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Prayers for hire in old Quiapo
By Ted Lerner

MANILA - 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.

One 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 Philippines.

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.

In 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.

"We 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 square outside.

"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.

"People 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 ladies."

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."

Church administrators 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 praying."

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 or visit

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Aug 8, 2003

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