Treasured religious and spiritual objects are much more than static things. They evoke memories of friends, family, and community activities while also taking on new meanings through active use. Religious and spiritual objects have historical resonances that speak as powerfully as documents. They animate the senses through their aesthetic power and represent thought, values, and attitudes.
Students in Goucher College’s Masters in Cultural Sustainability (MACS) program each explored the multiple meanings of an object of religious or spiritual significance in their family or community as a key part of a course on Cultural Representation at the Smithsonian in January. This course, co-taught by curators at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and MACS faculty, is part of an ongoing partnership between the Center and Goucher. Students learn and apply approaches to cultural representation used at Smithsonian museums and the Folklife Festival, with a particular focus on the Festival’s “cultural conversations,” a practice that engages deep dialogue between Festival visitors and cultural practitioners.
This year’s course was tied to this summer’s Creative Encounters: Living Religions in the U.S. program. During the course, students created discussion sessions about their selected object, modeled on the events that are a key feature of the Festival. Their presentations served as a springboard for these contributions to Folklife Magazine.
These personal accounts illustrate the wide range of objects with religious and spiritual meaning. They include objects that would be conventionally associated with mainstream organized religion, as well as Indigenous and African diasporic religious practices. And they also include objects which, while not tied to a religion, have deep spiritual meanings through their associations with home, family, and community.
Heirloom Seeds Nourishing Community and Connecting Generations
By Stacie (Danforth) Cutbank
I am an Oneida Nation (Wisconsin) citizen and a member of the Turtle Clan. Heirloom seeds and Tuscarora white corn have nourished my community since my ancestors arrived on the ancestral lands of the Menominee and Ho-Chunk Nation. To this day, white corn holds an important role in ceremonies and medicine societies. In 2016, I joined a community group that started an initiative to grow heirloom white corn on tribal lands near the Duck Creek area, west of Green Bay. Growing corn reconnected us to our traditional way of life.
Reviving my connection to white corn stirred up sadness because I realized I had left many things behind: memories of family members who had passed, times of gathering with extended family, and my own family’s connection to white corn. I had to let go of these losses before reconnecting with growing white corn, and I decided to step away from the community of corn growers. However, after my grandmother’s passing in 2021, my brother and I felt a stir from within to plant and harvest the white corn as our family had done for generations.
My connection to white corn goes back to my maternal great-grandparents and grandparents. I am gifted with many memories of spending time with them. My grandfather planted white corn for our family to harvest in the fall; as a girl, I would travel to Native communities with my great-grandfather and grandma to sell white corn.
My family gathered at my grandparents’ home for a “husking bee,” where we took the corn off the field, stripped each corn cob off the stalk by hand, and tossed them onto a trailer pulled behind our orange Allis-Chalmers tractor. Once the trailer was full, my grandfather drove it to the shed, shielded from the natural elements, where we began the husking process. We peeled back the corn husks and put the cobs on a flat wagon, which my grandfather hauled into the open so the corn could bathe in the sun’s warmth and catch a cool autumn breeze. Once the corn was dry, it was time to shell it. I liked to run my fingers in the pails full of corn, feeling the healing energy shared by each kernel. I remember my grandma saying, “The corn is our medicine.”
Today, my mom describes the white corn in the same way as our medicine: “When I’m cleaning the corn, there’s nothing else on my mind—no worries, no fears. It’s therapeutic because my hands are touching the corn which came from the earth and connects me with my creator.”
African American Hair Carrying Past, Present, and Future
By Cory France
Herein lies a nap ministry.
My hair is as Black as the skin I’m in. It carries my past, present, and future. This hair, the hair of my ancestors, transports me to places I’ve never been, to the motherland my family and I have been estranged from since we arrived at the port of Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston, South Carolina. Profoundly, my hair is equal parts compass and quilt. It weaves lineages of every version of Black—no kink, coil, braid, or loc gone unaccounted for. These hands—the hands of Africana—use every follicle to construct narratives and create utopias. Places where I can be King Ahebi Ugbabe, Oshun, Marley, Angela, and Basquiat whenever I choose. Where I can “rock rough and stuff with my Afro puffs,” touting my dense tresses unapologetically Black and proud, as the Godfather of Soul instructed us Black folks do back in 1968.
We are forever linked, this hair of mine. When I call for her, she sends for me. When I tend to him, he reciprocates vigorously. As far back as I can remember, my hair has been all parts political movement, art gallery, religious altar, and time portal for me and my family. My mother refers to it as a “crown” and never fails to remind me when to tend to mine. “Your body is your temple, and your hair sits at the highest place within it,” she affirms. “It represents everything that you are. Your humanity.” My granny, the holder of all the magical hair secrets passed on to her by her parents, often says that “our hair sends us messages” and “in order to receive them, we must groom it properly.”
For my brother, now a professional barber, there’s no greater way to express your Blackness than by tending to it and no safer space to be vulnerable and reinvent yourself than a barber’s chair. “It’s one of the most powerful seats you’ll ever take in your life,” he explains. “Here, you will find your therapist, your mentor, your litigator, and your matriarch in one place. A place that cannot just be re-created anywhere, by just anyone.”
Black hair is often called the original hair texture of all modern humans. In many ways, it tells the story of us all. Grooming and wearing it, however, is emphatically a rite of passage. Within its centuries-long genealogy, I find the ancient West African adinkra symbol duafé that inspires today’s Afro pick, gravity-defying Afros of the Black Power movement, and the monumental anti-discriminatory CROWN Act legislation passed in California in 2019. With its gentle care, we become imbued with ancestral technologies that help us sustain and evolve, that strengthen bonds, and that manifest higher versions of ourselves. When we shine our crowns, embrace our nappy roots, and nurture our curl gardens, we get closer to the truth of what and who we are.
A Window into Franco-American History and Heritage
By Shannon Gilmore
When I walk through downtown Brunswick, Maine, I often go a few blocks out of my way so I can meander past St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, a massive stone building that dwarfs everything in its vicinity. I’m neither Catholic nor Franco-American, but this church inspires me to stop and think about myself and my community. It acts as a window into local Franco-American history and heritage.
The church’s membership was always predominantly Franco-American immigrants seeking jobs and opportunities within the textile industry. The mill work was demanding and exhausting, and tenement housing was unsanitary, but these immigrants made Brunswick their home. They built a Catholic church named after the patron saint of Quebec, signaling the retention of their traditions and culture.
That first church burned in 1912 when a flying ember from a nearby house fire hit the roof. In rebuilding after the fire, the Franco-American community established its permanence with a strong stone building. Going inside the grand but not uninviting double-door entrance, I was stunned by the interior columns, arches, elaborate stained-glass windows, colorfully painted walls and ceilings, and apse decorated in muted, warm reds, blues, and golds.
At the dedication ceremony in 1912, some 2,000 people in the community celebrated the construction of their new church. Each speaker gave remarks first in French and then in English, demonstrating the importance of their mother tongue.
Despite their more established position, Franco-Americans faced continuing challenges. In 1919, a state law banned French in public schools, except in foreign-language classes. In the 1920s, the local Ku Klux Klan gained strength, with an anti-Catholic and anti-French agenda. In both cases, the message was clear: to be accepted, Franco-Americans should abandon their traditions. And in both cases, the church resisted the pressure to conform, continuing to offer services at least partially in French into the 1960s and continuing to provide a safe space for Franco-Americans. Recently, the church added a community center that includes a museum dedicated to the church’s history.
It’s impossible to walk past this church and not appreciate its cultural significance for Brunswick’s tenacious Franco-American community. Standing in its shadow and looking up at the rosary windows, I can’t help but feel a sense of connection to our past and a deep appreciation for the places that help us remember.
A Gift from Nuns in Appreciation of God’s Work
By Carrie O’Brien
Throughout my life, I have volunteered on many service trips, but I got more than I expected on one memorable week-long trip volunteering at Felician University in Rutherford, New Jersey. We spent most of our days at the nursing home for retired nuns. On our last day as a thank-you gift, they gave us each a small three-inch glass heart statue inscribed in black letters, “In Appreciation of God’s Work.” Although I already have a large collection of objects I consider to be special, this object always comes to mind when I wish to represent my beliefs in a tangible way.
Until college, I attended Catholic schools where I learned what it means to be Catholic and how to treat others. I was lucky enough to personally see my impact on others through my service trips. At the nursing home, our main objective was to make sure the nuns had a good time. Their favorite activity was listening to “Sweet Caroline” at high volume. Even though we had our own lunches, one of the nuns insisted that we try the potato pancakes they enjoyed. We helped another create crafts for the children she was going to teach on a service trip to Africa. While helping her, she gave us candy. Although they did not have much money, they gave us whatever they had; their selfless actions left a lasting impression on me. Today, I always do what I can to support others.
Whenever I look at this glass heart, I am reminded of my time at the nursing home. Even though it may not inherently be a religious object, I cannot help but feel that it accurately represents what I strive to do with my time. I do not believe that it is always important to get something as a reward for your actions. However, this particular gift was so unexpected, I could not help but hold onto these memories of my trip. This statue builds my self-esteem. Even after all this time, I continue to treasure it and hope to keep it with me throughout my life’s journey.
Corn Porridge for the Dead
By Gavilán Rayna Russom
Memories flood in as I add grains of cornmeal little by little to the pot of water boiling on my stove. The mixture thickens. The vigorous stirring releases a pungent smell accentuated by the palm oil I add to keep the mixture smooth. The heat warms my hands and face, and the intense stirring motion works the muscles in my arms and wrists. When I finish cooking, I will pour the deep yellow porridge onto a white dinner plate and place it on the floor of my bathroom at a small shrine for the Eggun, the ancestral spirits of Santería.
My godfather taught me how to prepare this dish, which he called harina in Spanish or àmàlà in Lukumí, Santería’s liturgical language. Standing at the stove, I think of him and the practitioners we descend from, who my offering of food will nourish and honor. These are the Eggun: Orisha worshippers who transmitted the knowledge systems that became Santería—from West Africa to Cuba, then to Puerto Rico where my godfather was initiated, and then to the United States where he initiated me. This flow of knowledge across time and space is rich with lineages of resistance and resilience amid the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade.
West Africans traditionally make àmàlà from pounded yam flour. The cornmeal-based version my godfather taught me evokes a more complex history. Corn is a crop from the Americas that is sacred to many Native people, and this dish is embedded with knowledge shared between Indigenous tradition bearers and West African Orisha worshippers.
When I cook harina, I also remember my mother teaching me how to make polenta, which she traced along her mother’s family line to Italy, and cornmeal mush, a staple food of her father’s Pennsylvania Dutch upbringing. On both sides, my family ancestry is European. Despite being full of appreciation for the natural world, our home life did not include much that I experienced as explicitly spiritual. I sought out spiritual connections elsewhere, eventually finding nourishment and a new home on the path of the Eggun and the Orishas.
From here, I can see that my mother’s stories—which I heard as she stirred the boiling polenta or cornmeal mush pot—carry traces of a spirituality of their own, ones that connect me to my European ancestry. My experiences with Santería have deepened and illuminated much that was previously invisible to me.
Connecting to the Cosmos with the Bomba Drum
By Falisha Sanchez
Raised a Catholic in the United States, I spent many hours in Sunday School, receiving Holy Communion and studying for Confirmation. Abruptly, one day, my father switched denominations, and suddenly I was a member of a new religious community whose services depended solely on the written Bible. Such a change, which seemed to come so easily, unlocked doubt in me. I became curious about other forms of spiritual expression.
The first time I heard the pulsating sound of bomba, I was walking the streets of Puerto Rico, my homeland, the land to which my ancestors summon me. Developing a fondness for breathwork and meditation, I discovered how listening to my body, through the beat of my heart, connects me to the cosmos. Bomba music is electric. It fills me up. I feel the pulse of the music deep in my veins, regardless of my inability to speak the language.
Since moving to the island, I have visited many casitas or local homes, and, in each, I have seen a maraca, buleador (drum), or other bomba instrument. A slight shake, or a double tap of your tightly held fingers, in all your amateur glory, will quickly command any space. For so many, especially puertorriquenos, bomba is a heartbeat with a vibration felt far beyond the island. That pulse reminds us that we are alive; it calls to our spirit and calls us to move.
Bomba thrived on sugar plantations of Puerto Rico, providing a form of expression and release for enslaved Africans. Un baile de bomba, a bomba circle, was formed in times of celebration. In an 1810 account of a voyage to Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands, French botanist André Pierre Ledru names the gathering bamboula. He highlights the “pleasant group” of people as a mix of whites, those of mixed race, and free Africans. Men “passionate about dance” in Indigenous clothing and women dressed in white with gold necklaces “successfully execute the dance of the African and (native-born) Criollo” to celebrate a couple’s firstborn.
In bomba, the singer infuses the space with lyrics often full of heartache and pain, melodically summoning a dancer. The dancer enters the batey (dance space) with a head nod and salutation to the primo drummer. He “converses” with the dancer, slapping the drumhead virtually in sync with every move. A bomba circle has often served as an act of resistance, functioning as a public forum to voice political and personal transgression. Bomba is an integral tool for building solidarity in the hearts of individuals and communities. It is a living, breathing art form with the ability to raise social consciousness through music and movement.
Tables Filled with Spirit and Personality
By Allison Parrott-Puffpaff
Although my family was never overly religious or spiritual, we had religious texts including various versions of the Holy Bible of the Lutheran faith. One that I remember seeing on each visit to my grandparents’ house was the Norwegian Bible my great-grandmother Bertha Carlson received for her confirmation. When both grandparents passed, I wanted this physical piece of our family’s ancestry, perhaps the only distinctly religious item I saw growing up.
However, when I recently asked my family about the items they regarded as religiously or spiritually significant, their responses surprised me: an old wood-and-leather bar in the basement of my grandparents’ house in Minneapolis; a wooden kitchen table at my parents’ house in Independence, Kentucky; and another kitchen table at our family cabin in far northern Minnesota. Although all three are common household objects, which we used constantly, they are filled with spirit, personality, and togetherness.
My grandparents’ bar is where my cousins, aunts, and uncles gathered round on numerous birthdays, singing our family’s birthday dirge: “Misery and despair, people dying everywhere. “Happy birthday *bang*, happy birthday *bang*,” pounding our fists or glasses into the table. The kitchen table in my parents’ home has been the scene of many crazy nights, a dozen of us squished around the table playing Cards Against Humanity, laughing until we are crying. There were also many crazy nights at the kitchen table in our family cabin, which is where we played the game of spoons (using other utensils if we ran out of spoons) and where we watched our favorite family movies. These three objects—two tables and one bar—have been in the family for more than fifty years. They tangibly embody love, memory, and tradition.
Whether telling stories, laughing, playing card games, or watching a family slide show, my childhood memories are that we gathered together in a central location, simply to be together. The spill stains on a table, worn edges from countless hands, nicks in the wood from impassioned card games—each holds a memory of our family being together. Spirituality lies within the wood, holding my family’s history and memory across generations and space for future memories to come.
Robert Baron and Rob Forloney are faculty members in the Master of Arts in Cultural Sustainability program at Goucher College. Stacie (Danforth) Cutbank, Cory France, Shannon Gilmore, Carrie O’Brien, Gavilan Rayna Russom, Falisha Sanchez, and Allison Parrott-Puffpaff are graduate students in Goucher’s MACS program.