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In A Time Of Activism, Some Blacks In Louisville Seek Alternative Religions

Santero Thomas Edison in his home
Santero Thomas Edison in his home

Gold-rimmed glasses and a large goblet filled all with water sit on a small table inside Thomas Edison’s home. A rosary with aquamarine beads sits on top of the glasses, next to a burning candle.

This, Edison says, is a bóveda: a vehicle that allows energy to come to you.

“And what it does is it’s a way to connect with ancestors,” he said. “It’s a way to show respect and it’s a way to bring peace and tranquility into your home.”

Edison is a professor of Spanish at the University of Louisville. He’s from Kentucky, but he practices the Afro-Cuban faith, Santería.

For Edison, Santería is an escape from an increasingly chaotic world. And he’s not alone. For centuries many black people throughout history have sought healing from alternative religions.

Spiritual practices from Santería to Vodou have provided healing to Afro Descendants in times of resistance, from slave rebellions to the Civil Rights era. Of course, more mainstream religions have played a role, too.

"When we think of great leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X — all of these people had a spiritual foundation to them," Edison said. 

But now in this heightened era of activism and as many marginalized communities feel under attack, these spiritual practices have taken on new meanings.

Some of these faith systems are easily understood. Others are more complicated.

'Satan is your best friend'

Take Satanism, for example. That's Detryck von Doom's religion. And as perfect as it sounds, "von Doom" isn't his birth name; it’s a pseudonym he uses to protect his family from online harassment.

“In Donald Trump's America and Matt Bevin's Kentucky, I really think that Satan is your best friend," he said.

Unlike it sounds, Satanism isn’t about worshiping the devil. For the most part, Satanists are atheists.

“For many of us just calling yourself atheists just isn’t enough,” von Doom said. “Atheism just only says one thing about you — and it’s actually what you don’t believe. It doesn’t tell you about your values. It doesn’t tell anyone what you hold dear.”

And what Satanists hold dear, says von Doom, are egalitarianism and equal rights. That includes rights for people in the LGBTQ community, abortion rights, and rights for marginalized communities.

For von Doom, Satan is a symbol.

“To me the symbol of Satan is the rejection of authoritarianism, not authority, but authoritarianism,” he says. “We do value laws, and I do personally value laws but I will also reject any law that puts one above another.”

For von Doom, the political climate has emboldened his faith.

“Now more than ever we have so much to lose," he said.

While for others like Edison, his practice of Santería offers community and self-care.

“Especially if you’ve been traumatized or you come from a community that has suffered types of trauma there’s certain key things that when you hear in the media it triggers something very deep inside of you,” says Edison. “And when you have a political leader that may say certain things that trigger that, you have to recognize that it’s a trigger and where it comes from and deal with that.”

Tarot Cards As Trauma Treatment

For others, like Austen Smith, their faith is a way to rid a body of negative spirits. Smith is a tarot card reader and Southern root worker.

“Tarot can help dig up what exactly you’re trying to avoid or what you don’t know is there,” Smith said.

Smith said tarot is effective for dealing with collective trauma, which is psychological harm resulting from a traumatic event that affects an entire group of people. And it can be passed down through generations.

Symptoms of collective trauma can include depression or internalized oppression.

“We can’t think about our feelings or emotions when we’re trying to walk down the street and be safe or when we’re in the middle of or facing some sort of racist interaction. And our body and our spirit and energy collects that stuff,” Smith said.

And for U of L Spanish professor and Santero Thomas Edison, whatever helps an individual find meaning in life and cope with challenging events is a good fit.

“There’s only one true religion for me, there’s only one true religion for you but there’s no one true religion for every individual on this globe,” Edison said. “And if people could just recognize what works for you and brings meaning and peace for your life, it’s your responsibility to follow that path.”

Roxanne Scott covers education for WFPL News.

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