When he was a young boy in New York City, Salvation Army Major Andres Lugo remembers, his grandmother and parents would talk about Santeria, witchcraft, and the occult "back home" on the island of Puerto Rico.
"I also grew up seeing these practices in the tenements and storefronts of El Barrio [Spanish Harlem]," Lugo says.
Lugo says Santeria, a mix of primitive African religions and Roman Catholicism, was brought to the Caribbean by African slaves and is especially prevalent in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba.
"In Puerto Rico, the practices are similar to the Haitian voodoo, which centers around animal blood sacrifices to ancient African gods who have been assimilated into Roman Catholic saints." The monthly calendars of churches that practice Santeria mark each day as devoted to a saint or a Santeria deity.
Lugo says Santeria practices abated somewhat in Puerto Rico with the arrival of the evangelical missionaries at the turn of the 20th century, but they are in somewhat of a revival in the 21st century because younger people are suspicious of organized established religion, and there are some outspoken proponents of Santeria.
"The adherents of these cults thrive on the sale of magic potions, 'all-healing' herbs sold at the 'botanicas' (stores related to Santeria), and meetings that are held to the beat of Afro-Caribbean music," Lugo says.
The meetings, he says, may also involve mediums who go into trances to retrieve "messages" from the "world beyond," Lugo says.
"Although these practices cut across the whole social and economic fabric of Puerto Rican society, they are most prevalent in the poorer sectors" he says.
The public housing projects, called residencials, are a "hotbed" of Santeria activity, especially in San Juan, Lugo says.
Praying for protection
As a traveling evangelist for the Eastern Territory, he knows that he will face such evil in many places, not just Puerto Rico, so he seeks help from God.
"In my dealings with Santeria ... I have always sought spiritual protection in affirming my salvation through faith in Christ and the power to live that faith by the Holy Spirit," he says. "[All] superstitions thrive on ignorance and fear. So they must be dispelled with much knowledge of and faith in God's Holy Word.
"Through the power of believing prayer, I have rebuked and witnessed the setting free of Santeria demon-possessed lives, both stateside and in Puerto Rico. The Salvation Army can do much to be a proclaimer of the wonder-working power of God...."
Before taking on his current role, Lugo was pastor of the Army's San Juan Central Temple for almost seven years. Captain Richard Lopez, who succeeded him, says the housing projects that Lugo described surround the church.
"We can go around and I can show you within a five-mile radius ... thousands ... who live in micro-cultures where their heritage has been witchcraft and Santeria," Lopez says. "A lot of people are in the middle of that.
"They come here and you ask them if they've heard of Jesus, and they say, 'No.' Maybe they have heard, but it's more of a cultural thing than anything else [because of] Christmas and Easter [celebrations].... They don't even know the reality of who Jesus is. There's really a lot of confusion in their minds as they grow up.... They really don't know what to think."
Lopez says when kids show up at the corps (church) for basketball or Bible study, he shows them that he cares. That's important to kids who "don't know their mothers or fathers or live with a grandparent or an uncle or even someone else.
"[Santeria] has continued in many, many families down through the years," Lopez says. "It's something very difficult. You have to pray about it, pray and teach, pray and teach—and show love."