Holy Wars, Inc.

A vicious fight is raging among the high priests of newly fashionable Santeria, where Websites beckon and the gods are far from crazy

White-haired Gerardo Lastra is behind the counter at his business, the raucous Riviera Botanica in the Allapattah section of Miami, when an unusual pair of customers cruises in. One is a portly Santeria priest in a flowered shirt, an elderly man Lastra knows as Vicente. The client with the santero, however, is a stranger: middle-aged, dressed in a beautifully tailored suit, designer tie, and what appear to be Gucci pumps. He is impeccably groomed, the picture of modern success as he stands next to a life-size statue that represents the ancient African deity Chango, god of thunder, lightning, royalty, and virility.

Vicente places their order: a rooster, two hens, a peahen, seven plants that have special powers, and two different kinds of flowers. While the order is being filled, the second man's cell phone sounds. He steps outside to escape the cacophony of the disconsolate sacrificial fowl caged at the rear of the store.

Lastra asks Vicente who the new customer is. "Oh, he's a politician, a Republican," the santero replies. "We're going to ask Eleggua to open the way for him and his candidates." Eleggua is an oricha, a Santeria deity.

Lastra smiles. "Well, that's good. I'm a Republican too." The younger man returns and pays the bill of $62.74 after complaining about the rise in prices. He and Vicente walk out, their birds inside brown paper bags punched with air holes, to face the 1998 elections.

This year marks the fifth anniversary of a unanimous Supreme Court decision that, in effect, legalized Santeria. The ruling struck down laws on the books in the City of Hialeah that prohibited animal sacrifice and that had been used to curtail the free practice of the religion. Since that ruling, Santeria, though still misunderstood and maligned, has grown in numbers of followers and in the diversity of people who practice it, says Lastra.

"We get everybody in here -- doctors, lawyers, prosecutors, you name it," he explains. It amuses him that while prosecutors once visited wanting to close him down, he has since had them in his shop as customers. Visits to local santeros reveal the pace at which Santeria, essentially nature worship, is adapting to the modern world. But those contacts also expose bitter and vituperative divisions among some high-profile practitioners, rifts that have emerged since they all celebrated the Supreme Court decision. It is a power struggle that appears to be tied to the process of modernization and institutionalization of a religion said to be 5000 years old. But there are also accusations that behind the bad blood is competition for the money spent on rituals -- millions of dollars each year in Dade County.

On Palm Avenue in Hialeah, in the midst of a major commercial strip, Fernando Pichardo, age 48, sits in the office of his storefront temple, the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye. Fernando is a santero but performs no religious rites. Instead, he handles the business and legal issues for the church. At the moment, he is expanding his Website (home.earthlink.net/~clba/). Nearby hang the church's framed papers of incorporation in the State of Florida. It was Pichardo's 43-year-old brother Ernesto -- the oba, or master of rites, of their church -- who took the groundbreaking case to the Supreme Court and won. At the moment, Ernesto is performing private consultations in an adjoining office. The throwing of sacred cowrie prophecy shells, sixteen miniature conches, can be heard through the closed door.

The homepage of the Website carries this slogan: "Progress is our religious mission." Traditional Santeria drumming and lyrics, sung in the Yoruba language of Nigeria, accompany the text, which explains that Babalu Aye was the first Santeria temple in the nation to certify clergy, 80 of whom have been issued documents of authenticity since 1995.

The site also lists courses, Ernesto Pichardo's clerical and academic history, and the names of the temple's board of directors. "We believe that maintaining a professional organization and good character can sustain our religious and cultural prestige. Prestige in the long run will provide a longstanding, powerful institutional foundation." One of the church's goals: "To establish affiliations and support with other corporations and legal entitiy [sic]."

For a religion identified in many people's minds with the sacrifice of goats and chickens, this is surprisingly legalistic language. But Santeria is much more than bloodletting, the Pichardos insist, and since their court victory, modernization and expansion of their religion have been their principal goals.

Today Lukumi Babalu Aye lists people of seventeen nationalities in its congregation, which is mostly Latin but includes Italian, British, and Russian immigrants as well. It offers for the first time ever in the United States Santeria baptism, marriage ceremonies, and funerals in an institutional setting; burial plots were recently contracted for at Woodlawn West Cemetery in West Dade. The Pichardos also visit inmates in local prisons for religious ceremonies and counseling.

But the degree to which the brothers are trying to institutionalize Santeria may best be illustrated by the latest addition to their Website. It is a feature that will allow priests and priestesses to buy at wholesale prices many items used in rituals for the deities. The name of the service is Orisha Depot. Among those items are sacred oils, cowrie shells, necklaces made of coconut shells and other natural fibers, and clothing (almost always white, the color favored by practitioners). Orisha Depot also offers items used in rituals for specific orichas, such as beaded axes, and the occasional animal -- bats, for example. Finally, the list includes "user-friendly, preformatted consultation forms for ifa and merindilogun," the records that must be completed after a divination session when the shells are thrown.

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