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Practitioners of African Traditional Spirituality Put Most Observations on Hold During COVID-19 Pandemic

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As the faithful of the Abrahamic traditions world over have been grappling with the impact of the COVID0-19 pandemic on their religious observances—Passover, Easter and Ramadan – so, too, have practitioners of African Traditional Religion.

The observances of ATR don’t depend as much on a fixed calendar although there are such.  But for the most part, traditionalists heed the prognostications of their diviners who determine the outlook over a particular geographical area and/or faithful who may be far from home.

From Nigeria to the Caribbean to the Americas, an epidemic had been foretold.

African Americans apprehend the observances through two major avenues of tradition: that of the Cuban derivation, called Lucumi (derogatorily as Santeria) and Isese, of direct Nigerian tradition.

Both would agree that whatever is ordinarily done in this season has been superseded by the pandemic’s immediate threat of disease and death. For the Cubans, the ‘Letra del Ano” or reading of the year, a divination session conducted on Jan. 1, 2020, by luminaries in Cuba’s Ifa tradition is proving prescient, not just for Cuba but the world. Proliferacion de Epidemicas debido a la mala hygiene y la indiscipline social, it read. Proliferation of epidemics because of bad hygiene and failure of social discipline.

Fully six months earlier, at the beginning of the year for Nigeria, the diviners’ prediction from June 2, 2019, in the holy city of Ile Ife, also indicated that epidemics could happen because of bad hygiene.

In both Lucumi and Isese, adherents generally appeal to the forces of nature (water, wind, fire, earth and all in those domains) on the planet as spiritual beings endowed with consciousness.

Right now, they are petitioning Olodumare (almighty God, owner of the day) in general and Babaluaiye (Father of the Hot Earth) as well as the memory of their beloved ancestors.

Babaluaiye is the force of sickness, acknowledged for the power of devastation to humanity through disease. In Nigeria, he became associated with the hot earth because sickness came during the hot dry season. He is further associated with ancestors and the force of death because of the burials of the dead.

One of Babaluaiye’s apataki, or myths, is that when he was on the road, during that hot, dry season, people hid in their homes until he passed by. Where disease had overcome a village, survivors hid in the forests.  In other words, social distancing. 

Among the Lucumi in the United States, social distancing seems to be the order of the day. “This is having a big impact on us,” said Nelson Rodriguez, a renowned Oriate (master of ritual initiations) who lives on the seventh floor of a large apartment building in New York’s hot zone, the Bronx.

Normally he travels to California, Puerto Rico, Florida and Cuba to conduct initiations but he hasn’t left his house since the shelter-in-place order in March. In his late 60s, he’s diabetic and a former smoker, a virtual poster child of a pandemic victim.

He asked a friend to take his dog because he can’t risk walking him in his neighborhood where it is clear, looking on the crowds below his seventh floor balcony, that too many people are ignoring Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s directive.

Even when he is not traveling, Rodriguez is accustomed to attending drum ceremonies that typically involve 50 people or more and doing what ordinary priests do: one-on-one divinations and prayer sessions called misas.

Instead, he is conducting a course on divination for his students through Zoom.

Among Isese in the United States and in Africa, such strict adherence to social distancing doesn’t appear to be as rigid among practitioners, perhaps because a lot of their stateside leadership is in Georgia and South Carolina. Diviners are working hard, determining what prayers and offerings should be done at this time to both lessen the impact on human beings and to calm the Earth itself.

Debunking conspiracy theories, Araba Awodiran Agboola says “The virus originated in nature,” and is a response to violations of nature by human beings.  “Nature is present to correct the behavior.” 

Willie Ramos, Lucumi organizer of Oloshas United, a federation of priests and priestesses all over the United States, has called for a nationwide moratorium on rituals except in life-or-death situations and pre-burial rituals called Etutu. Not knowing how long the health crisis will last, he believes that adherents may have to figure some things out that may change ritual to accommodate the times we live in.

All members of the faith are wondering how this can be done given that rituals require in-person touch and presence. The HIV-AIDS crisis of the 1980s changed some ritual procedures but because COVID-19 transmits so easily much more care must be taken.

Lucumi practitioners in Philadelphia realize the dangers to themselves, but have started taking steps to make sure their brothers and sisters in the faith who pass away from the virus are properly buried. 

And some Lucumi practitioners in Georgia with members flung across the country were advised to stand down on ritual at least until October.

Internet conversations among the faithful seem to agree that the pandemic is caused by violations to the Earth. Over the last 200 years, the exploitation of resources has been rampant with a visible impact on our ecosystem. 

One comment circulating on Facebook reads that through the pandemic, ‘nature has sent us to our room’ for a time-out. 

And perhaps that is a good thing.

Ifadunke Olayemi, who specializes in appeasement to the ancestors, says she is particularly attuned to water at this time. She uses a vessel of water to meditate and then pours it outside, especially at the roots of trees.

There are posts remarking on the return of wild animals to places where humans have become scarce: beaches, forests, even some paved roads. 

The absence of cars has cleared polluted air in the skies in Los Angeles, New Delhi and, of course New York.

From his balcony, Rodriguez, a native of Puerto Rico, is doing something he never could before in his many years in the Bronx: take a deep, refreshing breath. 

Bay Area

THE DISTINGUISHED JARENA LEE AWARD PRESENTED TO OAKLAND SENIOR PASTOR

Parks Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, located at 476 34th Street Oakland, California is excited to announce that Rev. Dr. Rosalynn Brookins, senior pastor was awarded the auspicious Jarena Lee Award.

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Historic rendition of Jarena Lee, the first female preacher in the A.M.E. church

  Dr. Rosalyn Brookins. Courtesy of Parks Chapel A.M.E. Church.

Parks Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, located at 476 34th Street Oakland, California is excited to announce that Rev. Dr. Rosalynn Brookins, senior pastor was awarded the auspicious Jarena Lee Award.

Jarena Lee (February 11, 1783 – February 3, 1864) was the first female authorized to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. History shows she was born into a free, Black family. Lee saw the immorality of slavery.  At a time period of segregation and inequity, A.M.E. Church founder Richard Allen gave her the opportunity for her voice to be heard despite the fact that there were no provisions for a female to preach. Rev. Lee showed determination to let her voice be heard and to share the holy word, despite racial and gender issues.  Further, Lee was the first African American woman to have an autobiography published in the United States.

During the 5th Episcopal District A.M.E. Founder’s Day Service, the Award was presented to Brookins by Rev. Carieta Grizzell, president of Women in Ministry and pastor of Murph-Emmanuel Church in Sacramento, Ca.  This esteemed award is the highest commendation that a female minister can receive in the A.M.E. Church.

There are many parallels between  Lee and  Brookins.  They both blazed a path forward through adverse circumstances and applied the lessons they learned to their spirituality.  Their similar experiences as female ministers reinforce their relationship with God.  They maintained a steadfast hope in and a strong love for his divine majesty.  

Brookins is the only Episcopal supervisor of the Women’s Mission Society for the A.M.E. Church to be given a pastoral appointment as senior pastor.

Brookins earned her doctoral degree from Payne Theological Seminary in 2018, making her the first inaugurated female to be conferred with the noted degree.  She was the commencement speaker during the graduation.  Her dissertation was entitled “The Rebirth of the Woman’s Prophetic Voice: Using Liberation Theology to Impact the Local Congregation.” 

In 2018, Brookins presented a pilot program in South Africa and subsequently launched the Global School of the Prophets.  While there are many prophetic schools, this is the only type of school that ministers to both clergy and lay women. Brookins exudes great enthusiasm and passion about teaching and she graciously shares her expertise regarding prophecy.  Her courses provide an overview and structure that encourage individuals to develop, explore and expand their prophetic knowledge and understanding.   

The highly organized and comprehensive curriculum includes coverage of the Introduction and  Origin of the Prophetic; Prophetic Call;  Prophetic Ministry;  Prophetic Terminology; Nine Prophetic Traits, and Prophetic Training and the Church.   Students currently participating in the second cohort of the Global School are from the United States, India, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, Belize and Trinidad. 

Just as Lee showed a drive and commitment to serve,  Brookins has the same qualities.  She is an honorable, steadfast pastor who is obedient to all that God has called her to do.  She is a strong leader, and a visionary who genuinely loves preaching the word of God.  Rev. Brookins’ unconditional love and genuine personality has touched the hearts of many.  Her prophetic ministry, powerful sermons and prayers consistently instill hope and inspiration. 

Lee traveled extensively preaching the word of God.  Rev. Brookins has preached the gospel in multiple pulpits across the country, including Canada, Zambia, India and South Africa. 

Regarding his mother’s receipt of this prestigious award, Sir Wellington Hartford Brookins said “I am extremely proud of the accomplishments of my mother.  She is an example of perseverance and daring determination.  She inspires me to move forward every single day and that’s why this award means so much to her and to me.”

Brookins said she is “humbled that the men and women of God felt I deserved such an award. I am moved that God saw it fitting for me to receive such an honorable award.”

The Jerena Lee Award is an amazing recognition of the contributions of Rev. Brookins to the theological foundations of the church as a whole.

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Rush bowls

The perfect blend of all-natural fruits and veggies topped with delightfully crunchy, organic granola, a drizzle of honey, and your choice of fresh fruits and toppers.

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Rush bowls are the perfect blend of all-natural fruits and veggies topped with delightfully crunchy, organic granola, a drizzle of honey, and your choice of fresh fruits and toppers. Packed with nutrients and fully customizable, Rush bowls offer healthy, delicious alternatives to standard fast-casual fare. Rush bowls is open Mondays-Fridays from 10am-6pm at 350 17th Street, Oakland,CA 94619. Available for indoor dining, and delivery through GRUBHUBhttps://rushbowls.com/oakland

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Volunteer’s Green Thumb Brings a Community Garden in East Oakland Back to Life

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Satterell Singh in the Community Garden in Oakland’s Fairfax neighborhood. Photo by Wanda Ravernell.

Satterell Singh is looking forward to the day the water system he is creating at the Community Garden at Ygnacio and Congress in East Oakland is ready.

    Toting 5-gallon bottles from the back of his station wagon into the small lot across from Horace Mann Elementary School in the Fairfax neighborhood is wearing Singh out. “I’m invested in getting rid of this method,” quipped the son of an African American woman and a Punjabi immigrant who met in college in the 1970s.

   The 2005 graduate of Castlemont High School is a former linebacker who carries the bottles with ease. He explains that, so far, everything that comes into the garden is either by his hands or one of the two wheelbarrows in the center of the patch. 

   Besides his 4-year-old daughter Marlie, and wife, Ebony, also a former Knight, he can’t count on regular help with the tasks at hand, but he hoped to change that when he hosted a garden event the day before Easter. 

    On hand were seedlings of Tuscany melon, cucumber, strawberry and wildflowers to entice children to plant in the planter boxes that has been repaired by Singh with found wood.

  Children weren’t coming by themselves, Singh knew, and while the kids were busy, he believed he could persuade some strong parents to help with other strenuous tasks in order to carry out his three-part plan for the garden.

     The first part involves laying down sheet mulch — layers of wood and cardboard that should kill off any crabgrass and other ‘strays’ that the birds plant. Building up the soil for both the planters and the ground is next for Phase 1, followed by pruning and the removal of dead or dying grapefruit and other trees. “Cloning is in the future,” he said of a method to revive the space with healthier plants.

   The second part of Singh’s plan involves the permanent structures, like remodeling the chicken coop with found wood and donated coop wire and building a chicken run, and a 10-foot by 10-foot pergola for shade and a work/entertainment area for visitors. Those structures are key to his water collection, placing barrels in places to collect runoff and a tote that will eventually have a 500-gallon capacity.

    The third part is getting the community involved. He wants to teach people how to develop and take care of an outdoor place that serves both ornamentally and practically. It is important to Singh that Black people be part of the movement to grow their own food and that they see other Black people gaining and teaching those skills.

  Singh’s own eclectic knowledge comes from classes at Laney College, Merritt College and San Francisco State University where he studied Urban Planning, horticulture and landscape gardening. His grandmother, who moved West from Louisiana and raised seven children in the Brookfield neighborhood in Deep East Oakland, taught him the value of growing food of your own. 

    “You know what you put in, so you know what you’ll get out,” he said, a point driven home even more during the pandemic when there was not only food insecurity across the country but a lack of high quality fresh fruit and vegetables.

   (As a boy, Singh raided his neighbors’ yards for fruit so often that they began to gather the plums – his favorite – oranges, figs and avocados and leave them on front stoops for him to pick up.)

    He loved working the garden with his grandmother so much that he started his own landscaping business right after high school, but he couldn’t hold onto it. For a few years, he was part of what he called the ‘backdoor’ cannabis industry. He insisted, however, that his failures in attempting to grow cannabis indoors were both eye-opening and exhilarating, sending him down what he called a ‘rabbit hole’ of knowledge on permaculture, to what he really wants to create, a landscaping business where what is grown is eaten. 

   In the meantime, Singh now works up to 80 hours a week working security to support his family. “I had to put down what I loved, to take of who I love,” he said. But Ebony knew her husband missed working in gardens and she encouraged him to use his spare time in the community garden they discovered just driving by one day. 

    On a chilly morning, Singh has come to the garden after pulling a graveyard shift and a couple of hours overtime, yet he energetically cut back an out-of-control blackberry bush while R&B music wafts from his car radio. Ebony and Marlie bring him a snack. 

   While a neighbor collects oversized grapefruits that have fallen from a tree, Singh, now digging with a trowel around the roots of a lemon tree that had been hidden by the blackberries, gets back to the matter at hand. He will eat later. 

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