Missionaries who serve in Latin America have encountered new and strange beliefs and practices. Most evangelical missionaries have gone to Latin countries prepared to witness to the vast host of nominal Christians within the Roman Catholic Church or to the secular-minded that inhabit the major cities. Time was spent during missionary orientation in the study of traditional Catholic teachings.  Additional time was given to the investigation of cultural norms. The missionary then arrives on the field believing that he is somewhat prepared to proclaim the gospel in the new culture. Soon it becomes clear that something was overlooked during orientation. The missionary comes into contact with what seems to be an unknown religion. True, the majority of the people say that they are Catholic. They attend mass and participate in the many special holy day observances held throughout the year. Yet, among the faithful, there is a large segment that adorn their houses with statues and photographs of Catholic saints, the virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ. This would not in itself seem so unusual if it were not for the altars lavished with flowers, fruits, and vegetables that surround the statues. Perplexity increases in the mind of the missionary as these "faithful" make their way to neighborhood "botánicas" (herb shops) to buy special plants, spices, candles, roots, incenses, powders, magical beads, amulets, and a wide variety of magical paraphernalia. All of these items will be used in connection with the statues of the saints for the purpose of invoking aid from the unseen spirit world.

The scene described above is a common one in every country in Latin America. Even in the United States, especially in those areas that are home to large hispanic populations, it is common to observe these unusual practices among the Catholic "faithful." Those who serve as evangelical missionaries among Roman Catholic communities wonder if they have not encountered a yet unnamed world religion.

Today, there are many voices in the world of religion who indeed believe that Latin America is home to a new major religion. It is called Santería. Conservative estimates put the total number of practitioners of Santería at more than a hundred million. Major populations of adherents are found in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and most of the remaining Latin countries. Santería also flourishes in the Caribbean islands, in the metropolitan centers of New York, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, and in most other areas where there are large numbers of hispanics.

The purpose of this paper is to provide information about Santería to missionaries serving among Latin American populations. Such information will prove helpful in the development of prayer and evangelism strategies. Santería is not to be ignored or taken lightly. There are powers at work among its devotees. Followers of Santería are serious about their allegiance to their religion. Converts by the thousands are looking for answers to life's difficult questions. The Christian missionary knows that salvation and fulfillment can only be found in Jesus Christ. Those who truly believe this must not neglect to carry the message of the cross to the "santeros."


A General Definition

Joseph M. Murphy, a Catholic priest, professor of religion at Catholic Georgetown, and a practitioner of Santería said:

Santería is a religious tradition of African origin that developed in Cuba and that was spread throughout the Caribbean and the United States by exiles of the revolution of 1959. Santería began in the nineteenth century when hundreds of thousands of men and women of the Yoruba people, from what are now Nigeria and Benin, were brought to Cuba to work in the island's booming sugar industry ... The Cuban Yoruba often used the iconography of Catholic saints to express their devotion to Yoruba spirits called orishas. The name Santería, "the way of the saints," is the most common Spanish word used to describe these practices and the word santero (m.) or santera (f.) indicates an initiated devotee. Later generations of santeros would construct elaborate systems of correspondences between orishas and saints, leading observers to see this Caribbean religion as a model for understanding religious syncretism and cultural change. Despite the frequent presence of Catholic symbols in Santería rites and the attendance of santeros at Catholic sacraments, Santería is essentially an African way of worship drawn into a symbolic relationship with Catholicism.

Santería's Roots

Santería evolved from a traditional African religion that began in the Nile Valley among a people called the Twa. The Twa split into four sub-groupings several thousand years ago. Those who moved to the north were called Ta-Merrians or Aegyptians. Those who settled to the south were known as Amazulus, while the branch that moved east were called Agikuyus. The final group, and the primary one to influence the emergence of Santería, was the Yoruba, who settled in the west. Specifically, the Yoruba settled in what is today known as southwestern Nigeria. They developed powerful kingdoms - the most important being Benin, Dahomey, and the Yoruba city states. These kingdoms remained intact from the twelfth century until the beginning of the seventeenth century. At that time the Ewe people made war against the Yoruba, forcing them to flee to the west coast of Nigeria. Shortly following their move to the west coast, literally thousands of Yorubas were captured by slave traders and brought to the new world. Something that could not be taken from them was their religious tradition. As thousands of slaves were transported to Cuba and Brazil, so were the beginnings of what is now called Santería. Today, all across Latin America, the descendants of those slaves, plus many Indians and millions of the descendants of the conquistadors, continue to practice a new form of the old religion.

Summary of Basic Beliefs

It appears that the core beliefs of santeros are based upon fear of the unseen spirit world and its manipulation for protection and blessings. Most santeros would disagree with this evaluation. Devotees prefer to say that Santería has opened up to them contact with benevolent gods and spirits. Followers of the "way of the saints" often boast that the Christian God has little time for, or interest in, the daily affairs of His children while, on the other hand, the gods of Santería are eager to interact with san- teros. Migene González-Wippler, who began her study of Santería as an interested anthropologist but who now is very sympathetic of the "way" said:

To the santero the orishas are not remote divinities, ensconced in their heavenly niches, far removed from worldly matters. On the contrary, they are vibrant, living entities who take an active part in everyday life. One does not pray to an orisha on bent knee. One confronts him or her face to face, either as a force of nature - or, better yet, when the orisha has taken possession of his or her children. For at this time, it is not only possible to talk to an orisha; the orisha can also answer back. There is something very moving and strangely comforting in speaking face to face with an orisha. It reminds us that somehow God is near, that he cares, that we are not alone. It is this strong interaction with the orishas that makes Santería such a powerful and dynamic religion and explains its growing popularity.

Santería's premise that followers find practical help for daily living through the gods and spirits is emphasized in the words of Luis Manuel Nuñez. He said:

To be in your body is a beautiful thing, and the gods prove it by joining you in your body. Is it surprising that peoples with centuries of such tradition move more easily in their bodies than Judeo-Christians for whom the body is suspect?

Although the local manifestations of Santería vary from country to country, and even from region to region in many nations, there appears to be a set of common beliefs held by all santeros. Following are some of them.


Ashé (ah-SHAY) is defined as "Power, grace, blood, the life force of God, the orishas, and nature." Ashé is considered the source of everything. It is the force that maintains order and balance in the universe. When an individual or the group experiences emotional, spiritual, physical, or economic problems, it is a result of an imbalance in ashé. It then becomes necessary to consult an oracle to determine the cause and to find the solution. Raul Canizares explained ashé in this way:

The concept of ashé is central to understanding the right and wrong in Santería. Ashé - from the Yoruba Ase - is, like the Hindu term dharma, a dynamic and hard-to-define concept. While the word ashé has become part of the popular Cuban lexicon, meaning "luck" or "charisma," its ontological meaning is much deeper, referring to a sense of order and balance in the universe. Ashé is the ultimate source of everything.


In order to combat the forces that cause imbalance in ashé, the santero needs a power source. That source is the orishas. Orishas are personal manifestations of ashé. The Yoruba number more than 1,700 orishas among their pantheon of gods. However, only a very few are honored in varying degrees from village to village. The number of popular orishas in Caribbean and American Santería is fewer than two dozen, with only one dozen considered to be prominent. The most important orishas are those that are called the "siete potencias." In English, they are referred to as the seven empowering orishas, or the Seven African Powers. Only they can be ritually placed, or installed, inside the santero's head. They are considered manifestations of God and give the santero power to carry out desired actions. Their attributes and actions will be discussed more fully in a later chapter.


Oludamare, also called Olofí, is the name given to God, the owner of all destinies. Santería teaches that Oludamare is the ultimate destiny of all creation. To know one's destiny is to experience order. This is accomplished through divination. Santería has given the name Ifa to the orisha Orula. This orisha chooses a priest, called a babaloa, to whom is given the power of divination. Ifa is not installed, or "seated", in the head of the santero. Rather he is received into his very soul. The babaloa then receives the ability to reveal a person's destiny through the many methods of divination. Thus, he is respected as one through whom the gods grant the inquirer an understanding of his destiny. Therefore, order is maintained.


Ebo, sacrifice, is central to the belief system of Santería. The orishas demand sacrifices as means of propitiation. Sacrifices may take on many forms such as feasts, baths, cigar smoke, initiations, and special food offerings. The santero believes that the ashé of the sacrifice is consumed by the orisha. Ashé is invisibly received in vegetable sacrifices while it is transmitted to the orisha through the blood of animal sacrifices.


Each santero yearns for intimate encounters with his personal orisha. Through drums and dances, the orisha is invited to bajar el santo, or, in other words, to mount the head of the medium, also called "caballo" (horse). When this happens, the santero enters into a trance-like state and normally remembers nothing following the possession. The santeros believe that they are literally incarnated by the orisha. During this incarnation, they receive special powers that allow them to make amazing predictions about the per-sonal lives of inquirers.


Joseph M. Murphy spoke of the importance of initiation. His words almost seem to describe an evangelistic role, although Santería claims to have no interest in evangelism. He said:

Santeros speak of "making" the saint ... Although I have used the word santero to refer to all santería devotees, only those who have made the saint can properly be called santeras or santeros. Their role is revealed in the Lucumí words iyalocha and babalocha. Iya means both mother and wife and baba both father and husband. Ocha is orisha. So initiates are both mothers and wives, fathers and husbands, of the orishas. They serve their orishas as spouses and give birth to orishas by making them in the heads of new initiates. Thus an orisha is in a continual process of rebirth, being made anew every time an iyalocha gives birth to a new godchild.

Initiation is the entrance into the life of a true santero. The only decision the initiate makes is to open himself up to possession by an orisha. The devotee has no choice regarding which orisha will be "seated upon" him or her. By means of consultation with the oracles through divination and by direct intervention of the orisha,the initiate discovers which "god" has laid claim to him.


As cited earlier in this paper, the orishas, or the manifestations of the gods, number less than two dozen in Santería. Among them there are seven that are considered principle orishas. These are the seven that can be "seated" in the head of a santero. They are Obatalá, Elegguá, Chango, Ogun, Oshún, Yemaya, and Oya. In addition, Ifa, who chooses the babaloa, can also possess the santero.  There are other orishas that, while not worshipped to the extent of the "siete potencias," can be received by the santero. They are not "seated" in the head. Only a principle orisha can control the devotee. However, there are others that are received for the purposes of the other seven. They are known as "nature spirits" and are referred to as minor orishas. Other orishas are received and, unlike the minor orishas, are worshipped, but not "seated." Santeros believe that their ashé cannot be contained within the head because in the case of some it is too powerful, or too immature and unpredictable in regard to others.


Santería teaches that the seven powerful orishas, the "siete potencias," control every aspect of life. Each has different characteristics and play different roles. The immense power of the orisha is sought by individuals who pay homage to that particular one. At the same time, it is recognized that they act as a group to chart the destiny of each human life.


Obatalá is the god of peace and purity and the father of mankind. He is commonly called the "King of the White Cloth." Santeros believe that Obatalá controls the mind and all thought. This orisha is depicted as having both male and female attributes, although he is always referred to in the masculine. Often, santeros carry their offerings for Obatalá to the mountains, where they believe he lives.  Each orisha is fashioned in the form of an image. These images are not simply lined up side by side when santeros meet, nor are they confined to a single space. There is a definite hierarchy, depicted by the porcelain tureens being stacked one upon the other. Obatalá, considered the father of all orishas, occupies the top position.


Knowledge of the attributes and characteristics of Elegguá is fundamental for the practitioner of Santería. This orisha is the revealer of the way to the other orishas. Raul Canizares explained the role of Elegguá as follows:

Elegguá is a mischievous, childlike, theriomorphic figure in the Yoruba/Santería pantheon. Both loved and feared, he is an orisha of vast importance. He has many manifestations, more than any other orisha. Elegguá is the Lord of the Crossroads, a title that alludes to the orisha's control over people's destinies. As Guardian of the Gates, Elegguá protects homes and opens the gates of opportunity for those he favors. Elegguá is also God's messenger and as such is the only orisha other than the great Obatalá to know the secret place where God Almighty, Oludamare, resides. Because of all his attributes, wherever the orisha are revered, Elegguá is the first orisha to be propitiated. Keeping Elegguá happy is a major concern to all santeros.

Santeros believe that all of the orishas have power to bless and to curse. However, all offerings and homage paid to the others will be useless if Elegguá has not been satisfied first. Success in pleasing Elegguá can result in victory over the worst situations, while failure to make him happy can bring calamity upon the most powerful and contented people.


Without a doubt, the most popular orisha in Santería is Chango (sometimes spelled "Shango"). Chango is the ruler of violent storms. Santeros believe that he can harness the forces of nature and transform them into peace and under- standing. Migene González-Wippler described how the followers of Chango, whether the Yoruba of Africa or the san- teros of Latin America, seek to capture his power. She said:

As in Santería, the shrines of Chango in Oyo preserve the orisha's power in the thunderstones (piedras de rayo in Santería), which are collected by the priests when lightning falls. The thunderstones are kept inside a calabash (a wooden batea or bowl in Santería), which sits upon a wooden mortar or odo Chango (known as pilon in Santería). On the orisha's festival, the mortar is washed in water containing the crushed leaves of several plants sacred to Chango, the juice of a snail, and palm oil (epo). Then a rooster is sacrificed and its blood poured upon the thunderstones. Later on, the blood of a ram, which is Chango's sacred animal, is also poured on the stones. During the sacrificial offering, the priest touches the mortar and asks Esu (Elegguá), who is the bearer of all sacrifices, to carry the sacrifice to Chango. These practices have survived, with very few changes, in Santería.

Besides being the source of power, Chango is also exalted as the giver of courage. He provides courage for any change that men face in life and in death. For example, it is believed that Oya opens the doors to the realm of death.  It is Chango that provides the courage to enter death's domain.


The patron of all metals is Ogun. He is called the "ironworker." Ogun seems to have a split personality. He ensures employment for his followers and protects them from criminals. However, he is given credit for all car and railroad accidents that result in bloodshed. González-Wippler said:

As a symbol of war, Ogun is much feared and respected in Santería. Some santeros say that he is the father of all tragedy, a symbol of all the pain and horror caused by war and violence. The orisha is worshipped and propitiated so that he will protect his followers from the very things he represents.


Oshún takes her name from the Oshún River that is found in the region of Oshogo in Nigeria. She is the goddess of the river. She is the orisha of rivers and fresh water. Because life without water is impossible, allegiance to her is considered indispensable for a happy life. Oshún's powers extend to the womb. It is believed that she controls the abdominal area. Whenever there are problems in regard to pregnancies, she is consulted. Oshún plays an important role in the passage of new initiates into Santería. As part of the initiation ceremony the iyawo (initiate) is taken to a clear mountain stream. As he enters the waters, he is stripped of all clothing to indicate that his old life and all of its impurities are being removed. An offering of honey, palm oil, shrimps, and cornmeal is scattered in the waters. Santeros believe that this act entices Oshún to sweeten the passage into Santería for the initiate. A santera described her time in the waters of Oshún this way:

The experience in the river was beautiful ... it was a beautiful place ... I've never been able to find it again. And the water was nice and warm. I wasn't afraid, but I felt so different from that moment on. And going in silence and coming back in silence made me feel like I was a new person already.

In spite of testimonies like this one, it must be emphasized that devotees of Oshún do not bask in wonderful feelings of warmth and security. Oshún is Chango's wife. Because she is, Santeros believe that she understands the problems of love and marriage and that she is particularly adept at solving money problems. However, those who solicit her help walk in fear. They believe that if she is not approached correctly, she can just as easily take money as give it.


Yemaya is Oshún's sister. She is the goddess of the sea waters. This orisha ranks as one of the most popular in Santería. She is the orisha of maternity, and is even credited with taking care of Oshún's children (initiates). Santeros believe that Oshún is too busy with her constant love affairs to spend much time with her children. Yet, she is not considered a bad mother. To the contrary, Oshún is a good mother because she knows that Yemaya loves children and, therefore, is willing to entrust the care of her own to Yemaya. As the goddess of the seas, Yemaya is worshipped as the mother of all life. When she is summoned, it is believed that she endows the worshippers with love and tenderness as she possesses them. Those who are possessed by Yemaya immediately dress themselves in a long white gown, dance to the music of drums, and sway with motions that mimic the movement of ocean waves. As the beat of the drums quicken, the devotee dances like "the waves of a hurrcane."

One interesting fact about Yemaya that seems to contradict her reputation as a goddess of tenderness, beauty, and love has to do with a very unusual behavior. Cockroaches are her favorite food. When she possesses a santero, he will eat every cockroach in sight. Because the insect is favored as messengers by other gods as well, care is taken to be sure that cockroaches are not in view when Yemaya is summoned. This seems to indicate that this "tender" orisha has a crude and dark side as well.


Oya is the orisha of storms and the ruler of the dead. She is a complex orisha and the only one that has power over the dead. Luis Manuel Nuñez said:

Since she is a compassionate orisha, she has allowed many dying children to live as a gift to their parents. Cemeteries are known as "ile yansan," Oya's house. Any- one who uses dead bodies or parts of dead bodies in their ceremonies must render payment and homage to Oya. When- ever there is a haunting, Oya is summoned to dismiss the spirit. Sacrifices must be made to ensure that she takes an interest in the matter. Oya is the orisha of tornadoes and twisting storms, hurricanes and gales. The four winds are dominated by Elegguá, Orunmila, Obatalá, and Oya. Oya has such a terrible face that anyone looking on it will be stricken mad or blind. In ceremonies where Oya descends, no one looks upon her. When she possesses someone, she puts on a red crepe dress or a flowered dress and weaves multicolored ribbons around her head. She only dances warrior dances. When her "children" enter trance, some of them can handle live coals with their bare hands.


It was noted in the introduction of this paper that evangelical missionaries to Latin America often encounter a brand of Catholicism that puzzles them. It does not take long for the observant eye to note that some who say they are "muy católico" (very catholic) do not practice textbook Catholicism. There seems to be an unnatural devotion to the power of the saints. However, it may not be the power of Christian saints that is actually sought. Joseph M. Murphy explained:  Santería has its origins among the Yoruba priests and priestesses of the orishas who were enslaved at the close of the eighteenth and the first decades of the nineteenth centuries. Both in slavery and later when free, the Yoruba in Cuba and their descendants maintained a number of African religious practices by developing complex parallelisms among their experiences with their Yoruba ancestry, the other African traditions that had been brought to Cuba, and the Roman Catholicism that was the official religion of the island. The name santería reflects correspondence that they forged between the Catholicism enjoined upon them by Spanish law and their religious devotions remembered from Africa. They developed multiple levels of discourse to organize their heterogenous religious experience, referring, in more public and secular contexts, to the Yoruba orishas by the Spanish word santos. Alerted to the energetic devotions to these santos practiced by Afro-Cubans, outsiders labeled their religion santería, "the way of the saints."

It is not unusual, therefore, to hear it said of many Catholics in Latin America, and for many to even say of themselves, "Catholic by day and spiritist by night." Those who seek the orishas in a Catholic land have found a religious system in Catholicism that, by its nature, provides a safe environment. The santero sees devotion to the saints as an avenue for encounter with the orishas. He believes that they have power to manifest themselves to the Catholic world through the saints of the church. In fact, the "good" santero prides himself on being a "good" Catholic. He calls the orishas santos, or saints, but also jealousy guards their African names. He says that each of the saints are an "avatar," a path or an aspect of a particular orisha.  Spanish laws, initiated at the insistence of the Roman Catholic Church, unwittingly formed an alliance between Catholicism and the worship of the orisha. For example, before slaves could enter the Indies it was required that they be baptized as Roman Catholics. Slavery was seen as a small price to pay for the promise of eternal life. The Leyes de Indias (Law of the Indies) stated:  We order and command to all those persons who have slaves, Negroes, and Mulattoes, that they send them to the Church or Monastery at the hour which the Prelate has designated, and there that Christian Doctrine be taught to them; and the Archbishops and Bishops of our Indies have very particular care for their conversion and indoctrination, in order that they live Christianly, and they give to it the same order and care that is prepared and entrusted by the laws of this Book for the Conversion and Indoctrination of the Indians; so that they be instructed in our Holy Roman Catholic Faith, living in the service of God our Master.

To aid in the accomplishment of this goal, cabildos (clubs) were started for the slaves. Their purpose was to provide African ethnic groups opportunity for religious instruction and mutual aid. However, they became a perfect means of preserving African tradition and religious expression. As the Yoruba, by this time called the Lucumí in Cuba, learned of the miraculous powers of the Catholic saints, they came to believe that the saints were none other than the orishas of the homeland. The saints were considered to be manifestations of the orishas in Catholic folklore.  Santería means, in addition to "the way of the saints," "the worship of the saints." Santeros identify the saints with the Yoruba orishas. All of the orishas have been given a Catholic identity. For the purposes of this paper only those that parallel the "siete potencias" will be discussed.  Obatalá, although he is syncretized with several saints, is most often associated with Our Lady of Mercy (La Virgen de las Mercedes). A feast in honor of Obatalá is celebrated by santeros on September 24. This is the day of Our Lady of Mercy in the Catholic church. It is believed that there are twenty-one "caminos" (paths) to Elegguá. There is a corresponding saint for each of the "caminos," including Saint Anthony of Padua, the Holy Infant of Prague, Saint Martin of Porres, and Saint Benito. Chango is identified with Saint Barbara. Saint Barbara's day falls on December 4 on the Catholic calendar. Wherever santeros are found, there are elaborate festivals held in Chango's honor on that day. The similarities between the images of the Yoruba deity and the Catholic saint probably explains the identification of Chango with Saint Barbara. For example, the statue of Saint Barbara is made with a cup in her hand. Chango holds a mortar. The image of the saint includes a sword in the other hand. Chango wields an ax. Chango's colors are red and white. Saint Barbara's mantle is red and her tunic is white. Chango is the ruler of the lightning and thunder. Saint Barbara is associated with both of these elements of the storm. Ogun is represented as Saint Peter and on occasion is identified with the archangel Michael. Ogun is considered the guardian of the truth. He is also impetuous and unpredictable. Luis Manuel Nuñez described Ogun's actions:  When Ogun comes down and possesses a Santero or Santera, he dances vigorous warrior dances and pretends to be clearing a path through the forest so that his warriors can follow him. Chango and Ogun should never be summoned to the same ceremony. If they gain possession of bodies at the same time, the two "caballos" will try to fight to the death, no matter how holy the occasion.

Could it be that Catholic instruction regarding Peter as the "rock" upon which the church, the guardian of the truth, was built, and his reputation as impulsive and even ready to fight, provided an easy identification between Ogun and Peter in the mind of the santero?  Oshún is syncretized with Our Lady of La Caridad del Cobre. "La Caridad del Cobre" is translated as "The Charity of Copper." In Nigeria, copper was considered the most precious of all metals by the Yoruba. The Yorubas believed that Oshún loved copper jewelry. When a Catholic saint was introduced to them with the title "Our Lady of La Caridad del Cobre," it was natural to identify Oshún with that saint.   In Santería, Yemaya is represented by the image of the saint called Our Lady of Regla. Regla is the name of the region surrounding the port of Havana in Cuba. This identification is understandable when one remembers that Yemaya is the orisha that controls all oceans, seas, and every creature that lives in them.  Our Lady of the Presentation of Our Lord (Santa Virgen de la Candelaria) is the saint that is syncretized with the orisha Oya. Oya has power over fire, according to the teachings of Santeria. The Spanish word Candelaria means "conflagration," or "a big, destructive fire." Naturally, the devotees of the Yoruba orisha saw Oya manifested in Our Lady of Candelaria.  The identification of the Yoruba traditions with Catholicism does not end with the orishas and the saints. Until recently, when a number of Jews embraced Santería, it was required of initiates to be baptized Catholics. As in the Catholic tradition, holy water is vital in Santería ritual. Some priests even bottle holy water to sale to the "botánicas" (herb shops) where santeros shop. Santeros insist that devotees attend Catholic mass. Candles are lit in honor of the orishas. Special masses are conducted on the birthdays of orishas. For example, one of the most popular masses honoring an orisha takes place each year in New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral in honor of Our Lady de la Caridad del Cobre. Even though the Catholic Church insists that the mass is said in honor of Cuba's patron saint, the priests are very much aware of the identification of the saint with Oshún. Worshippers even wave yellow handkerchiefs, Oshún's color, as the image of the Catholic saint is carried around the cathedral.  Migene González-Wippler illustrated the extent of Catholic and Santería syncretism. She said:  There are prayers printed in loose form or in prayer collections, all of which refer to the orishas as Catholic saints. One of the most popular of these prayers is that of the Seven African Powers (Las Siete Potencias Africanas) ... The image representing the Seven African Powers shows a circular chain interspersed with the seven medals of the Catholic saints identified with the ori- ishas, but with the Yoruba names inscribed on the medals. At the bottom of the chain are the seven implements of Oggun. In the background there is a crucifix with all the various elements of the crucifixion. The name at the feet of the cross is Olofí, showing the accepted identification of Jesus with the Yoruba super deity.


Any belief system that numbers more than one hundred million followers and that is growing at a phenomenal rate demands the attention of evangelical missionaries. Prayer must be offered for the salvation of those who have been deceived by falsehood. Strategies must be developed for evangelizing the santero.

Increase Awareness

It is the opinion of the author of this paper, based upon almost ten years as a missionary in two Latin American countries, and after extensive conversations with missionaries from other Hispanic nations, that very little is known about Santería in evangelical circles. Yet, Santería, in one form or another, is present in many strategic mission fields. For example, while known as Santería in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama, the religion goes by different names in other areas. In Brazil, while maintaining some cultural adaptations that give it a Brazilian flavor, the religion of the orishas is present. The orishas find expression in Candomblé and Macumba. Of Candomblé, Roman Catholic Bishop Boaventura Kloppenburg, of the diocese of Salvador said:  They have abundant ritual and ornamentation, as the Church does. They are strongly traditional and give great value to authority figures as we do. As for the orixas (orishas), we have saints and angels, and have always operated on the basis of intermediaries. And what they call axe (ashé), their divine force, is like the Christian state of grace.  Missionaries must not only be aware of the presence of Santería and its cousins from the land of the Yorubas, but must also be alert to the people's belief in the power of the orishas. The following excerpt appeared in The Brazil Herald in 1972. It speaks of the respect that is felt for the power of the gods of Macumba. The article tells of a man who hired a taxi to take him and a black goat to a crossroad at night. He was going to make a sacrifice to Exu (Elegguá in San- tería). Upon reaching their destination, he asked the taxi driver to assist him by holding the goat's head in place while he struck it with a wooden hammer. The newspaper reported:  The demon Exu played one of those tricks he notoriously likes to indulge. The hammer, instead of landing on the goat's head, landed on the head of the driver, who dropped dead ...

Santería has even infiltrated and heavily influenced already existing spiritist groups in many countries. The cult of Maria Lionza in Venezuela is such an example. Angelina Pollak Elitz described the cult as follows: The cult of Maria Lionza is a magico-religious movement that has its roots in Amerindian, African, and Christian beliefs and rituals, but in its present form emerged only in the course of the past four decades ... The cult absorbed former superstitions, healing practices, and magical rites that existed in Venezuela and has borrowed heavily in recent years from Cuban Santería, which was introduced to the Caribbean area through Miami after the beginning of the Cuban exodus in 1959.

Possession by spirits is one of the important trademarks of this group. Possession by the gods and spirits is desired for purposes of divination, healings, magic, and sensual practices. While Maria Lionza, worshipped as "the goddess, Queen, and Mother," remains the central character in the cult, the African orishas of Santería have joined her courts. There are several courts that surround the "Queen." Among them are the Celestial Court, made up of all of the saints. There is the Indian Court, composed of the greatest Indian chiefs of past Venezuelan history. One of the most important courts is the Court of Simon Bolivar, the liberator of Venezuela. In addition to the spirits of Venezuelan national heroes, those of famous historical figures such as John Kennedy, Stalin, Hitler, and Pope John XXIII also grace this court. In recent years, with the arrival of Cuban santeros, the African Court has been added to the pantheon of Maria Lionza. As in other lands where Santería has left its mark, the African orishas have been identified with their equivalent Catholic saint. Olofí (Oludamare) is the Holy Spirit. Obatalá is the Virgin of Mercedes. Yemaya is Our Lady of Regla. Chango is represented by Saint Barbara. Elegguá appears as Saint Anthony or Saint Roque. Oshún is Our Lady de la Caridad del Cobre. Orunmila is Saint Francis of Assi. To effectively witness in the power of the Holy Spirit, missionaries must be aware of the presence of powers utilized by the enemy to keep people in bondage. For those serving in Latin America, the examples cited from Brazil and Venezuela are evidence of the need for a better understanding of Santería's influence upon the population. Too often, however, nothing is done to reach those who are enslaved by worship of false gods, demons, and spirits because Christians have been too busy with normal church and mission activities to take notice of their plight.

Proclamation for Conversion

In order to reach santeros for Christ, the missionary must renew his commitment to the gospel. As Paul, he must declare, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile" (Rom. 1:16, NIV). Joseph M. Murphy noted that, although the Yoruba were carried as slaves to Protestant North America and Catholic Latin America, Santería was not found until recent years in the United States. He then asked an interesting question. "If the orishas lived on in the United States, they did so under heavy disguises indeed. Why then do we find Santería in Havana and not in Charleston." Murphy, a Catholic professor of religion, then supplies an insightful answer to his own question that compels us to preach for real conversion. He said: The idea of conversion in Catholicism has always laid more stress on ceremony than on experience. Catechesis, in all New World missionals, is a stage of evangeliza-tion after baptism. As the practice of infant baptism implies, entry into the Roman Church is not dependent on knowledge of the Bible, theological understanding, or emotional experience. Whatever the psychological disposition of the slaves receiving baptism, the Catholic church argued that they had made a genuine spiritual transition because of the church's faith in the sacramental efficacy of baptism...Catholicism opened a "wide gate" to entrants, admitting all who were sacramentally initiated. Protestantism, on the other hand, opened a "narrow gate" to its prospective entrants. Conversion in the Protestant countries of the New World generally entailed a personal conversion experience. A convert would be expected to show a sincere commitment to the example of Jesus and a working knowledge of Scripture. Those who could not make this commitment could not truly be "saved," "born again," or "Christian."

Strategies and methods may vary from country to country, and even within countries, but the gospel must never be compromised. Perhaps it is an indictment on today's preaching and the witness of Christians that Santería is now flourishing in the United States. It has already been observed that centers of Santería are abundant in Miami, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The excuse given is the large influx of immigrants from Latin America. However, in 1970 Santería also came to where it could not previously take root. The Oyotungi Village on the South Carolina coast near Charleston was established for the worship of the African orishas. It seems obvious that Murphy's observation on the power of Protestant preaching that demanded conversion is a good one. Could it be that Santería is now on the move across Latin America and in the United States because our strategies for reaching the unsaved have failed to give priority to God's ordained way to reach the lost? His word says, "It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe" (I Cor. 1:21b, KJV). The orishas of Santería cannot stand against the power of the gospel. However, failure to preach the gospel can result in the deception of souls for which Jesus died. The testimony of Awo Fa'lokun Fatunmbi should disturb all of God's people. He said:  I was raised a Methodist in an upper middle class suburban neighborhood. Church was a place I went to on Sunday mornings and ignored during the rest of the week. Religious instruction was something that came through Sunday school and sermons. My recollection of this instruction was that it focused on the issue of being well behaved. I cannot remember ever hearing religious myth used as a basis for social change, and I had no idea that there was such a thing as Spiritual transformation.  During my teen years I turned to the clergy in an effort to resolve some emotional difficulties related to a broken relationship. The pastoral guidance I received was the suggestion to see a doctor who could prescribe tranquilizers...As a result of a series of para-normal experiences I made an effort to seek out anyone who could assist me in evaluating those experiences. In 1980 I started attending Lucumí ceremonies and attended some workshops on Native American Spirituality.

Fatunmbi's search for meaning led him to receive into his "head" the orishas of Santería and he is now a fervent writer on the merits of Santería, Lucumí, and Ifa. What could have happened if the gospel, rather than tranquilizers, had been prescribed?



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Crumrine, N. Ross and Alan Morinis, eds. Pilgramage in Latin America. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

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