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We're doing a retreat in Miami soon, and when we do a retreat, we often take a look at the spirituality of the area.

In the case of South Florida, you have a terrific Catholic populace fueled by the influx of Latin American culture (so dedicated, for example, to Our Lady of Guadalupe).

Naturally, there are other spiritual issues in the region and when you think of the other side of the coin -- the dark side -- you think of materialism and drugs and fast living. You may also think about occultism. For it is certainly prevalent here.

The other day we phoned a former North Miami police investigator who is considered by the department as the foremost expert on these matters, retired Sergeant Nelson Reyes (now a police officer in Aventura), and were surprised at a number of things we learned.

Start with this: there are an estimated 500,000 or more practitioners of Santería -- an occult religion -- in the Miami metropolitan area, he said.

If accurate, that's one out of ten who live in the metro area.

Santería is often a melding -- a "syncretism" -- of Yoruba-like rituals from the Caribbean (and before that Africa) with Roman Catholicism.

We say "often" because there are different kinds of Santería and not all have a Catholic interface.

When they do, you will see relics and saints and other Catholic paraphernalia mixed in with rituals that include the blood-slaughter of goats, chickens, cornish hens, pigeons, and other animals.

"It is a widely practiced religion in South Florida," said Reyes, who was raised a Catholic but no longer adheres to a specific faith. "People tend to classify it as bizarre because they place they're own religious template on it."

Well, not exactly.

Santería is occultic. That means pagan. There are various deities -- gods and goddesses. The animals are sacrificed to them -- as in Old Testament times.

While Reyes argues that we shouldn't superimpose a "template" on that, and that it was something practiced in biblical times, we mentioned that Jesus came precisely to break this sort of practice and that animal sacrifice ended with the New Testament.

In Africa, the Yoruba religion involves one deity (in charge of potentiating herbs) who is often pictured like the devil and another that is associated with phallic powers. They also believe in reincarnation.

Be that as it may, retired Sergeant Reyes is a very knowledgeable man who offered another surprise, explaining that the occult practice of slaying an animal in a blood ritual is not a legal offense -- against the law.

It turns out that in a 1993 case called Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, the Supreme Court held that an ordinance passed in Hialeah, Florida that forbade the "unnecessary" killing of "an animal in a public or private ritual or ceremony not for the primary purpose of food consumption" was unconstitutional. The law was enacted soon after the city council of Hialeah learned that the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, which practiced Santería, was planning on locating there (centralizing sacrifice and disposal of the animals).

In other words: freedom of speech and religion.

As Wikipedia explains, "Santería is a system of beliefs that merges the Yoruba religion (which was brought to the New World by slaves imported to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations) with Roman Catholic and Native Indian traditions. These slaves carried with them various religious customs, including a trance for communicating with their ancestors and deities, animal sacrifice, and sacred drumming."

Our argument: that's occult. Sergeant Reyes' take: it's how you view it.

Many people who practice Santería are good people. Credit them for believing in God. Let's pray, rather than condemn. But there is that strong occult element. And it melds with Catholicism. As the BBC reported:

The Roman Catholic element in Santería is most obvious in the way Orishas are associated with Catholic saints such as:

Santería has few buildings devoted to the faith. Rituals often take place in halls rented for the purpose, or privately in Santería homes which may be fitted with altars for ritual purposes. During appropriate rituals the Orishas are able to meet believers at these sacred spaces.

Material for use in Santería rituals can be bought in specialist outlets called botánicas.

These rituals can include Roman Catholic elements:  in Santería, one ritual against evil eye combines a specially prepared herbal bath with three Our Fathers, Three Credos, and Three Ave Marias.

You know, these people may be sincere. But one has to be cautious not to rub up against voodoo (for sure).

Look where it got Haiti. Look what it spawns in New Orleans.

And in western Nigeria?

"The Orisha may 'seize the head' of a person (or 'mount them' as if they were a horse)," we are told, "and cause that possessed person to perform 'spectacular dances', and to pass on various messages from the Orisha to community members.

So we can pray for these good people to purify while we all seek to purify.

Former Sergeant Reyes also tells us that there is Satanism in South Florida, but often just "self-styled" youngsters.

There is a substantial amount of witchcraft.

There are occultists of all types (no doubt, many intermeshed with drugs), as everywhere. There is "boko" which is "black voodoo." (Isn't it all black?)

But back to Santería:


It got a bad rap, argues the officer, during the Mariel boat lift, when Castro released many criminals and let them migrate to South Florida. Many of these criminals were associated with Santería simply because it is a common practice in their ethnic group.

Can we adjust to animal sacrifice (taking a sharp knife to the neck of that goat)?

Sergeant Reyes points out that in Santería they pray before they kill an animal, while Christians pray after the animal is dead (when they say Grace). "If you take away your template," he says, "what difference does it make?"

He also argues that if you are going to outlaw animal killing, you also have to outlaw hunting, fishing, mousetraps (a "horrendous death," he points out), and so forth.

And one can appreciate some of the rationale.

But... Bottom line: South Florida has a bunch of folks practicing pagan communication. So, if you will, pray for them. Pray for everyone.

Places that are into magical religions often have issues.

Next time hurricane season rolls around, ask New Orleans.

-- Michael H. Brown

[Retreat in South Florida, January 28]

[see also: Our sad time, prayer need: thousands of Ugandan  children sold for sacrifices]

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