Growing up in the Mennonite church, I recall stories from missionaries about people in other countries who combined their indigenous religion with new Christian beliefs and practices. It was labeled syncretism, and described as a very bad thing indeed. In order to be faithful, we were to call people to turn their backs to culture and tradition and embrace Jesus wholeheartedly. WATER’S latest delegation to Cuba gave me an opportunity to revise and renew my understandings of syncretism as well as see the power of women defining religion for themselves.
Theologian Clara Luz Ajo often speaks about her congregation in Cuba: an Episcopal church that is primarily Afro-Cuban women (and three men) that celebrate Mass on Sundays and practice Santeria in their homes. On the May trip to Cuba, we had an opportunity to visit the church with Clara Luz and the women as our guides.
Arriving in Limonar at 10 am on a Thursday morning, the dusty streets were not busy except for a few horse-drawn carts that act as taxis, people on motorcycles, and pedestrians. By noon the streets were filled with uniformed schoolchildren heading home for lunch.
The historic if tiny Anglican church reminds us that the church is people, not buildings. Most of the building was destroyed over the years with only parts of the roof remaining. This church of older women does not have a lot of institutional support but they understand their purpose, so they are rebuilding as they have funds. There is currently one room, used for Mass, meetings and morning gatherings, and a restroom. The sanctuary is well underway – four walls awaiting a roof. There are also the outlines of a kitchen and a room for craftwork.
Ten women of the church came to the building to meet us that Thursday morning. They told us about their life together as a congregation. We saw the obvious dedication of the women and the strength that they have as a community. They shared with us the importance that the church and spirituality have in their lives. Besides meeting on Sunday for Mass, any who can gather each morning at 9 am to check in and offer support to each other.
The women talked about syncretism without apology – and they were clear that the Eucharist table is at church and Santeria altars are at home. They explained that in order to be initiated into Santeria, one must first be baptized into the church. Each of the Orichas in Santeria has a counterpart in the saints of Christianity. We saw that the two traditions are not at odds but fit together to create meaning, support, healing, and hope for the women who gather. After looking around the church, we were invited to walk several blocks to the Santeria altars the women have created in their homes.
What a privilege to catch a glimpse of these altars created with devotion and faithfulness. The colorful fabrics, beads, and artifacts started in a corner and expanded across the room. In one home the altar was situated in the center of the room with a picture of the Last Supper on one end and a crucifix on the other. There was no explanation nor did it seem there was any contradiction. Here were the visible symbols of a lived faith. Women have always had to find a way to make meaning when things look dim and drear. These Cuban women have preserved, developed, and enhanced religious traditions that give them life, pull them together and help them keep on. If you would like to contribute to help with the rebuilding of the church, please contact WATER. ■
Cynthia Lapp is pastor of Hyattsville, MD Mennonite Church and former WATER intern and staff associate.