Bending God’s Ear for a Fee

At one Manila church, believers can hire ‘prayer ladies’ to do their praying for them. But many Catholics look askance at the practice.
Los Angeles Times, Jan. 1, 2003
http://www.latimes.com/
By Ching-Ching Ni

MANILA — 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,” said 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 reenact the crucifixion of Jesus by nailing their hands and feet 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,” said 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,” said 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,” said 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.

Business Is Brisk

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,” said 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 Sept. 11, there are those who ask for a peaceful world.

‘Prayers Are Granted’

Many of the clients are poor because the poor have more problems, Rosales said. 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,” said 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 spoke, customers trickled in from the punishing tropical heat to huddle with their favorite prayer lady. Some left in a hurry. Others lingered for a while, heads bowed and trouble on their brows. All whispered 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,” said 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 said. “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 glanced over at the prayer peddlers and said she would never hire one but understands why others do.

“My sister did it when my father was sick. It worked,” Pitulan said.

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

Requests Change

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.

“All kinds of people come to ask for the bombings to stop and that they not be on the bus when the bombs blow up,” said Florando, a mother of three and grandmother of four.

“Some days we have to pray all day, with only a short lunch break,” Florando said.

All that work hasn’t made the prayer ladies rich. Many customers can afford the minimum of 60 cents per visit, nothing more.

“I make enough to buy food,” said Rosales, a mother of eight with 24 grandchildren. Until her body gave out, she said, she washed laundry to supplement the income of her husband, a driver. “When our prayers are successful, we don’t see our customers for a long time, so it can be self-defeating.”

Though the prayer ladies are not trained clergy, they are prepared to pass on any message to God every day and every hour the church is open. Some days, all they do is listen to the travails of everyday life.

“To the priest, they talk about their sins. To us, they unburden their problems,” said Ellen de O’campo, 47, a mother of six.

Personal Pleas

There can be an educational aspect to paying for prayer. For a growing number of young Filipinos who attended public schools and did not grow up in churchgoing families, the prayer ladies offer a guilt-free crash course on the rituals of their faith.

“If you want to get married in a church, you have to go to confession and get Communion,” said O’campo. “Some young people do not even know how to use the rosary. They don’t know how to say the Hail Mary. They pay us to do it for them, until they learn how to do it themselves.”

To keep track of the requests, the women jot down names and problems in small spiral notebooks or on folded sheets of recycled paper. Some ask for pictures of their customers, the better to channel their prayers.

Aquino keeps a color photo of a 12-year-old girl who has been missing since falling into a river. Her family is asking Aquino to pray for her safe return.

Inside Aquino’s purse is another photo, this of a young Catholic woman, given to her by a would-be lover who is Muslim.

“The man is so in love with the girl he could not eat, he could not sleep,” said Aquino. “His sister brought him here and told me money is not a problem, just make this girl fall in love with my brother.”

Is it working?

“There are indications now that she likes him more than before,” Aquino said.

“That’s why her picture is here, so I can keep praying and praying.

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