I first came to the Orisha Spiritual Baptist Church to accompany a friend who had been attending for some time as part of research for his dissertation on Afro-Caribbean mysticism. His investigations into the Trinidadians’ religious practice had turned him from a bemused anthropological observer to an engaged participant, to the point where he had gotten baptized. My friend’s tale of his unconventional baptism, which involved being shut in a room blindfolded and fasting for five hours and then getting dunked in the ocean at Coney Island beach, easily grabbed my attention. We took the bus down to Flatbush. We got off in front of the church’s brightly colored storefront, the awning prominently displaying its primary services—Infant Baptism, Solemnization Matrimony, and Burial of the Dead.
My friend and I slip inside the big wooden doors and quickly find a place among the short rows of folding chairs. There can’t be more than twenty people at the service and everyone is dressed in the colorful Trinidadian robes except us, who, by contrast, look like we got lost on the way to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Occupying the center of the room is a hulking mass of confetti-colored candle wax, with incense and candles burning on top. Horns, beads, and statues fill up little shrines pocking the walls and a bronze candelabra in the shape of a ship steering wheel spins lazily above us.
The Spiritual Baptist faith originated when groups of African slaves called the Merikins (nicknamed for their slanted pronunciation of “Ah-merican”) fought beside the British against the Americans in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. In exchange for their service they were granted their freedom and land on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. There, Spiritual Baptism developed as a hybrid between the ancient African beliefs in Orisha spirits and the Baptist practice that the slaves had picked up in the American colonies. The Spiritual Baptists, or “Shouters” as they came to be referred to because of their spirited and evangelical hollering, became a public nuisance to colonial authorities in the early 1900s, resulting in the passage of the 1917 Shouter Prohibition Ordinance, a repressive attempt to legislate them out of existence. The law effectively outlawed Spiritual Baptist worship, but was later repealed by the Parliament in 1951.
At the service the Leader Selwyn Wilkinson commands the pulpit. The altar is decorated in gold letters, Christmas lights and shepherds canes. A glowing neon Christ buzzes behind him. Selwyn shouts excitedly to the congregation in machine-gun-fire bursts of scripture that are difficult for me to understand because of his West Indian accent. Someone puts a tambourine into my hand and I play along with the rest of the congregation, an undulating rhythm emerging from our noisy reveling. A woman in front of me, who seemed sullen and cynical at the beginning of the service, is seized by the spirit and heaves around uncontrollably, bucking like a rodeo bull. Some women grab a towel and wrap it around her waist, cinching it from the back to restrain her, in the way that you would bridle a horse. The woman’s eyes roll back into her head, and she eventually returns to her former self. Reverend Selwyn’s face glistens with sweat and he motions for us to stop playing. He points to the ceiling and shouts,
“IF YOU CAN’T FEEL THE SPIRIT—YOU’RE ALREADY DEAD!”
A woman who everyone calls “Number 3” is brought to the center of the room to prepare for her mourning. Mourning is a voluntary rite in the Spiritual Baptist church where the mourner lies blindfolded in a room for days without food or water in order to escape their “carnal” body and commune with the inhabitants of another world. It is one of the ritual voyages that believers undertake in their lives with the church.
“Anyone who has a problem with Number 3—now is the time to resolve it!” Leader Selwyn commands. Number 3 apparently has no outstanding issues, so she walks the gamut of the congregation saying goodbye, pausing to share a poignant moment with her young daughter. Leader Selwyn tells me her trip will last “anywhere from 3 days to 2 weeks. The mourners that just go three days often have to go back again” he bellows laughing, “Like the kids who don’t do well in school and have to come back for the summer.”
In preparation for mourning, Leader Selwyn wraps Number 3’s eyes in brightly-colored bandanas, tying them tightly around the back of her head like someone who is being put before a firing squad. Number 3 bends to her knees and Reverend Selwyn mutters scripture, smearing her lips and eyes with oil. The congregation stands in a circle watching. He powders her face with what looks like flour and another dusty powder that looks like cornmeal. Leader Selwyn dabs his thumb in the cornmeal and sticks it clumsily in Number 3’s mouth. He head-butts her goodbye (something he does, he tells me later, to take their mind off the painfully restrictive blindfold) Number 3 is then lifted up by the congregation and carried, “he’s a jolly good-fellow”-style back into the candle-lit mourning room.
Several weeks later, after finding him to be a very difficult man to get a hold of, I come back to the church for an interview with Leader Selwyn. I am instructed by a congregation member to sit at the back of the parish and wait for the Reverend, who I am told will arrive shortly. I wait for over an hour and it becomes apparent that I’m not the only one who’s got an appointment. Men scurry in and quietly find a seat, saying nothing. The Orisha Baptist Church starts to take on the ambiance of a doctor’s office waiting room. Leader Selwyn finally arrives, sweating, wearing a white t-shirt that reads “USA—I LOVE IT!” and grabs my hand, enthusiastically thanking me for coming. He beckons me to follow him down the narrow staircase.
“We don’t let the kids down here.” He winks charismatically. The walls of the dingy basement are covered with pictures; there’s a yellowing framed picture of Gandhi, paintings of Vishnu, Zeus, and a long blackboard with a chalk drawing of the Kabalistic tree of life. We sit at a long table under fluorescent lighting and I turn on the tape. I can’t help but get distracted by the red and black curtains in the far corner fluttering open to unveil a huge goat-headed demon painted on the wall. In front of it is a table with a crystal ball, the nook shelved with what looks like Halloween supplies and various evil-looking statuettes.
“Could you tell me about that?” I ask pointing at the painting.
Selwyn cackles. “Oh, people usually think that’s the devil. It’s a Jewish Rabbi—taken from the Kabalistic Book of Black Magic.” We walk over and he parts the curtains so I can take a closer look.
“As you can see, you’ve got the wings, the breasts, the goat-head…” Selwyn identifies the corresponding parts. There are a couple of framed photos hanging on the wall and he pulls one down for me. It is a picture of him cloaked in a hooded black robe sitting in front of the painting of the goat-headed Rabbi, holding a bowl of fire with what looks like flames leaping out of his pants. “This is when I manifested fire. That’s real fire you see there,” he points at the photo. Selwyn explains that he is in a hurry and has to attend to a man in mourning, and runs upstairs to get me a book on the history of the Spiritual Baptists. While he’s gone, I snoop around and understand why people might get the wrong impression about the church. There’s a remarkably real-looking human skull on a shelf and a carved wooden cat that has human hair sticking out of it on the table. Leader Selwyn returns and wants to take me up to show me the man in mourning. “He’s been on a voyage for six days,” he beams proudly. We stand in the doorway and look into the mourning room—a blindfolded ascetic-looking man lies prostrate across the candle-lit floor. He twitches and shudders involuntarily, his feet clutching together. He’s totally gone—oblivious to our presence, like someone on heavy-duty hallucinogens. There are groups like the Spiritual Baptists tucked away all over Brooklyn, all over the world—meeting in cramped living rooms and basements, renting old storefronts, scraping and clawing away at spirituality with rituals of self-deprivation. I think of my friend and his dissertation--and wonder if words could ever really capture the true belief. Looking at the man twitching on the floor, it seems they could not.
ContributorAaron Lake Smith
Aaron Lake Smith makes fanzines and lives in Brooklyn. He has a website at www.oldwaysways.com