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By Lois Ann Lorentzen

In the days just before Easter, the Mexican government bulldozed nearly forty shrines to La Santisima Muerte (Holy Death) along the US/Mexico border.  The shrines, according to the military, formed an integral part of the “narco-culture” that the government is determined to wipe out.  Does devotion to Santa Muerte reflect the “death cult of the drug lords,” as a US military intelligence website suggests?

A candle lit for Saint Death. Photo: Patrick_coe (Creative Commons license)

A candle lit for Saint Death. Photo: Patrick_coe (Creative Commons license)

The chosen saint of the marginalized,Santa Muerte holds a globe in one hand and a pendulum in the other.  She wears a robe covering her arms down to her wrists; there her fingers are exposed as bone.  Over her skeletal head rests a halo.  Santisima Muerte, a symbolic representation of death blended with Catholic characteristics, surfaced in Mexico’s religious landscape to much popular acclaim.  Very little is known about the Holy Death’s origins; her followers and scholars promote divergent theories.  Some claim that she first appeared to a healer in Veracruz in the 19th century, and ordered him to create a cult.  Others claim that the strong cult of death practiced among the ancient Mexicas merged with Catholicism in the form of Santa Muerte.  Other devotees claim that Holy Death came from Yoruba traditions brought by African slaves to the Caribbean and passed to Mexico through Cuban Santería, Haitian Voodou, or Brazilian Palo Mayombe; these religions merged with Christian practices to create Santa Muerte.  Other Mexican scholars insist that Holy Death’s origins can be traced back to medieval Europe; she is an archetype of death commonly seen in religious art.  Most scholars do agree however, that Santa Muerte should not be confused with the more well known Day of the Dead.  Although Holy Death may be venerated on that day, as Kevin Freese points out, she “appears to be a distinct phenomenon emerging from a separate tradition.”

Devotion has grown dramatically since 1965; Santa Muerte boasts nearly five million followers in Mexico.  Santa Muerte is particularly popular among drug traffickers, police officers, gang members, prison inmates, and sex workers; in short, those who live close to death.  She also has a following among some artists, intellectuals, politicians, and actors.  Her largest social base, however, is among the most marginalized sectors.  Her principal sanctuary is found in the barrio, Tepito, among the poorest and most dangerous sectors of Mexico City.  Her popularity among migrants has also skyrocketed.  In markets in Tijuana and other border towns, artifacts related to Santa Muerte outnumber those for the Virgin of Guadalupe.  Thousands of shrines to Santa Muerte are found throughout Mexico, but they are especially concentrated along the northern border.

The rapid growth of the movement over the last decades has led to conflict between devotees of Holy Death, the official Roman Catholic Church, and the Mexican government.  Archbishop David Romo Guillen, founder of the Mexico-US Apostolic Traditional Catholic Church, created the Sanctuary of Holy Death in Mexico City in 2002, and registered the church as a religious organization in 2003.  The archbishop promotes condom use for men and women and the doors of the church are open to gays, lesbians, transvestites, and transgendered.  Priests are allowed to marry, women can become ordained, and divorce is not censured.

These practices, in addition to the worship of Holy Death herself, place the church in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church – and, increasingly, to the government.  In April 2005, the government revoked the church’s status as a religious organization.  Now the government is making the claim that worship of Santa Muerte is a threat to national security.  The government is partially right, although not because of alleged links to drug traffickers.  The author of a military intelligence website devoted to Santa Muerte concluded that as long as exclusion, isolation, and political despair characterize life for the marginalized in Mexico, we can expect that the cult of Santa Muerte will prosper.  Most devotees feel that both the government and the church have failed them.  Thus, they turn to folk saints such as Santa Muerte, who does not judge but reflects the excluded – in other words, much of Mexico.  The political despair characteristic of much of Mexico’s population poses more of a threat to national security than a small border shrine visited by poor and working class people and migrants.  Some of La Santa Muerte’s devotees do indeed happen to be drug lords, but she is also the patron saint of the dispossessed, acquainted with death as they are.


Kevin Freese. “The Death Cult of the Drug Lords: Mexico’s patron of crime, criminals and the dispossessed.” –

Cymene Howe, Susanna Zayarsky, and Lois Lorentzen. “Devotional Crossings: Transgender Sex Workers, Santisima Muerte and Spiritual Solidarity in Guadalajara and San Francisco” in Lois Ann Lorentzen, Joaquin Gonzalez, Kevin Chun, Hien Duc Do, Eds. Religion at the Corner of Bliss and Nirvana; the intersection of faith, politics and identity in new migrant communities. Duke University Press, forthcoming.

Lois Ann Lorentzen is Chair of the Theology and Religious Studies Department and Director of the Center for Latino Studies in the Americas at the University of San Francisco.

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


By Peter Heltzel & Matthew Rosen

Hosting the recent Mobilization to End Poverty, April 26-29, in Washington D.C., Jim Wallis, author of God’s Politics and founder of Sojourners, convened religious leaders from around the country to make sure President Obama and Congress take action to dramatically reduce poverty domestically and abroad. In the spirit of King’s “Poor People’s Campaign,” the Mobilization to End Poverty represents one of the largest and most diverse anti-poverty groups that continue to advocate with Congress to protect priorities within the President’s budget that assist low-income individuals and poor communities.

But what made this gathering of prophetic advocates historic was the government’s active outreach to the religious communities and constructive dialogue about how we can work together to bring about justice for all of God’s children.

Click here to read the full post

Disciples of Christ minister Steve Kindle

Disciples of Christ minister Steve Kindle

If you’re ever reporting on gay marriage, Steve Kindle is someone you’d want to interview. Kindle (a Disciples of Christ minister, and a straight man) is a vocal advocate for gay marriage and other lgbt issues. DisciplesWorld wrote about him when he appeared in Daniel Karslake’s 2007 Sundance film on Christianity and homosexuality, “For the Bible Tells Me So”, and we interviewed him again after California voters passed Proposition 8 last November.

Like most people who have an opinion on the subject, Kindle took note when Carrie Prejean, Miss California, voiced her opposition to gay marriage.  But what really got him going wasn’t the subsequent revelation that she had posed for revealing photos. It was her association with the National Organization for Marriage (the same folks who brought you the thunder-and-lightning ad campaign called “The Gathering Storm”)

Kindle methodically takes on the NOM’s Q&A format — their “talking points” approach to getting people riled up about the supposed threat  of gay marriage. He describes the NOM’s effort this way: “I have never discovered a more ill-informed, logic challenged, subject changing, straw man creating attempt at defending a position since the efforts of the holocaust deniers.” And then he sets out to take them apart.

Each day for about the past week, Kindle has taken on one point from the NOM and systematically debunked it. You have to admire the sheer bulldog-like quality of his approach. The guy knows what he’s talking about, and he’s not going to let go.

The Los Angeles Times and other media outlets are reporting that blogger/journalist Philip Rizk, taken into custody by Egyptian officials last week, has been released.

Rizk’s abduction and interrogation is not an isolated incident. As the Times reports, others who have challenged the Egyptian government’s policies and its stance regarding Palestinians have also been targeted. According to the Times:

The crackdown on bloggers and Facebook dissidents has intensified over the last 18 months. The Egyptian government, skilled at using detention and intimidation to silence its opponents, charges that certain bloggers endanger national security. The cases of Rizk and the other Palestinian sympathizers expanded the Egyptian security forces’ battle in cyberspace from labor unrest, radical Islam and economic problems to the larger Arab-Israeli conflict.

Rizk was an occasional contributor to the God’s Politics blog, updated by Jim Wallis of Sojourners/Call to Renewal and friends. He wrote about life in Gaza and the plight of the Palestinians, including the murder of Gaza Christian bookseller Rami Ayyad.

Rizk’s is a story worth paying attention to. Over the next few days, hopefully we’ll hear more about what happened to him while he went missing. According to, he’s now home safe with his family.

Rizk’s imprisonment was also the subject of a massive web-based awareness campaign that included Facebook, MySpace, Jaiku, and other sites. Should this kind of social network activism prove successful, perhaps it could help in the case of Lori Berenson, an American imprisoned in Peru for over 13 years. DisciplesWorld contributor Heidi Bright Parales wrote an update this week on Berenson’s situation, which was also the subject of a 2001 Disciples of Christ General Assembly resolution calling for her release.

Another interesting article on Disciples’ General Minister and President Sharon Watkins’ sermon during the inaugural prayer service on January 21, from the Yale Daily News. Watkins graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1984.

Here’s an excerpt from the article titled “Watkins breaks glass ceiling with sermon,” by Derek Tam:

Longtime friends and former colleagues of Watkins said her sermon accurately reflected her open-mindedness and ability to include people from all walks of life.

“Of course I was a little bit biased, but as a critic of sermons she did an especially outstanding job,” said Dennis Smith, a professor at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Okla., where Watkins received her Doctor of Ministry degree.

Toward the end of the article, Tam includes an interesting observation from Serene Jones, who taught at Yale Divinity School until recently, when she became president of Union Theology Seminary in New York.

Yale Divinity School also included a link to this blog on its home page (link title: Inaugural blog by Verity Jones ’95 M.Div).

Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins

Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins

If you missed Disciples’ General Minister and President Sharon Watkins’ sermon at the inaugural service at the National Cathedral, here’s where you can download the text version. I haven’t checked for video clips yet – if you come across any, let me know.

Also, if you’re looking for the scripture text read by Cynthia Hale, you can download the full program (including all the prayers, hymns, and scripture texts) from the National Cathedral’s website.

UPDATE: I found a link to video…Danny Bradfield has a link to C-SPAN’s website on his blog. You can watch video of the service here.

UPDATE #2: Videos (in 2 parts on YouTube) – Part 1 and Part 2. The first cuts off a bit of the beginning but starts with the Cherokee story of the 2 wolves. (Thanks, Eduardo, for letting us know about this)

Wanted to share a couple of links from the inauguration.

Here’s the link to Elizabeth Alexander’s incredible poem, and to Joseph Lowery’s equally poetic benediction.

Thanks to Danny Bradfield of the Field of Dandelions blog for finding and sharing these. And Bob Cornwall has the YouTube video of Lowery’s benediction on his blog, Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson

Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson

Controversy has been brewing since gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson’s invocation on Sunday prior to the We Are One concert was left out of HBO’s broadcast of inaugural events. According to reports, HBO pointed the finger at the Presidential Inauguration Committee (PIC), saying the committee made the decision that Robinson’s prayer was “pre-show” material. The PIC has apologized.

Sarah Pulliam, at Christianity Today’s politics blog, reports that Robinson’s prayer will be rebroadcast on the mall. For those of you (like me) who aren’t in D.C. and for those who didn’t have HBO to begin with, Pulliam recorded it on video and transcribed it.It was also on YouTube, although several commenters on Pulliam’s blog said it was taken down, then later put back up.

There was some pre-prayer consternation over whether Bishop Robinson would invoke the name of Jesus in his prayer (he said in an interview with the Concord (NH) Monitor that he wouldn’t use the Bible and that the prayer wouldn’t be especially Christian). Reading and hearing the prayer, any fuss was unfounded. It’s theologically sound and appropriate, offered to “God of our many understandings.” [Did anyone really think he’d pray to the purple Tele-Tubby?!?]

Some bloggers and commenters are angry about the slight of Robinson, wondering if it was intentional on the part of Obama’s people. I don’t think it was (that’s my uninformed opinion, of course) but I understand how the GLBT community would be sensitive to the handling of Robinson. It’s unfortunate how things turned out.

Joan Walsh, on her blog, reports that the PIC released a statement:

We had always intended and planned for Rt. Rev. Robinson’s invocation to be included in the televised portion of yesterday’s program. We regret the error in executing this plan – but are gratified that hundreds of thousands of people who gathered on the mall heard his eloquent prayer for our nation that was a fitting start to our event.

Robinson writes about the experience (and lots of other inaugural happenings) on his own blog. Reading it, I was moved and inspired by his humility. And, as he reports on his blog, he’s been invited to be on the Presidential Platform today.

If pre-inauguration discussions are any indication, there’s going to be plenty of talk over the next four years about the role of religion in public life.

Yes, that conversation’s been going on for quite some time, I know. But the advent of the Obama era is widening it.  Mainline church leaders have been sort of on the margins for years.  I know — I post religion news from the Associated Press on our website six days a week, and most articles are about a.) scandals b.) homosexuality or c.) evangelicals. That’s fine, but meanwhile, mainline churches — which have millions of members even though our numbers are declining — are still places where faithful and interesting ministry happens, all the time.

We don’t get much attention in the mainstream press, but that’s all changing. Witness the selection of Sharon Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to deliver the sermon during the inaugural prayer service on January 21. She’s the first woman to be asked to do this, so it’s an honor. It’s also an indicator, I think, that Obama cares about Disciples, and Methodists, and UCCers, and Lutherans, and Presbyterians.  To me, that’s even better news.

And it’s not just the mainline church that’s finally got a listening ear in the White House. Historic African American churches are going to be heard from more, and misunderstood less [i.e Jeremiah Wright]. So are people of other faiths — Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and others.

Even atheists. Yep, that’s right – atheists. I’m not one, but I think their questions about the interplay between religion and government will be taken seriously. Atheists have the right to ask questions, and attacking atheists for asking them only makes people of faith look ignorant. Some of the battles atheist choose may seem trivial, but others are salient.  People of faith who believe religion should have a role in public life need to be able to make that case (and relying on the founding fathers alone is not going to cut it).

One way or another, things are going to get interesting.

So here’s a question to ponder. In all the discussion of who gets to pray and who doesn’t, and who’s going to pray to what deity, there’s the more fundamental question of whether or not prayer is appropriate at all. [for some, this isn’t a question, I know]. Jennifer Garza of the Sacramento Bee explored the question in an article yesterday. She also interviewed Bob Cornwall, who writes the Ponderings on a Faith Journey blog (always an interesting read) about the selection of Watkins to preach on Jan. 21.

Sharon E. Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

General Minister and President Sharon E. Watkins

Disciples have a new reason to look forward to Obama’s inauguration (or if you’re not looking forward to it, here’s something to change your mind): our general minister and president, Sharon Watkins, will be preaching at the inaugural prayer service on the day after the inauguration. She’s the first woman to be asked to lead this service, and the New York Times ran an exclusive today.

DisciplesWorld editor and publisher Verity Jones had the inside scoop, and we posted our own article as soon as Obama’s people gave the ok. Here’s that link.

Send us links to any other articles you come across, and we’ll post them. This is big news. A proud moment for Disciples. Woo hoo!

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