As Detroit’s economy continues to sputter, many burn candles, use anointing oils and seek spiritual advice looking for a way out
On a recent Saturday afternoon, at Discount Candles on Gratiot Avenue in Detroit, people line up to back of the store waiting their turn to discuss what ails them.
One woman has mean co-workers who harass and bully her. Although she’s been forced to take a pay cut, she wants to keep her job, and keep colleagues off her back. Another woman needs money to save her home from foreclosure. Detroiter Jazzetta Rivers also has housing woes. The stay-at-home mom needs money to renovate a foreclosed house she recently purchased.
Owner Donna Adams stands behind the counter, listening to concerns of the young and old, advising each customer what to buy to help with their issues. She may suggest the $5.99 Problem Destroyer candle, Drive Away Bill Collectors or a King Solomon candle to help invoke wisdom.
Adams and several women behind the counter also mix anointing oils such as Protection, High John the Conqueror or Peace to “dress” the candles. Happy customers head home with hope.
Hard times are booming times for candle stores that sell religious artifacts and spiritual supplies such as Catholic saint prayer candles, incense, herbs, oils, floor washes and spiritual baths.
Customers come in for lottery books that share the best numbers to correspond with dreams they’ve had and Psalm books that tell what scriptures to pray according to their troubles. They also line up for spiritual advice from women who sit in the back room, offering comfort and advice for $40 for a half hour.
Often called Botanicas in Latino communities, business is up in Detroit because of customers who need help with their finances and the confidence to keep moving forward. But this store, along with competitor Knight Candles, a few blocks north on Gratiot, are not the only places to buy prayer candles in the city.
They also are sold in most grocery stores, drug stores, some Bible bookstores and are integrated among goods in many Southwest Detroit stores, with a large Mexican-American population.
Depending on what’s going on in her life, Rivers, who identifies as a Christian and regularly attends church on Sundays, says she prays daily and visits the store as many as three times each week. A mother of seven children ranging from ages one to 21, Rivers-pregnant with twins-says her children sometimes get on her nerves. When she burns candles, it seems to calm her home and quiet them.
When she burns a High John the Conqueror candle anointed with Jinx Remover oil, troubles seems to fade to memories. After anointing her doorknobs and windowsills with Blessing oil, the money she needs comes from unexpected places, and it seems her prayers are answered faster. Prayers go up with the smoke and candlelight, she says, peace and blessings come down.
“This works,” says the bright-eyed 39-year-old, nodding her head and smiling. “I don’t care what anybody says. I don’t know if it’s the scent of the candles or something in my mind. If I get a candle that says ‘Lord, Help Me’ or a King Solomon, it’s just a blessing. I like it. I really enjoy it, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Adams says it’s not so much the candles themselves, but her customers’ faith in God that turns their situations around.
“The candle is like a crutch for you,” says the Baptist who grew up Catholic and has run a spiritual supply store for 40 years. For the past 12 years, she has operated at the Discount Candle’s Gratiot Avenue location near Eastern Market, where candles and spiritual supplies have been sold for 80 years.
“It’s a reminder to get on your knees and stay on your prayers. You words are carried in the smoke and heat, and your prayers are answered.”
When asked if this works every time, Adams acknowledges it does not. So, burning Make Opposing Lawyer Stupid, Love Is Coming to Me, or Bring Back Your Mate candles may not get the desired outcome.
“We may not get all the answers we want,” she says. “Maybe you are trying to save your house, and you lose it anyway. Maybe God has something better for you. You have to look at your responsibility in it, but another door will open.”
She’ll never forget the woman who had only three days to save her house from foreclosure. Adams recommended one King Solomon candle, and the woman bought a case to burn. A few days later, the woman returned to share that as she was getting ready for church on a Sunday morning, the Holy Spirit came over her and told her to go the casino, something she never had done before. She told Adams she prayed each time she pressed the button on a $5-slot machine and won $65,000-and saved her house.
Those kinds of testimonials keep Adams dispensing advice to help people.
“They tell me they kept their son out of prison. Their children are staying out of the streets, and are at home doing their homework. I hear of blessings every day,” she says.
She has noticed a trend lately, though. Detroiters are much more focused on financial matters-and protection to keep enemies and ‘haters’ at bay.
“People have always burned candles, but they are asking more and more for St. Michael for protection,” Adams says. “They ask, ‘What Psalm can I read? How can I get rid of bad luck? How can I make the person at the job interview accept me? Now, they are wondering if they are going to get the job. Instead of that love candle, they say, ‘I am going to get me this job. I need to get this bill paid. I need this house saved.’ That’s up, but my customers have always burned candles, and they always are going to be burning them.”
Adam Ashforth, professor of Afro American and African Studies at the University of Michigan, says the candle-burning practice is derived from a combination of Afro-Caribbean religions and Catholicism.
“People see their lives are shaped by a multitude of spiritual forces and can’t be reduced to simple terms that Protestant Christianity reduces it to,” he says. “It connects with the ideas of Jesus is the light and the candle is a symbol of light, also the color symbolism is very powerful with Afro-Caribbean religions.
"People have complex ways of interpreting how the candles are burning and the forces that are acting on their lives and the likely outcomes. People are trying to find ways of managing relationships with invisible forces, including God and Jesus, and African deities in some cases, too. They are trying to find security in the face of hostile forces shaping their lives.”
When Detroiters are seeking comfort from those hostile forces, many turn to Qimmah Ubangi, a spiritual advisor who has dedicated her life to studying astrology and numerology, working from a Southfield office and her Northwest Detroit home.
“I notice more stress,” says Ubangi, who has advised people for more than 30 years. “Everybody is just trying to survive, and fear hits you. … They lack basic things people are used to like being able to pay their electricity bill or mortgage.”
Ubangi says besides relationship issues, more people wonder about how they are going to buy food and put gas in their cars. They want someone to talk to; someone who will tell them everything is going to be OK.
Meanwhile, hoping for a miracle, some of them play the lottery. They use the lottery books they buy at the candle stores, gas stations and party stores to tell them the numbers corresponding with objects and people in their dreams.
Velma Dexter, a 71-year-old Detroiter, recalls how well that practice worked for her mother and grandfather.
“My mother and grandfather were real good at remembering those numbers,” Dexter says. “They would have a dream, and play the numbers. It could be about a car, water, a baby, man or woman, person, place or thing. Whatever that is, you play the number for it. My grandfather was so good at it; he would hit almost every day. He would say when you have a dream, play that number for at least seven days and somewhere along there, that number comes up.”
Perhaps all of this is hocus-pocus or superstition, but Rivers says it makes her feel better about her level of control over the circumstances in her life and gives her more confidence.
“It could be all in our minds,” she says. “But it’s like an extra push. I say whatever makes people happy.”