Religion, Vodou

Small Religions

Photo and original artwork by Judith Pudden

I took my mom to a Vodou ceremony. She’s visiting me here in New Orleans. The ceremony was small, with seven people in attendance. She asked questions like:

Don’t more people ever come?

How many people usually come to your ceremonies?

Is that everyone involved in the temple?

Initially I brushed aside Mom’s inquiries with accurate, polite answers:

It varies. Some weeks it’s four, some weeks it’s twenty. At the big holidays it might be forty plus.

But around the eighth or ninth time she brought this up, I went deeper:

You’re not really asking how many people attend the Vodou temple. You’re asking why the Vodou temple is failing, because you equate small numbers with failure.

Vodou doesn’t work that way, because we don’t seek to convert people. There’s no recruiting, just honoring the ancestors. A few people coming together for that is beauty.

And I would measure success differently. This is a religion that was beaten out of slaves and then hid underground. Opening the doors is a success. Staying open 25 straight years, serving the public, is a success. And initiating dedicated people every spring, year after year, is a remarkable success.

So I think comparing our numbers to an Episcopal church or a Jewish temple is backwards. This is one of the biggest communities of Vodou outside of Haiti, and our priestesses and priests have made it successful.

This was the most common question when I ran an Irish temple, too. They’d ask how many people were in our congregation. I stopped giving numbers, which were impressively large, and started saying We don’t have a congregation, we have a family.

I don’t know at what point I started thinking of my Vodou sisters and brothers as my family, but I do.

I loved our big Fête Gede with its crowd of 50. But I also love the candlelight and the little press of close friends on lonely nights.

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5 thoughts on “Small Religions

  1. For a a long time I tried to find interested people to form a Druid grove in my local area. I was not successful at this , and I remain a solitary member of ADF. For a little while I even I fell into the trap of thinking I had failed somehow. I carried on by myself because I had always worked with nature spirits , the ancestors and Irish deities in my own spirtual practice. I came to the conclusion that being a grove of one is better than no grove at all. In fact the responsibility to see that the local land spirits are honored seems even greater when you are on your own. you are right in that the numbers do not matter. What matters is that the work is carried out, and the Kindreds are honored, be it by the one or the many.
    Peace,
    Niniann

    • Thank you Niniann. Your story really illustrates the point. I’ve been in your situation many times :)

      I think it can be lonely and hard to be alone on a path. You question yourself. Having even a few people beside you is reassuring and meaningful. Having a few more has its own benefits. There’s nothing wrong with seeking to grow an organization, group or fellowship. But it should be understood (in my opinion) that such growth is neither an end goal in itself, nor a marker of success on its own.

      Too often we seize on the most easily quantified metrics to judge success, when really the “success” of a religion should be judged by the word it does and the experiences it creates.

  2. JeninCanada says:

    Having come into a new circle this last year, and with the focus being fairly often on attendance and drumming up interest, and therefore numbers, I needed to read this. It’s not about how many people show up or that we reach, it’s that we continue to do our work month after month regardless. Thanks, Drew.

    • Exactly. And I should say, there’s nothing wrong with looking to increase numbers as an internal goal — there were times that was important at Temple of the River, and it does bring benefits both for the community and for the people you reach who are sincerely happy to join you. But it’s not the only metric, and in many cases is not even a very good metric, for judging a community or organization’s work.

  3. The family thing is what I’ve had too. It may be with folks whom I have a very very different world view from, but our hearts are in supporting one another and often that is all that is needed.

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