Jayro Pereira de Jesus is setting out to organize the millions of Brazilians who practice Afro-Brazilian religions. Together they will be better able not only to defend their right to worship freely, but also to articulate their underlying philosophical differences with European philosophy and to evolve with confidence. de Jesus sees this as a necessary step if Brazil's two main cultural heritages are to come together with mutual respect.
Jayro Pereira de Jesus was born 38 years ago in the northeastern state of Bahia. He spent 12 years as a Catholic seminarian, the only Black in a rigorous German-rooted order. He also studied philosophy at the Catholic University of Salvador. As prospects for a Black in the order became apparent (he was the only senior seminarian not sent to Europe), he left. He was also disturbed by the racial patterns he found in the mental health wards where he next took up work as a nurse.de Jesus's family are followers of Afro-Brazilian religion, and he soon became a leader in its practice.From 1978 to 1986, Jayro worked in the occupational health units of two Brazilian construction companies. But his principal passion has been the Black movement in general, and the strengthening of Afro-Brazilian religious traditions in particular. In 1983 he founded the Institute for Research and Study of the Yoruba Language and Culture (IPELCY).de Jesus's idea for the organization of communidades-terreiro emerged as the logical next step. He is so committed to this vision that he has resigned from his job at great sacrifice to pursue it full-time.Small wonder. Defending religious freedom and helping Brazil's African half come into its own is a giant idea.
Brazil's population is chiefly an amalgam of two major immigrant cultures: African and European. Helping the first of these two cultures emerge from the shadows of centuries of attack and self-doubt is central to the growth of consciousness and confidence among the typically poor, lower class Brazilians who draw upon it most. Such new confidence would encourage new exploration and experimentation, and this new vitality would in turn build increased confidence and make a broader Brazilian cultural evolution possible.More simply, de Jesus wants to ensure full freedom of religion to all Brazilians -- especially the followers of the Afro-Brazilian Candomble and Umbanda schools. These schools should be recognized as valid, popular religions and respected parts of the nation's culture. However, de Jesus does not believe that will happen until the practitioners of these religions come together and insist on such respect.To accomplish these goals, de Jesus has been climbing Rio's hillsides day after day. He has been building bridges among Rio's dispersed, isolated, and often clandestine communidades-terreiro (community Candomble and Umbanda centers). He is approaching the point where a working federation will emerge.De Jesus hopes that this local organization will grow, that other areas will follow, and that eventually he will be able to help create state and national associations of his co-religionists. This organization would plan and mount a systematic defense against attacks on Afro-Brazilian religious groups and believers. Some of these attacks are subtle, others -- typically by extremist Christian groups who view the Afro-Brazilian centers as Satanic -- very direct, even violent.By helping the leadership come together, Jayro hopes to build an even more effective defense: an intellectual rebirth. He is starting with neighborhood encounters and, collaborating with a number of sister organizations, is working on a regional encounter. de Jesus wants these meetings not only to deal with immediate shared problems, but also to explore the philosophical African framework that underlies these religions. For example, this tradition has a less either/or perception of good and evil than some of the traditional Christian views it encountered across the South Atlantic.In the process of this work, de Jesus also hopes to help bridge the chasm that separates the new young Black leaders -- commonly radical and often political -- from the religious, traditional, older, more cautious leaders of the communidades-terreiro. The intellectual vision he is championing engages them both because it is important to both. de Jesus's patient diplomacy also helps.
The rich culture and religion of Afro-Brazilians has been fiercely attacked for centuries. Even its own participants often see the Afro-Brazilian beliefs as second-class and are reluctant to admit their commitment. The terreiros are fragmented and isolated. They have largely lost touch with the African philosophical roots from which they have evolved, and they often evaluate themselves through European criteria.It was not many years ago that the police tried to close down the Candomble and Umbanda centers. Although the government now rejects such assaults, they are still the butt of widespread misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and prejudice. Outsiders commonly view their rituals as chicanery or, more charitably, as colorful folkloric customs of touristic value. Since most of the believers are Black or mulattos, and many of them are poor, these attitudes in effect double as yet another expression of racial and class prejudice.There are many barriers that impedes the construction of an organization across the several Afro-Brazilian religions, many with roots in different regions of Africa, and their thousands of terreiros. The years of persecution have encouraged secretiveness and discretion as well as insecurity. Recent renewed religious attacks have not encouraged those who have been burned before to step forward boldly.De Jesus's task is daunting, but the possible impact more than commensurate. He estimates the number of people who practice Umbanda, Candomble, and its variants in the Rio de Janeiro state to be enormous, second only to the state of Bahia. The communidades-terreiro in the Baixada Fluminense area of Rio probably number 15,000 and each commonly has between 75 and 200 members.
After an initial failed mail campaign to invite communities to a series of "encounters" that were designed to get the movement off the ground, de Jesus and a group of colleagues decided to speak with religious leaders in person about the idea. They formed ten-person committees that visited some 130 communidades-terreiro in the Baixada Fluminense.