Prayers for hire in old
By Ted Lerner
You can get just about anything you want in the Quiapo
section of Manila - and plenty of things you don't want
too. It doesn't matter whether you're rich or poor,
either. Even with just a few measly pesos in your
pocket, you can find something to take home with you.
Including perhaps even a miracle or two.
Miracles are the reasons thousands flock every
day to the Quiapo Church. Here in the very heart of
seedy and teeming Old Manila, the faithful pray to the
Black Nazarene, a 400-year-old, darkened, wooden
life-size image of Christ, clad in a maroon robe and
semi-kneeling from carrying a large wooden cross. This
image, which sits high above the altar of this grand and
cavernous church, is said to have special powers to
grant favors and miracles to its devotees.
doesn't normally associate giving money in exchange for
a miracle. Good old-fashioned prayer is supposed to get
the job done. But at the Quiapo Church, a few extra
pesos might just do the trick. And it's not about
putting those pesos in the collection plate, although
the priests and administrators would certainly hope you
do. At the Quiapo Church there is another, more
practical and straightforward method of getting that
miracle. You can hire a "prayer lady" to say your
prayers for you.
Officially they go by their
Tagalog moniker, mandarasals or "prayer
warriors". They are a semi-official group of middle-aged
and elderly women, sometimes as few as a handful during
slow days, and upwards of a dozen on the busy days of
Friday and Sunday, who wait innocuously in the back of
the church, sitting on small plastic stools, until a
"customer" comes by and asks one of them to say a prayer
on their behalf.
"We don't really charge," said
Fatima when asked how much her fees are. "It's up to you
if you want to pay." Fatima has been saying prayers for
others in exchange for money in the Quiapo Church for 18
years. As with all the other ladies here, her work was
inherited from her mother and grandmother. It's a
tradition that only exists in the Quiapo Church and goes
so far back that nobody is sure when the practice began.
"It's like a tree," Fatima said. "It has roots
here." And in these parts, roots stretch all the way
back to the beginning of the Spanish era in the
The Quiapo area itself was founded
by a Spanish governor general way back in 1586. The
parish has been on the same spot since 1592, when it
took the form of a bamboo and palm-frond hut. The
current church, with its two magnificent belfries and
grand dome, towers over the adjacent square and serves
as the center of Old Manila.
The scene and vibes
outside the church give off the feel that things haven't
changed much in four centuries, except perhaps the
influx of modern products and the materials used to make
them. On any day of the week the faithful flock to and
from the church. The air is filled with a cacophony of
sights, sounds and smells, a heady mix of color peculiar
to ancient temples and churches, combined with the
trappings of modern life.
Little girls sell
sweet-smelling sampaguita flowers. Fragrant smoke from
makeshift stalls where ladies sell candles and incense
wafts into the air. Fortune tellers read palms and lay
out tarot cards, or offer a quick sidewalk massage.
Young men hawk colorful balloons, plastic crucifixes,
rosary beads and the likeness of the black Nararene.
Beggars on the ground rattle their coins inside plastic
cups. People crowd around a vendor frying fish balls.
Nearby others offer piles of cheap imported clothes,
cosmetics, sunglasses and pirated video compact discs.
From the nearby road, passenger jeepneys jostle for
space and call riders by beeping their horns.
one area ladies sell a bevy of herbal potions and
concoctions that they claim can cure any ill or bring
you good luck. There's even one mix made from a certain
tree bark that is said to induce menstruation for those
women who are a few weeks late (wink, wink).
Perhaps because everything imaginable is already
on sale, including plenty of miracle concoctions, it
doesn't seem so surprising to discover the existence of
the prayer ladies. Although the idea of handing over
money to have another person pray for you might seem
anathema to many, few of the faithful at the Quiapo
Church see anything wrong with the practice.
never get complaints from parishioners," church
administrator Gigi Camballa told Asia Times Online. "The
complaints come from religious people who think they
know better. Sometimes nuns complain about the practice.
But I tell them, 'Don't we all receive donations? They
have to eat, they have to feed their families. It's
their livelihood.'" But Camballa understands the feeling
of outsiders. When she and her colleagues first took
over running the church in 1999, they tried to drive the
prayer ladies out of the sanctuary and into the busy
"Our first impression was that
this was 'pay for pray'," she said. "But they said,
'It's not payment. It's a donation for our food.' So we
were forced to observe them. We discovered that they are
helping people. There's value in that.
see the donation part and they think negatively. But
they haven't taken the time to understand. They are
under the impression the ladies are paid to pray. But
once we tell them what and why, they begin to
understand. They appreciate the existence of these
While the prayer ladies don't like to
say they get paid for saying other people's prayers,
compensation, monetary or otherwise, is always part of
the package. It's just that it's always unspoken.
"We don't demand," said Rosie, a prayer lady
since 1983. "If you have nothing to give, it's okay."
But they always give something. Instead of money some
people will give a bag of rice, bananas or native foods.
Still, why would anyone pay another person to go
and say prayers for them? The reasons are varied. The
prayer ladies say some people are too busy to pray
regularly, so they feel better hiring these ladies, who
are at the church almost every day, to do it for them.
Some who do pray like having that extra push, the "icing
on the cake", to ensure that their wish will come true.
A common reason people visit the ladies is that they
simply don't know how to pray and they want to be
taught. The ladies have a sequence of prayers that many
others don't know.
Like the reasons, the
requests from clients are varied but usually fit within
a regular pattern.
"Some want to pray for
additional capital for their business," said Dominga,
who's been praying for others since 1980. "Some pray for
a sick family member, or they're having family trouble,
a death anniversary." Another common request comes from
people about to go on a trip asking for personal safety.
Dominga said the strangest request she's ever had was
when one lady came in and requested her to pray that her
boyfriend ask her hand in marriage. After several months
of praying, the two were married. "People approach us
because it really works."
do not allow the ladies to sit in the regular pews and
they are only allowed to work in the back of the church.
But besides offering a service to the huge flock that
regularly fills the church, the ladies provide an added
bonus: their constant presence in the church means an
extra layer of security.
The ladies are not
permitted to solicit customers, although it didn't seem
that anyone has trouble finding them. When we visited on
a recent Sunday afternoon, there was never a moment when
at least one of the ladies didn't have a client. One
woman showed up with two small boys in tow and within
seconds was sitting and praying with Fatima. Apparently
the woman was asking for prayers for several dead
relatives. As Fatima prayed, the woman held her mobile
phone and busied herself sending a text message. After
15 minutes the woman stood up and slipped some rolled-up
pesos into Fatima's palm.
Each of the ladies
carries a small, tattered notebook where they keep track
of all the requests of each of their clients. Although
some people ask for a quick prayer, many have the ladies
say weekly prayers for them. "Prayers for 15-30 minutes
are okay," said Nanette, a 20-year veteran
mandarasal at the Quiapo Church. "But it might
not come true. But if you want nine Sundays of prayer,
then there's a better chance. We have our own system of
One is instantly reminded of the
fortune teller outside who likes to quip: "My friend,
for P50 your future will look very dark. But for P500
[about US$9] your future will look very bright!" But
since the prayer ladies never demand payment, and the
client is the one making the offer, the transaction part
seems more benign. Some even give a bonus when their
wish comes true.
Clearly, though they wouldn't
give specific numbers, none of the prayer ladies are
getting rich saying prayers for other people. And they
say that doing this work is fulfillment enough.
"When I pray for someone," said Nanette, "it is
really deep in my heart, so it will come true. I enjoy
it. I help people who don't know how to pray. I help
people with their problems."
For sure, though, a
little consideration for their efforts could be the
difference between your prayers being answered or not.
Ted Lerner is the author of the newly
released book of Asian travel tales, The Traveler
and the Gate Checkers, as well as Hey, Joe - A
Slice of the City, an American in Manila. E-mail
firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.hey-joe.net/.
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