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.