Disciples fill Faizah Perry's sunny suburban Houston home for a day of worship as chanting emanates from a sheet-curtained side room in which she divines the future and enacts other secret rituals.
Perry, a priestess, feels a deep spiritual connection to a saint-like "patron" called Ogun and predicts events channeling other spirits using sacred seashells.
Her faith is called Santeria, a religion grounded in African beliefs that were transported to the New World aboard slave ships and melded with Christian beliefs in Cuba. By at least one survey now a decade old, there were about 22,000 Santeria practitioners active in the United States.
Perry estimates the greater Houston area is home to thousands of Santeria believers, although the community here is small compared to those in New York or Miami.
Normally, Perry, 44, embraces the roles of educator and publicist for the religion, putting her among a generation of religious leaders moving Santeria out of the shadows and onto the Internet. While many believers, troubled by the sensational depiction of Santeria in print and film, eschew publicity, Perry speaks to college classes and the media.
"We believe in one god and his emissaries," she said, likening the nature-based deities to Catholic saints, with which they sometimes are associated. "The orishas are our saints. We talk to them for earthly matters, to get spiritual fulfillment. When they come on a person, on their priest, he channels their energy. It's not the zombie-walking, buck-eyed trance of Hollywood movies ... It's very much like what you'd see in a charismatic church.''
Just 'normal' people
While the Afro-Cuban religion transformed her life, Perry knows all too well that it is often wildly misunderstood. Once, she was confronted by a group of tattooed men while pumping gas at a Houston service station.
"Yo mami," she remembers one saying. "You're Santeria. Give me protection." The menace was unmistakable.
The men, she knew, had recognized her colorful religious jewelry and likely had seen a popular online Spanish video in which a Santeria priest's spell enables border-crossing outlaws to vanish as agents move in for the nab. Perry, an international health worker with a doctorate, played dumb. In feigned broken English, she told the men they were mistaken, explaining that her bracelets were souvenirs of an African trip.
To Perry's relief, the men, thwarted in coercing magical protection, let the matter drop.
"We have attorneys, a school administrator, a writer, teachers, firemen, bakers, construction workers, computer workers and college students," she said of temple members. "We have African-Americans, Latinos and a lot of whites. We're just normal taxpaying people struggling with our problems like everyone else. We're not into hocus-pocus, not boiling frogs or horse paws in the back yard. It simply doesn't go like that."
Grounded in the beliefs of Yoruban-speaking cultures centered in the West African nations of Nigeria and Benin, Santeria shares some characteristics with Haitian Vodou and Brazilian Condomble. Santeria blossomed in Cuba in the 19th century as that Spanish island became a center for the brutal sugar trade.
Between 1512 and 1761, about 60,000 slaves were brought to Cuba. By 1838, the slave population had grown to about 400,000. Key to the growth of Santeria, many scholars believe, was the creation of cabildos, slave societies sanctioned by the Catholic Church to encourage Christianity in society's lowest ranks.
What happened through the melding of African and Catholic beliefs, said University of Houston anthropologist Keith McNeal, was that African deities took on the public identity of Catholic saints, in part because slaves sought to disguise those beliefs from whites. Santeria, McNeal said, also incorporated aspects of other religions, both in Africa and in the New World.
'Like binary code'
Divination plays a major role in the religion, said UH anthropologist Susan Rasmussen. Priestess Perry has been trained to enlist the orishas in foretelling the future through the casting of sacred cowrie shells. Her husband, Rony, a higher-level priest or babaloa, can employ the Ifa system, relating the patterns of a tossed divination chain to the hundreds of parables he has memorized.
"It's a lot like binary code," said Rony Perry, whose college discipline was computer science. "There are 265 possible combinations."
Rasmussen likened such sessions to "social counseling."
"A diviner is almost like a psychotherapist," she said.
Orishas also communicate with their disciples through spirit possession, a process Rasmussen compared to "group therapy."
In such ceremonies, believers enter a trance state in which the characteristics of their orisha are manifest. The orisha may deliver messages to the group, predict the future, bestow blessings or dance.
Many believers in Santeria, which came to the U.S. with waves of Cuban immigrants fleeing the island's 1959 communist takeover, said much of the religion's appeal lies in its ritual and direct contact with the divine.
"It's a hands-on religion," said Bernardo Longoria, a Mexican-born Santeria priest who was among recent visitors to Perry's house-temple. Longoria, 62, was reared as a Catholic but found the church hierarchy and liturgical formality off-putting.
Looking for answers
Although introduced to Santeria as a child, Perry, born in Trinidad, the daughter of a devout Egypt-born Muslim father and a West Indian Hindu mother, actively became involved in 2005. The belief system, she said, was a remedy for a feeling that despite a loving husband and three successful children, something was missing from her life. What she found, she said, was transformative.
"Orishas," she said, "rule over every force of nature. They guide us to a better life spiritually. Communication between orishas and humans take many forms - meditation, prayers, rituals, divinations, offerings, songs and dance. Its premise is based on iwa pele - good and gentle character - and we're held to higher standards, expected to always take the high road, to become better people."
Perry is a "child" of the hypermasculine Ogun, patron of those who work with iron or steel whose purview extends from the lethal results of a metal weapon in a killer's hands to the life-sparing skills of a scalpel-wielding surgeon. Perry's duties consist primarily of serving Ogun and overseeing daily activities at her temple, which also is her residence. She oversees the training of future priests and joins her husband in officiating at ceremonies, events that often feature channeling of orishas and occasionally animal sacrifice.
"When you go to a church and a minister gives a sermon to 100 or 200 people, that's nice. People may take something away from it," Perry said. "But with (this religion) when you get that message, it's very specific about what you should be doing."