He was younger than I expected, younger than our email correspondence had suggested. His pale skin still wore its youth. His round shoulders carried a much older weight. “Nicole, right? Come on in,” he urged after I climbed two sets of stairs and passed through marijuana plumes that smoked within the building’s stairwell. Crossing the threshold, I tugged my purse closer to a hip and tossed my hair behind a shoulder, clenching the fear-born alertness that clings to any woman entering an unknown man’s home.
But I was desperate.
I entered the Lucumi priest’s Bronx apartment. Inside bustled with activity. A man I would later learn was his Godson rearranged furniture with friends. An older gentleman with a dancer’s gait sauntered the narrow corridor towards me, singing a Spanish tune before offering me water or coffee. I declined both.
The young priest ushered me into a large room bursting with altars, masks, paintings, percussion instruments, and ceremonial ornaments—copper bowls, white candles, vibrantly colored beads, gold enshrouded figurines, intricately embroidered table clothes, dainty handkerchiefs, and more. The sun beamed past the lace curtains and spilled into the space. I followed the priest’s lead and fell into a comfortable cross-legged position on the floor. I plopped my purse down, beside me.
Between us laid a threadbare rectangular rug. “You know Langston, hey?” he asked as he pulled cowry shells from a tiny pouch
“Yes, he’s my friend. Well, we just met at a writing workshop,” I blurted, on edge.
“Oh good. He’s one of my Godchildren. So, you’re a writer?”
We eased into conversation shortly before the priest began to pray in Spanish. A quiet filled the room, only to be disrupted by the crash of cowry shells against the floormat. The priest studied the display, made calculations I could not comprehend. Then he laughed from the belly, and spoke. “My dear, do you know who that is?” he pointed to a painting of an alluring Black woman draped in gold.
I stammered, unsure of who the woman was and whether I should’ve known.
“Uh, I don’t think so,” I shook my head.
“That’s Oshun,” he urged.
“Oh, right,” I said, having read some, though not much, about the Orisha. I glanced the painting again. This time my eyes fixated on the gold wrapped around her body, both cloth and jewelry. It made sense, from what I had read.
Especially important to women, Ọṣhun (also spelled Osun, Oxum and Ochun) is one of the most popular and venerated Orishas in the Yoruba tradition. Those who want beauty, love or children call on her for assistance. In times of drought, famine and poverty, it is Oshun who we call on for grace and abundance. Where Olokun is considered temperamental and brooding, Oshun is benevolent and loving. A cunning and fierce warrior she is, though, under the necessary circumstances.
The Orisha of love, the granter of wishes and the giver of laughter, Oshun brings pleasure to our lives. Considered the deity of divinity, femininity, fertility, and love, she is associated with honey and her natural element is the rivers. Her colors are gold, copper and yellow.
“This has been a home of Oshun for generations,” he offered. Then, he returned his gaze to the shells that lay between us. “Oshun has,” he waved and stretched his hands as if trying to physically grasp the right words until, finally, “captured you. That’s why you’re here.” His eyes scanned the room. Following his lead, I noticed all of the copper ornaments, the figurines of beautiful women wrapped in gold garb, the yellow sunflowers near the window.
I opened up. I told the priest about my legal problems, my skin, my lovers, my art. He, in turn, showed me some of his artwork, told me about his husband, assured me that many of his Godchildren were queer. The priest, I learned, was a child of Oshun. Yoruba, he taught me, embraced sexuality and gender expansiveness.
The priest continued to toss his shells, answer my questions and offer guidance. By the end of our time together, he revealed that Oshun wanted me to have a daughter and did not care about my partner’s gender, Olokun was the deity who came to me in my dream those three years before, and that Olokun wanted me to make an offering at the ocean, Their domain.
Before I could get up from the floor, the priest asked me to turn over and lay prone. It had been over two hours since I arrived, and my body was tired from sitting on the ground. However, the priest thought it best to show me how to greet Oshun. Once my stomach found the floor, he modeled the twists I should perform with my body. “We do this five times,” he said. I began to carry out the motions, quickly realizing how weak my upper body was. Maybe he spoke to encourage me, or because he knew I needed to know, but as I worked up a sweat to complete the twists, he said, “We repeat this because Oshun’s number is five.”
Constellating conversations around queerness, religion, and spirituality persist in Black congregations and homes alike. In both places exists a ridiculous rhetoric that only men and women exist, and the one must date the other. In both places, we are told that God does not love His queer, trans, and gender expansive children. Indeed, in Christian churches God is not Them, but He. This, in and of itself, is a revealing lie.
Yoruba cosmology has always recognized queerness and gender expansiveness. Indeed, our God and some of our deities are queer and queered, themselves. While it is true that there exists Yoruba houses that maintain white supremacist-inspired anti-queer teachings, much like Black churches and halls of faith, Yoruba in its most pure, traditional and widely practiced form adamantly opposes this bigotry, and readily welcomes us.
Finding my full self—my Blackness and queerness—in Yoruba has been a saving grace. No longer do I worry about whether God loves me, whether I will be doomed to hell (indeed, in Yoruba, there is no such thing), or if my queerness is sin. I keep my Grandma Mabel’s Bible on my bookshelf, mainly because it is the only physical remnant of hers that I have. On my wall, Grandma Ina’s rosary beads hang. But, I do not look to either of these things for God, affirmation or guidance. Instead, I look to the patakis of my faith.
I praise Olodumare for all They have given me. I speak to my Egun when seated at my ancestral altar. I call on Olokun, Oshun, Yemaya, Elegba, Obatala, Babaluaye, Oya, Shango, Ogun, Ochosi, Odudua, and more when I pray for myself and others in the morning. Where Christianity was once my cage, Yoruba has become my expanse. As vast and deep and free as the Olokun’s oceans and Oshun’s rivers. Finally, I know now that my queerness is a manifestation of God. Finally, in Olokun and Oshun, I have found the twelve.