Piety and Desire run parallel but do not intersect. That is true in life and it is true in the Ninth Ward where the two streets stretch from the river, cross St. Claude Avenue and then head to the now ruined neighborhoods on the other side. To have piety is to reject desire, at least of material things, but even the pious sometimes need a favor. What lies between piety and desire is a question for theologians, but along one block of the Bywater neighborhood the answer is much simpler – Rosalie Alley.
On Saturday evenings, Rosalie Alley becomes conspicuous by the people, most dressed in variations of white and red, walking the grassy path between two rows of houses. Were it not for them, the alley would not be noticeable at all except for the seductive lore of conga drums and the sounds of chanting.
STREETCAR: BETWEEN PIETY AND DESIREWorshiping usually requires a temple. The church for the voodoo cult that gathers in the alley is a bright green wooded building, or “peristyle”, looking like something that might be spotted along a Haitian road, but built new last year to house the rituals. There is nothing fancy inside: a wooden floor, three doors, and four ceiling fans, of which three were working this sultry night.
There are no hexes – no dolls with pins stuck in them. These are benevolent worshippers. The congregation that gathers here is the city’s most active, La Source Anciene, headed by priestess Sally Glassman. Though the group gathers every Saturday, Glassman has, for the last nine years, made the third Saturday in July extra special for that is when La Source asks the spirits to protect the city from hurricanes.
Despite Katrina, the group claims success. As prayed for, the hurricane did make the last minute turn to the east that would have spared the city had the levees not broken. The spirits can influence nature, Glassman explained before the chants began, but not the acts of man. Katrina was a manmade tragedy.
Just who is being prayed to is complex. Voodoo and Catholicism are entwined, so in its New Orleans version, Voodoo honors Our Lady of Prompt Succor. The church credits her with having saved the city many times including the victory at the Battle of New Orleans. Also prayed to is Ezili Danto, one of several variations of the voodoo goddess of love who also melds into the persona of the Catholic Church’s Black Madonna as well as our Lady of Lourdes and a saintly character known as Mother of Salvation as well as Our Lady of Prompt Succor. Ezil Danto is a goddess of many personalities. Although at times fierce and angry. Ezil is also said to be protective of those who honor her. Translation: Stay on her good side.
First there was chanting, drumming and an occasional blast from a conch shell. Then there was dancing as bare feet worked piston-like, moving bodies in a circle around a small altar at the center of the floor. To that altar worshippers brought offerings – typically candles, plants, religious status and pictures – to please the spirits. (A local float artist brought a decoupage with an image of the Black Madonna in the center surrounded by buttons, each representing lives lost to Katrina.)
Hard as they might have tried, the three working ceiling fans could not bring much meaningful breeze. If perspiration is a sign of dedication, the spirits should have been pleased. Red bandannas and white shirts became increasingly sticky as the evening progressed. Those who stepped outside for bit of breeze were subject to attacks from ankle biting mosquitoes,
Most, practically all, of the worshippers were caucasian, a strange juxtaposition for the tradition linked to black Haitians. As Voodoo spread to New Orleans it became more Creolized and then more diverse. Glassman, who has been described as “a nice Jewish girl from Maine” is so immersed in the culture that she operates a nearby Botanica shop specializing in spiritual items.
Anthropologist Martha Ward, herself dressed in a red bandanna and white dress, looks at such events with the detachment of an academic, but is obviously supportive. She sees a positive force in that the worship is based on the power of women.
Further down the alley a rusted glider rested behind a house whose bombed out appearance may have predated Katrina. On the glider was a ceramic rooster. Across from that was a stool with a Blessed Virgin statue whose head was replaced by a ceramic cluster of grapes. Both curiosities were probably unintentional and had no meaning at all, however, on Saturday nights along Rosalie Alley as the conga drums are pounded, even the insignificant begs for meaning.
While government bodies and policy makers discuss how to protect us from hurricanes, only one small group has the gumption to try to make the hurricanes go away. That task requires both piety and desire plus a belief that the spirit is willing.