Casting a long shadow across one of Mexico City’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods stands a seven-story image of Santa Muerte — the Saint of Death. She takes the form of a human skeleton clad in black plastic sheeting with arms outstretched, inviting residents in from the streets to make offerings of flowers, fruit, burned cigarettes and alcoholic drinks.
Even in a country known for its fascination with death — which is celebrated every November during the Day of the Dead festivities — Santa Muerte seems macabre and gruesome.
The Catholic church denounces devotion to the folk saint as cult, but for her many worshipers, the city’s poorest-of-the-poor, Santa Muerte promises prosperity, healing, protection and vengeance in criminal gang battles.
“The bony lady,” as her followers call her, is believed to be the one who will come to collect us when it’s our time to die.
The cult of Santa Muerte was popularized by Jonathan Legaría, the ambitious son of a middle-class family in Mexico City.
Always fascinated by magic and the occult, Legaría convinced many that he had healing powers.
After his violent death in a hail of bullets in 2008, at just 26, the cult grew rapidly under the organization of his now-deceased mother, Enriqueta Vargas. There are now an estimated 10 million followers — not just in Mexico, but across the Americas. You can even find altars to the saint in various cities in the U.S.
Carlos Llambes, International Mission Board missionary, has ministered among followers of this cult.
“They think the only thing in life that is sure is death, so we better be on good terms with her,” Llambe says, explaining the mindset behind the worship of death.
How you can pray
As many parts of the United States participate in fall festivals and Halloween, join IMB missionaries in prayer.
Use the decorations as a visual reminder to pray for:
- the people in Mexico City who are deceived by this false saint and its false prophets. Pray they will see their sin in taking shelter from death, covenanting with her for eternal security. Pray for them to understand that the only truly sure thing in this life is Jesus.
- God to sustain missionaries and evangelical Christians ministering in the midst of much spiritual darkness. Join them in praying that people will choose to follow the true God of eternal life who casts out fear.
EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was written by Hugh Johnson and originally published by the International Mission Board.