Sunday, January 9, 2011

Religion in Salvador

As I traveled around Brazil, I noticed that many of the Brazilians I met wore bracelets like this:

These bracelets are wish ribbons originating from Salvador's famous Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim. People make a wish as they tie them on, making three knots, and then leave them on until the ribbon disintegrates on its own. According to the tradition, cutting them off is bad luck and will prevent the fulfillment of your wish. When you visit the Church, you can see many of the wish ribbons tied to the fences out front, like this:

The Church of Bonfim is a very unique place, where Catholicism and African religion intertwine.

Bonfim is an important shrine, where people go to seek healing, and to offer praise to God after being healed. It even has a "room of miracles", full of wax replicas of body parts for which people are seeking healing:

The bulletin boards along the walls of the room are covered with letters and pictures of those who seek or have received healing:

While I was there, I saw a priest bless a woman by sprinkling holy water on her, and saw him offer a similar blessing on a car.

Each January, during the Feast of Bonfim, a huge procession makes its way through the streets of Salvador to the Church, where Bahianas in their traditional white dresses wash the steps and plaza in front of the church with scented water.

Salvador is famous for its festivals. Roberto described many of them to me, and I got the sense that during the months from December to February, they had a huge festival once or twice a week. Many of the festivals relate to the various African/Candomble gods whose worship was preserved by the slaves.

Just around the corner from my hotel was the beach where a festival to the god Yemanja is held each year, where people throw their offerings of food or flowers out to the sea.

In Candomble, Yemanja is not only the god of the sea, but is also the loving mother of mankind. A little shrine to her sits right next to a Catholic church, where you can often see fishermen bringing in their catch.

Roberto took me to the Casa Branca Engenho Velho, one of the Candomble temples, which also had a statue of Yemanja, along with a replica of a boat:

My favorite part of that temple was seeing the large grove of bamboo, which represents eternity, Roberto explained, because bamboo keeps growing and growing and can be very difficult to get rid of.

Women often founded and led the Candomble temples, because the male slaves were often out in the sugarcane fields and not as available to participate in or lead the religion.

The slave women even created an organization called "Irmandade da Boa Morte", or the "Sisterhood of the Good Death", which continues to this day. Each woman contributed money, which they saved up in order to purchase their freedom, one person at a time. They also used the money to give slaves a respectful funeral and burial. Recently, with the help of Martin Luther King Jr's widow and others, the organization was able to acquire this building, which is in the small town of Cachoeira about an hour's drive outside of Salvador.

I loved seeing the photos of the women in the little museum there:

Along the side of the road to Cachoeira, you see bottles of wine and bowls of food left on little tablecloths. These are offerings people have left for the Candomble gods, each god preferring a different offering.

At a museum with larger-than-life carvings of many of the Candomble deities, Roberto shared with me many of the myths and legends. They reminded me of the myths and legends of the Greek and Roman gods, in that the gods weren't perfect, and would go around betraying and backstabbing each other.

For instance, this god was a plural wife of one of the male gods, and felt neglected by her husband. She asked her husband's favorite wife the secret for making the husband love her so much, and the favorite wife replied that she always sliced a small piece of herself off and included it in the soup she fed her husband, which was not true. But, the unfavored wife believed it and sliced a large portion of her head off to include in her husband's soup. Her husband was horrified at that and rejected her, and so now this female god with a large piece of her face missing represents being betrayed.

I had a hard time wrapping my head around many of the myths and stories of the Candomble gods. They are a million miles away from the religious tradition in which I was raised: belief in a perfect, just, merciful, righteous God who asks us to strive to become perfect as He is. I pondered how such very different belief systems could result in very different outcomes for individuals and societies.

One of the highlights of my trip was attending services in my own faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, while I was in Salvador.

The people there were very, very warm and loving towards me, despite my lack of ability to speak Portuguese. When I entered the building, I was taken by the hand by one of the women, who took me to the Relief Society women's meeting first, where the lesson topic that day was, ironically, the gifts of the spirit, including the gift of tongues that enables us to quickly learn new languages. Unfortunately, I didn't receive the gift of tongues at that time, although I did understand the gist of the lesson due to the kind sister next to me who held her Portuguese manual so I could read from it also, which helped my comprehension.

During the second Sunday School hour, I enjoyed seeing the people interact with each other and was charmed by how fun and delightful they were. The teacher asked us to find a partner, assigning each partnership to read, discuss, and report on a scripture to the class. I felt sorry for my poor partner, who had to do it all on her own!

My favorite part was the third hour Sacrament Meeting, probably because a kind missionary sat next to me and translated for me. On the other side of me sat a young boy in t-shirt and jeans who recently joined the Church and had a beautiful sense of peace and serenity about him.

Two new converts were confirmed members of the Church that day, sitting on a chair in the front of the room as a small number of priesthood holders placed their hands on each convert's head, blessing them and giving them the most precious gift of the Holy Ghost. One of the converts was a middle-aged woman who the missionary told me had been very scared; as she walked back to her seat, she looked at me, I smiled at her, and she smiled broadly in return.

The other convert was a 14-year-old girl in a short black leather mini-skirt, a type of clothing you don't often see in LDS churches. I said a prayer in my heart for her that the gift of the Holy Ghost she just received, and her involvement with the Church and the gospel would protect her from the dangers of this sometimes dark world.

After the meeting, I found myself surrounded by people wanting to chat with me and welcome me. They were so very sweet. One of the kind, cute women who helped me earlier handed me a note, which said "I liked of the be your friend", giving me her contact information and saying "Thank's for time and fore ver welcome in Brazil." She ended it with "Kiss, Kiss" and then signed her name.

Her adorable 14-year-old daughter also handed me a note, which said, in part, "I like everyone American. How are you? You very beautiful." She drew a butterfly, with "Ai love you's" written above it. How can you not love people like that?!? I was very touched by their warmth and kindness, and we became Facebook friends that afternoon!

Did I mention I love Brazilians?


Lori said...

What an amazing gift...friendship that spans cultures and languages. A love of the gospel of Jesus Christ in common...and now you will get to share their lives. Wonderful!!

Paigeo said...

Sweet notes from new friends. Thanks for keeping the adventures coming!

HW said...

I love your heart. I love that you prayed for that young girl to be protected.