Cyber Santeria

by Shloma Rosenberg

When I first gained access to the Internet, it was with great excitement that I found resources for Orisha worshippers on the World Wide Web. In those days, there were two websites, a message board on AOL and one electronic mailing list. I happily indulged in all of them.

From the very beginning, I saw things that bothered me. Aleyos and inexperienced priests were being instructed by cyber "elders" (these elders were as often non-initiates as they were initiates), people were anonymously pontificating about ritual dogma and, worst of all, separatists of various stripe were declaring who could and couldn't be involved in the religion. When I began reading these things, my first reaction (being a son of Yemoja) was to "save the world". I would go into "rescue" mode and want to save everyone from the charlatans. This is what prompted me to set up my website and to be so active in Santeria newsgroups and message boards. I furiously posted information in hopes that these self-proclaimed "elders" would be abandoned. I provided services to people seeking instruction and religious contacts. In hopes that I would rescue people from the clutches of these frauds, I became a sort of reference librarian to the world. As I look back, I am deeply ashamed of myself for my arrogance and pomposity, and for contributing to the detriment of the religion by instructing in a way other than through godparent/godchild oral instruction.

I find this rescue-reflex happening to me less and less nowadays. I am becoming more comfortable in my own spirituality, and more able to trust that the universe is unfolding exactly as it should. I believe that eventually, everyone who is truly on a path of growth will wind up where they belong, and some of the lessons we need to learn involve being ripped off, disillusioned and dragged over the coals. One lesson that is potentially learned on the Internet is that nothing will come of your life if you don't get out into creation, and that the world is not meant to be experienced through a monitor.

During my hiatus from the Internet and other public forums for Orisha worship, I took a step back and watched the antics of the "public" Orisha worshippers a bit more carefully than when I was one of them. I am amazed by how totally alien the "media" version of the religion is when I compare it to the religion as I know it in my personal life.

This difference becomes more apparent every time I meet someone who has spent a long time on the sidelines—attending lectures, reading books or surfing the net--before actually becoming involved in the religion as it is practiced in the homes of priests. They are stunned at how skewed their ideas of the religion were as influenced by the "Elders" with whom they came in contact on the Internet or the lecture circuit.

Whether it be on the net, or at "media" Orisha functions (e.g. classes, lectures, symposiums, exhibitions, etc.), these "Elders" who present themselves for public scrutiny are almost never those people with whom I (or any of my friends in various parts of the country) come in contact during the course of my involvement in the religion. They are not the Oriates, Babalawos or Akpons whom we would encounter when taking part in ceremonies in Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago or New York. They seem to occupy a parallel universe, a universe in which the importance of Shango and Yemoja pale in comparison to that of authors, lecturers, academics and recording artists.

In this universe, priests cite the teachings of (often uninitiated) authors rather than our esteemed ancestors. You will hear Robert Farris Thompson or William Bascom much more quickly than you will hear Liberato or Ayai Lewu La Tuan. Songs and Odu are no longer learned from our initiators. Instead we are told which CDs to buy or which books to read. We are told to foribale to screen names and e-mail addresses, and to ask the bendicion of our monitors.

When I first moved to Michigan I was invited to present myself as an Orisha worshipper at the "Great Lakes Pagan Council", a group of local Wiccans and European oriented Neopagans. I went, and was really freaked out by the racism and homophobia I encountered. Until then, the only Wiccans and Neopagans I had met up with were the homebody types; the kind of people who worship at home and have a circle of people with whom they do ritual. This was the first time I had run into "Public Wiccans"; the kind of people who never actually seem to pull a ritual together, but spend an awful lot of time putting out newsletters and organizing coffee klatches.

The same thing happened, come to think of it, when I first joined the Orisha Mailing List. Never before had I been exposed to anything outside of the "homebody" Santeria community. It was the first time I had encountered racism, and the first time (with the exception of the exclusionary policies of Paleros and Babalawos) that I had found homophobia. It was also the first time that I found the kind of self proclaimed "elders" that we now see so many of on the Internet; the kind who spend so much time on the net that it seems impossible they could be working the religion on any kind of level. I know this to be true because my own involvement in the Internet Orisha community cut deeply into my life as a priest, and it was nowhere near as heavy as some of those whose posts appear with such staggering frequency as to be alarming.

Only now does it occur to me that this relatively small number of people in the Orisha community have a whole lot in common with the Media Wiccans. They are people who have found no peace in their spirituality and, therefore, in their lives. They spew hate and venom, they make sweeping proclamations and hellfire condemnations the likes of which I have never seen in the Real-Life religion which I have grown to love so much. They lay in wait for opportunities to exercise their always chomping-at-the-bit righteous indignation and climb another rung on the ladder of popularity. Their involvement with the religion ends when the potluck begins. Their religious knowledge and wisdom is rarely, if ever, displayed. Only when they are given the opportunity to lambaste one another over minute details or differences of opinion do they give their keyboards a workout.

Now that I REALLY think of it, this also brings to mind a comparison of your average stay-at-home, private Christian with the Talking Heads of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. It seems that all of these people, whether pagan, Santero or Christian, seem to be fanatically trying to convince others that they are Right, perhaps to get some sense of self-validation, or to stroke their as-yet-unstroked egos.

What is unfortunate is the effect these rantings have on newcomers. Although the number of these armchair Pontiffs is small, they are, sadly, tapped into a medium that gives them a level of public exposure which dwarfs that of the more typical Orisha worshipper. When you consider the number of Orisha worshippers that exist in this world, and you compare that huge number to the number of pontificating, hate-spewing Cyber-Nazi Santeros, which you can probably count on your hands and feet, and then factor in the profundity of the impression they give people of the Orisha community, you begin to see how effective a tiny number of people can be when they are plugged into the information superhighway. What the Internet has created is an impression of our priests as suspicious, hateful, vicious, untrustworthy, bigoted children who have nothing better to do than to try to one-up each other in cyberspace. I will say only once in this letter that if those novices out there who have had no contact with the religion will make the effort to find a decent priest, you will find that in the real world, this is simply NOT the case.

I think that the personalities of these pseudo-priests have less to do with the specific common denominator of this group of people (i.e. Orisha worshippers) and more to do with the nature of people on the Internet as a whole. Message boards, mailing lists and newsgroups often attract people who have little or no social life. They are most often people who feel they have no effect on the world around them, and therefore make attempts to establish themselves as electronic celebrities in the fantasy world of the Web. If you pay attention to the rhythm of their posts, you will find that they have little to say unless they are arguing or attempting to shoot others down. Lists and message boards get incredibly active when it is time to attack, but otherwise these people have almost nothing to say. Check any other newsgroup or message board, whether it be political, spiritual, sports or entertainment based, and you will find the same rhythm, the same venom and the same desperate attempt to be "King of the Hill". This has nothing to do with content, it has everything to do with human nature, whether those people be Santeros, Republicans, Hockey buffs or Sandra Bullock groupies.

When you are new to the Internet, it is very tempting to get involved in all this mess. I know because I fell for it hook, line and sinker. It is very gratifying to post and have people answer you with praise. It is also infuriating to see someone post some hideously homophobic or racist trash. A person's first reaction is to respond in equally vicious fashion. Our religion, however, teaches us otherwise.

The arguments that take place on the net are moot. Homophobes and racists will not see the light because somebody calls them a dirty bastard. Oloshas and Awos, most of whom are quite well entrenched in their practices are not about to change their policies regarding the role of Ifa or Oriates PERIOD, let alone because of the pontifications of some dubious priest or snot-nosed aleyo who has never once communicated his heart with the character befitting one who would presume to speak for this religion. People will do what they will do, and only time, positive dialogue and observation of the examples of others will bring change.

The most important thing I have learned from my time in the Internet trenches is that it is infinitely more in keeping with the goals of the religion to keep a level head and a cool character, to speak your truth, wherever you may speak it, in a clear and peaceful voice. Those who are meant to hear it, will.

Is this to say that the religion on the Internet is a bad thing? No, I don’t think so. I wouldn't be here if I thought that it was. My personal opinion is that it is only as harmful as the people involved. I am sure that there are many people for whom the Internet has been a primary tool for their introduction to the religion, and that it has been a very positive experience for them. In my own experience, someone whom I dearly love would not have found his place in the religion nor would he have met me were it not for the net. I am very thankful to have had the net to bring such a wonderful person into my life. On the other hand, I have met many "priests" online whose lives in the religion are a cyber-lie, "priests" to whom people are flocking like lambs to the slaughter. This has led me to the conclusion that the Internet is a good place for (extremely cautious) networking and for recreation, but that as far as learning anything of the practice of this religion, the abuses and potential dangers for the novice far outweigh the benefits.

After expressing concerns about the behaviour of the Orisha worshippers on the Internet, a friend recently posed to me the question: "Where are we going?" My answer is that we are going exactly where we have always been going. The religion will continue to teach evolution and development of character. People will continue to benefit from it. The Internet will, in the end, be neither here nor there in the big picture. Yes, on the net, there are those who will come together with peace and truth in their hearts, and they will grow because of it. As for those who are here only to perform for their own benefit: Only in their minds, in which cyberspace is the only real world, will their posturing be of any consequence. Meanwhile, in basements, apartments, temples and homes; Oloshas, Awos and Aleyos will worship, feed and celebrate the Orishas, actively participating in that which those who exist in the religion only on the net so desperately want to play a part. As with every other group in the world, there are those who DO and others who only sit and theorize. Those who sit and theorize will, in the end, have no effect whatsoever.