I Attended One of the Biggest Religious Events in Asia as an Agnostic

Philippines

This post and its photos were contributed by Genesis R. Gamilong.


It was 3 am in the morning, and I was already on the streets of Manila. As a woman, I would normally be scared during moments like this one, scared that someone would just snatch my bag and run away with my belongings. But that was not the case that early morning. The streets were already filled with people. All of them barefoot and wearing varieties of matching shirts with maroon and yellow motif, the trademark color of the Black Nazarene or the Nuestra Padre Jesus Nazareno.

The Black Nazarene was brought to us by the Spaniards during the 1600s. It was thought to be miraculous by its devotees. According to them, it could cure sickness and grant their wishes. That is why every year, millions of Filipinos around the country travel to Manila to attend the tradition called the Traslacion where the Black Nazarene will be transported out of its home, the Quiapo Church, towards Rizal Park and then carried back in a colossal procession that resembles a sea of yellow and maroon.

It was my first time to join the procession this year. Unlike the millions in Manila that day, I was just there to take photos and see what really happens during this Filipino tradition. Roads were blocked and cellphone signal was jammed. The only way to go from one place to another was through walking. I walked with the barefooted devotees towards one of the places where the procession will pass by.

We got to Ayala Bridge by 5 am. The devotees, almost all of them in groups, can be seen huddled in the streets to secure their place once the procession arrives. I looked around and thought that the procession had already arrived at the bridge because the sea of people was already humongous. I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t believe that this is still hours before the actual procession. How many more people will be in this street once the procession arrives? And they’re all here for religion? Because they believe in something greater than themselves?

More than a religious gathering, it was a fiesta. People were giving away food for free, families and communities are laughing together, there were A LOT of policemen and medical personnel. I was just there, observing and taking photos.

I felt small.

And different.

I am not that crazy with religion. I have already abandoned the idea that some greater being is guiding over us. And yet here are these people, barefoot and willing to dive in a sea of people just to experience a closer proximity to the divine. It seems absurd to some, it is to me. The Philippines is a poor country. Poverty rate is high and income inequality is above the roof. We will cling to whatever hope that we can cling to. In a country where healthcare is highly inaccessible, and one hospital bill will lead you to poverty, all of these, I think, is justified.

I was thinking, as long as there is no systemic change to uplift the lives of Filipinos, there will always be millions in the streets of Manila every Traslacion to seek help from the divine. But also once that time comes when Filipinos’ lives are uplifted, millions will still flock the streets as an act of thanks.

There is only admiration from me for these devotees.

I wasn’t able to wait and see the actual Black Nazarene crossing our location. I don’t think that I have enough faith in me to risk being squeezed to death. I was legitimately scared whenever there were speculations from the crowd that the procession was already arriving. We had no means to check if those speculations were true because there was no way to access our mobile data and a sea of people was continuously arriving.

I left right before the sun became too hot for the skin. Going home, I was just thinking of my lola (grandmother) who is a devotee. She went every year as far as I can remember, except for this one because she is already hard of remembering. My lola does not wish for anything. She told me that she goes to the Traslacion to give thanks. There are so many things to be thankful for, according to her. We owe everything to the Black Nazarene and that reason is more than enough to go to this humongous procession every year and risk their life for the Señor.

 


Meet Gen: Genesis is an aspiring documentary photojournalist based in the Philippines. She longs to live in a world that listens to marginalized voices. Reach her through her email (genesis.gamilong@gmail.com) or browse her portfolio .  Keep up with her on IG. 

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