From Cascade Springs to Lake Lanier, water is a crucial element connecting people to their faith

What’s exciting about the oranges in Utoy Creek and the crowds at Osun Fest is what they reveal about the ways communities are connecting with our creeks and rivers in their spiritual practices today.

Osun Festival, 2021
Osun Festival, 2021

Photograph by Tabia Lisenbee-Parker

Curious arrangements appear deep in the mossy heart of Cascade Springs Nature Preserve in Southwest Atlanta—a quarter mile down the boardwalk trail, past the gnome-sized stone springhouse, beneath the eponymous waterfall. Yellow daisies and damp votives wedged in the slick rocks. Sliced oranges and pineapples tumbling further down Utoy Creek.

These little shrines are offerings to Osun, the Yoruba goddess of fertility, love, and freshwater. “She likes oranges and honey,” explained Marcelitte Failla, a scholar of African diaspora religions and a PhD candidate at Emory University, who told me the offerings are a way of both honoring the deity and connecting to nature. “Many practitioners understand the orisha to be not just governing the river, but to be the river. The goddess, the spirit, the orisha is the earth.”

In the U.S., practitioners of Yoruba religious traditions have multiplied rapidly with the proliferation of social media and a growing body of scholarship, Failla said: “African descendants are searching for traditions closer to what our ancestors practiced. It’s a political decision to step away from Christianity, a way to connect to the ancestors and to affirm oneself, to see Black gods, Black feminine gods, as a source of power and strength.”

The tableaux at Cascade Springs suggest private, intimate moments in nature—but Failla told me that the Osun Festival, held annually at Sweetwater Creek State Park, is anything but small and quiet: Hundreds of worshippers, wearing white, crowd the banks of the river. “The Osun festival is big,” she said. “It’s hosted by an ile, or an African cultural center. The community puts a lot of effort into these celebrations.”

Working with urban conservation nonprofits like American Rivers and the Conservation Fund, my goal is to raise awareness of our natural resources and appreciation for these fragile places in our city. I’ve heard stories of baptism in Proctor Creek and Peachtree Creek—but they’re always set in the distant past, accompanied by black-and-white photos. What’s exciting about the oranges in Utoy Creek and the crowds at Osun Fest is what they reveal about the ways communities are connecting with our creeks and rivers in their spiritual practices today.

How many other faith traditions engage with Atlanta’s creeks? Looking for evidence on Facebook, I came across a video from Trairatanaram Temple near Riverdale of monks hosing down a very large, very feisty common snapping turtle in a parking lot last spring. They maneuvered the turtle into a plastic tub and carried it down to the sandy creekbank under a bridge, and with some chanting and gongs, tipped the beast into the water. Wat Dhamma, a temple in nearby Stockbridge, also hosts an annual ceremony for releasing frogs or turtles into their pond as a practice of meta (loving kindness) and karona (compassion). “Loving kindness and compassion are the two pillars of life on earth, upon which we build happiness,” said Vankosal Chhay, Wat Dhamma’s lead monk. (In Chinese Buddhism, a similar tradition is known as fang sheng, or “release life.”)

Chhay showed me a master plan for the development of the temple’s 28-acre campus, including two new pagodas and extensive trails and gardens. A series of towering golden Buddhas nestled in the forest will overlook a tributary of Big Cotton Indian Creek. “We’ll name this Freedom Pond,” he joked, gesturing to the existing reservoir. “No fishing.”

I asked Jonah McDonald, a park ranger at Mason Mill Park, if he’s seen anything similar. He told me about Reverse Tashlich, a modern interpretation of a Jewish tradition that takes place on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Typically Tashlich involves throwing breadcrumbs into flowing water as a way of letting go of sins and seeking forgiveness—but with Reverse Tashlich, participants also do the opposite, collecting trash from waterways.

“The tradition is about literally throwing away our sins into the water,” said Amy Price, with Congregation Bet Haverim. Price works for Repair the World, a Jewish service organization that hosts Reverse Tashlich at Mason Mill. “My congregation has chosen not to use bread and has researched what’s better for our ecosystem,” Price explained—they settled on grains of amaranth. And each year, they bag up hundreds of tennis balls that bounce into the creek from the DeKalb Tennis Center.

McDonald, who’s helped lead Reverse Tashlich and participated in it with his family, said it’s not like other cleanup events he’s been part of. “Those of us who work as professionals in this field often leave our faith at the door, so to speak,” he said. “It’s very rare to begin a cleanup with songs and prayer in a public park.”

I can see how tossing stuff in the water, or releasing non-native turtles into a creek, might be frowned upon. But Anamarie Ngala-Bey, the environmental education programs manager at the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, welcomes this return to the rivers: “You can’t even compare a bouquet of flowers to the use of fossil fuels or the pollution of coal ash,” she said. “As an organization that stewards these creeks, we’ve seen an uptick in using greenspaces as an altar, a setting for faith. We have a unique understanding of the challenges of someone leaving non-native, foreign fruit in a waterway, but we can also sympathize with people’s need to connect with an ancestral memory torn away through the trans-Atlantic slave trade.”

To explore how different Black faith traditions incorporate nature-based spiritual practices, this past February, Ngala-Bey convened a panel discussion at WAWA called Church in the Wild. By the end of the discussion, the panelists—an Ifa priestess, a Hoodoo convert, and an ordained United Church of Christ minister—were finishing each other’s sentences about the regenerative power of water. Reverend Michael Malcom, executive director of Alabama Interfaith Power & Light, brought it back to the historical “hush arbor” or “hush harbor”—a secret sanctuary along the tree line where enslaved people could gather beyond the earshot of their enslavers. It was there, in the wilderness, that they began to blend African religious traditions with the Christian doctrine of liberation, to develop spiritual songs and practices to survive.

The strange part about watching people worship on Facebook is how intimate it feels, even though the posts are public. For example, I’ve seen how the Iglesia Bautista de Monte Trinidad of Norcross hosts a cookout at Lake Lanier each summer for Paseo y Bautizos. As the pastor wades out into the green water in slacks and a button-up shirt and prays over the candidates, fully clothed in suits and flowing skirts, I feel like one of the onlookers bobbing in the background of each photo, crammed in a cheap plastic inner tube. How many unsuspecting swimmers came to Buford Dam Beach that day to get a tan and ended up witnessing this sacred rite?

I shared these images with a mentor, Dr. Yomi Noibi, who works with ECO-Action, a nonprofit working to eliminate pollution in low-income communities and communities of color in Georgia. He surprised me by saying, “We do that. We baptize in Lake Lanier.” Noibi, born in Nigeria, is a longtime member of International Christian Fellowship in Southeast Atlanta. “We believe in full immersion,” he said. “We know what Jesus did: He went to flowing water. When we dip them in the water, it is an encounter with the Holy Spirit.”

“There is a Yoruba proverb: Water has no enemy,” he said. I marveled how we circled from the River Jordan back to Nigeria. Water is the universal solvent.

It struck me that this is not a bad goal for an environmentalist: water clean enough for full immersion—not just a sprinkle. People seeking the spirit at Cascade Springs and Big Cotton Indian Creek and Sweetwater and Mason Mill Park should be able to touch the water, be cleansed by it. While I love all these rituals that carry us out of our private temples and into the forest, I don’t want to stop at the edge of the creek.

This article appears in our April 2023 issue.