“But the closest ilé / munanso / sosyete / terriero is probably miles away! Why can’t I just do solitary practice? Why can’t I just learn from books?”
A lot of people who are interested in ADRs, especially those coming from Pagan or New Age world views, say this when priests insist that these religions must be practiced in person and as part of a community, rather than solo and without guidance. I hear it all the time from people.
This idea really comes out of books on Paganism and Wicca published in the 80s and 90s that pushed the idea of “solitary” and “eclectic” practice - in essence opening the previously initatory-based Wiccan religion up to outsiders. It was very convenient for selling books! Suddenly you didn’t need anyone but yourself (the books are notorious for having been written in a style that mimicked self-help books from the same period). Now, I’m not going to say one way or the other whether this is how Wicca and related Pagan faiths “should” be practiced (I’m not Pagan, that decision should be made by Pagans), but this is definitely where this idea originates. And it unfortunately breeds a certain sense of spiritual entitlement among the (mostly white) people who come from this perspective and begin looking at Afro-Diasporic religions.
This isn’t to say that these people are bad or wrong or can’t find a place in these religions! Again, this is just to point to where people are getting these ideas.
But here’s the thing: it is just not possible to practice Afro-Diasporic religions without a strong community of priests and laypeople. One need only attend an actual Lukumi or Vodou or Candomble ceremony for this to become rapidly apparent. In a standard Lukumi ceremony, priests and laypeople alike work for hours - sometimes I’ve worked for more than 12 hours with few breaks - to complete the work that needs to be done. The fewer people who are there, the longer it takes. A ceremony with less than 5 priests present is arduous, back-breaking work and could go on well into the night. And most of our important ceremonies take multiple days because the work takes so much time. Our songs are sung in a typically West African call and response fashion, lead by an Oriate or Akpwon and responded to by all present. While this is happening, others are working with plants, some are tending to and then later sacrificing animals, a bunch of people will then prepare the meat to be cooked, and more are cooking in the kitchen (this is a religion that is all about food). You’ll find someone sitting at a table, doing last minute beadwork, and others sweeping the constantly dirty floors. Someone will be minding the kids, who are watching cartoons on TV, and someone else will be making sure there’s always toilet paper in the bathroom. At least one person with a car will be making multiple trips to the store because someone has always forgotten something or run out of something. The less people you have to do all of these jobs, the longer everything takes, the most exhausted and unhappy people become. And at our drumming ceremonies, in which the deities mount our priests and deliver messages to community, you need singers, drummers, dancers. And what would be the point of mounting (possession) if there was no one present to receive messages? The horse cannot remember anything, so what’s the Orisha coming down to do - our taxes? I don’t think so.
Distance is hard. Believe me, as a Canadian Olorisha I know this. Every ceremony I go to requires traveling to another country. I take 6 hours flights or 11 hour train rides to attend ceremonies, and they cost a pretty penny. When I first started in the religion, I was a 6 hour bus ride from my Godfather and I was working minimum wage in one of the most expensive cities in Canada. Money was tight, but I saved and scrimped and basically put everything I had towards going there for ceremonies. Sometimes I couldn’t afford to put food on the table, but I never missed a ceremony. This is a religion that is about sacrifice, and that doesn’t just mean animals - we sacrifice our time and energy and effort, too. And that dedication pays off.
Something that worries me about this “but it’s so far / why can’t I be solitary / why can’t I just learn from books” line of thinking is the silent implications that lie beneath it. These are religious communities that are made up largely of Black and Latinx people, many of whom speak either Spanish, Kreyol, or Portuguese as their first languages. The people who most frequently want to be “solitary practitioners” are white, non-Latinx, Anglophones. While I don’t think all of these people are racist, it is clear that a substantial portion of them are saying this because they feel uncomfortable with the idea of interacting with Black and Latinx people. This is a major problem. How can say you want to worship the Orisha or serve the lwa if you find the idea of having to interact with Black and Latinx people uncomfortable? The Orisha are Black. The lwa are Black (for the most part). And the ancestors, whose presence is key to all of these religions, are Black people who lived (and died) through the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Lukumi, Palo, Vodou, and Candomble accept (some) outsiders. They have for a very long time (arguably since the early 19th Century). But they only accept outsiders who are respectful, who come into the community through the proper channels. If you want to become involved, find a legitimate priest and travel to them if you need to. If you live in the United States, you won’t even have to travel that far as these religions exist in substantial numbers in every major city and in at least small numbers in even the most rural states. It’s truly not that hard to find people, as long as you’re willing to actually talk to Black and Latinx people.