarely experience rejection or confrontation. In fact, he tells me, it is quite often the case that people accept Jesus Christ as their Savior right here on these sidewalks. “That’s pretty amazing,” I say. “You see,” he tells me, “When you are in a very dark place, all you need is a match to light the way. And we don’t have a match, we have the most powerful light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Preaching and praying along Bourbon Street

Preaching and praying along Bourbon Street

They’re busy doing their rounds and I’ve detained them long enough, so we agree to meet again tomorrow night. But they leave me with the assurance that I am in the right place. I’m learning that the sacred and the profane are oftentimes found right next to each other. In fact, they are often so intertwined you can’t have one without the other. I think this is going to be a great week.