Faiths find reason to believe in Saints

Published 12:02 am Thursday, February 4, 2010

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Faith. Struggle. Hope. Abiding love. In synagogues and churches across New Orleans, prayers are flavored by the Saints’ march to the Super Bowl, transcending spiritual differences with the team’s rousing ‘‘Who Dat!’’ cheer.

Churches are scurrying to change their Sunday services to avoid conflict with the big game. Leaders are finding sermons in the team’s journey. Even a Voodoo priestess is pulling for the team in black and gold.

Rabbi Robert ‘‘Bob’’ Loewy taught the ‘‘Who Dat!’’ cheer in Hebrew to his Congregation Gates of Prayer before the Saints defeated the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game.

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In English, it’s ‘‘Who dat say they gonna beat them Saints! Who dat! Who dat!’’

Loewy’s translation: ‘‘Mi zeh omer yakhvosh et hatsaddikim! Mi zeh! Mi zeh!’’

It’s done ‘‘with a wink and a nod toward tradition, but also with joyful expression following years of suffering,’’ he told the congregation.

The outpouring reflects the Saints’ 43 years in the NFL wilderness before making it to the promised land of the Super Bowl. The franchise was awarded on All Saints Day in 1966 and the name is associated with the old-time Christian hymn.

But the team’s long history of futility — its first winning season didn’t come until 1987, the year Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in the Superdome — left fans often wondering just whose side the deity of their choosing was on.

With the Saints finally playing in a Super Bowl, ‘‘it’s ripe material’’ for religious illustration, Loewy said. He recently contrasted the leadership styles of Saints coach Sean Payton and Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell in a class about the Book of Exodus and Moses’ character and leadership.

Churches in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans were asked to let the archdiocese know their plans for Mass on Feb. 7, spokeswoman Sarah Comiskey McDonald said. Many are moving or canceling evening Mass.

Among those churches is Our Lady of Guadeloupe near the French Quarter, fittingly home of a shrine to the patron saint of hopeless causes, St. Jude.

‘‘St. Jude’s is very, very, very much into the Saints,’’ said Ava Kay Jones, a Voodoo and Yoruba priestess who also sings in the St. Jude’s choir for Sunday evening mass. In New Orleans, as in Haiti, some professed Christians still borrow elements of African-influenced traditions like Voodoo.

Jones has a special tie to the Saints: In a 2000 playoff game against the Rams, she paraded around the Superdome in her priestess gear. At a crucial point in the game, she was caught on camera kissing a live snake as the Saints punted. Rams wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim muffed the punt, the Saints recovered and went on to win their first-ever playoff game.

Jones said she’s not planning Voodoo rituals on Sunday, just prayers: ‘‘Those are what move heaven and earth — the intense prayers.’’

Roman Catholic Archbishop Gregory Aymond said he sees the Saints and team owner Tom Benson as symbols of perseverance.

‘‘They have never given up, continuing to develop their skills and be generous, and it has borne fruit,’’ he said.

‘‘We definitely see a lot of symbolism,’’ McDonald said. ‘‘There’s definitely a Saints analogy not just for the city but the faith, and Christianity, and being a symbol of faith and hope and an unending, enduring, unconditional love,’’ she said.

Traditional vestments are being swapped out for the black and gold at the pulpit by the Rev. David Crosby, senior pastor of First Baptist Church, where Saints fullback Heath Evans is a member, and Bishop Lester Love of Greater Antioch Full Gospel Baptist Church.

Love gave a ‘‘Who dat’’ sermon Jan. 30 at Greater Antioch, using a verse from the Book of Romans: ‘‘If God be for us, who can be against us?’’

In the NFC championship, Minnesota quarterback Bret Favre ‘‘made the only play he shouldn’t have made, where we can win the football game,’’ and Saints kicker Garrett Hartley kicked a 40-yeard field goal to send the Saints to their first Super Bowl, Love said.

‘‘I preached the message … Who this? Who that? Who can do this against you? I preached ’Who that?’ When it’s your time, you can’t lose,’’ Love said.

Even a faith that doesn’t name saints is making room for the Saints. Loewy, the rabbi, said his one problem translating the ‘‘Who Dat!’’ chant was to translate ‘‘Saints.’’

‘‘An Israeli-born member suggested that I simply call them the ’Saintim,’ since that is what modern Hebrew often does with words that can not be translated,’’ he said. ‘‘I prefer to link the idea of Saints, clearly coming from the Christian tradition, with Tsaddikim, righteous ones, coming from our tradition.’’

And the team’s fight song?

The rhythm of one Hebrew hymn, ‘‘Adon Olam’’ (‘‘Eternal God’’) can fit any melody, he said.

‘‘We, of course, have been singing it to ’When the Saints Go Marching In.’’’