Offering prayers for pesos


Peddlers: Some Filipinos say they lack time for meditation

others simply leave their appeals to God to the professionals.

January 18, 2003|By Ching-Ching Ni | Ching-Ching Ni,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MANILA, Philippines - They come to Quiapo Church to pray to the black Nazarene, a dark wooden statue of Jesus believed to have special powers. Desperate for a miracle, supplicants often roll up their clothing and crawl on bare knees from the back of the cathedral to the altar some 100 feet away.

For some, there is a less painful path. For a few pesos, they can hire one of the church's dozen or so "prayer ladies" to smooth the bumps on the hard road to salvation.

"God does not care who the prayer is coming from, as long as the person who paid for the prayer is sincere," says Nanette Rosales, 63, a widow who for more than two decades has been praying on behalf of others for a fee.

Since colonial Spain brought Roman Catholicism to this sprawling Southeast Asian archipelago four centuries ago, Filipinos have customized their religion with local interpretations. Some worshipers re-enact the crucifixion of Jesus by having their hands and feet nailed to a cross. Others show piety by beating themselves bloody with broken glass.

Then there are the prayer peddlers.

"We are like a bridge to God," says Baby Florando, a 54-year-old prayer vendor. "We help people who don't have time to pray, people who do not know how to pray and people who need more people to help them pray."

To many devout Filipino Catholics, hiring someone else to perform such a basic act of piety is simply un-Christian.

"It's laughable," says Bernie Sobremonte, a researcher at the Archdiocese of Manila. "God is everywhere. Even if you are at work, you can still pray. If you don't know the exact words of the official prayer, you can just say, `Hello, God, can I talk to you?' `'

Others see the prayer ladies as a conduit. "The Church is a brokerage to heaven," says Alex Magno, a professor of political science at the University of the Philippines. "These women are just a second layer of middlemen."

The Quiapo Church is the only one in Manila known to tolerate prayer ladies. Priests there say they discourage the practice, but as long as the women keep a low profile, no one drives them away.

It is unclear how or when the tradition began. Many prayer ladies say they inherited their jobs from their mothers and grandmothers. Since they wear casual clothing with no identifying marks, it can be difficult to distinguish them from the regulars shuffling in to pray.

Quiet and still, they wait like stone angels in the back of the 16th-century church. They sit not on the wooden pews reserved for worshipers but on plastic chairs they bring from home. Unlike the street vendors hawking candles, amulets and herbal cures in the crowded plaza outside, they are not allowed to approach churchgoers or advertise their trade.

Yet business remains brisk because they provide a valuable social service, the women say, a kind of one-stop healing center for the soul.

"When I started, all they were asking for were good health and a long life," says Rosa Aquino, 70, the oldest member of the group, who started selling prayers in 1949.

Prayer requests today run the gamut. Students ask for good grades. Wives ask that straying husbands be sent back home. Mothers ask that children stop taking drugs. Relatives of the dying plead for more time. The unemployed ask for jobs. Those who find work abroad ask for a safe journey. And, since the Sept. 11 attacks, there are those who ask for a peaceful world.

Many of the clients are poor because the poor have more problems, Rosales says. But the rich also seek help, asking the ladies to pray that their businesses will prosper or that lost jewelry will be found.

"Most of my prayers are granted," says Florando, who says she has helped thousands of customers in more than a decade. "They often come back to thank me, especially if they passed the bar or medical school exam."

As she speaks, customers trickle in from the punishing tropical heat to huddle with their favorite prayer lady. Some leave in a hurry. Others linger for a while, heads bowed and trouble on their brows. All whisper their problems, sometimes scribbling out names on scraps of paper.

"I'm asking them to pray for the early recovery of my beloved nephew, who is in critical condition," says Bernardo Barbin, pulling out a tiny picture of the 5-year-old boy from a fold in his sock.

"I can't explain it," he says. "Aside from my own prayers, I need the assistance of others. The more people who pray, the better."

After attending Mass with her husband and three children, Nita Pitulan glances over at the prayer peddlers and says she would never hire one but understands why others do.

"My sister did it when my father was sick," Pitulan says. "It worked.

"I know many friends who paid for prayers even though they are devout," she says. "Maybe they believe these women are closer to God because they are in church all the time."

After recent bombings in Manila and the southern Philippines, the usual customers with their domestic problems have been joined by others hoping for personal safety.

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