Stephen Smith

Cubans like to say that their impoverished country is a land of miracles. How many people can pack onto a bus? Only God knows. The same irony was there on the road to the Church of St Lazarus at Rincón. The pilgrims had set out on their trek to the church for the saint’s feast-day as perfectly able-bodied men and women, but were inviting disability by grinding themselves against the blacktop for mile after mile. ‘Some of them mix up St Lazarus with a god called Babalú-Ayé,’ said Sister Rita Llanza tolerantly. It was a mix-up typical of Santería, Cuban voodoo, a profane marriage of the Catholicism imported by the Spanish and the faith of West African slaves. Adherents of Santería believed that Babalú-Ayé would look down on their prostration and find it pleasing. Sister Rita wasn’t in the least put out by the Scriptural inaccuracies of the pilgrims, accepting their candles across the altar rail in exchange for a cheaply printed parish newsletter. Wasn’t it a cardinal rule of Santería that initiates must first have been baptised? The Church in Cuba, for so many years oppressed, welcomed sinners wherever it could find them. ‘And you: I suppose you are Episcopalian?’ Sister Rita asked me. A fat bald man was standing at the door of the church, holding his hand out and intoning in a funny high voice: ‘Could you give me something because I cannot see?’ I’m sure the sister wouldn’t have minded, that she would perhaps have looked on me as a challenge, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was a Santería man myself, a Santero, or rather that I was part of the way down the road to initiation, a chicken having been sacrificed over my head in a comical ceremony in a bloodstained chapel.

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