“I want to pass it on.” That was what the people were singing as their final song to wrap up the prayer session. There were about 30 people in the room and most of them came from high school and a few from college. Delight and excitement surrounded the room because they had just finished their weekly prayer session. What do they “pass on” exactly? They pass on God’s love, which is the center of the whole activity. It was a very interesting sight to behold.
I chose to observe and participate in a Christian parish community called Antioch, and it’s all about passing it on. According to my informant, who’s also my good friend, Alfonso; Antioch has been around since the 1980s, and it was originally held in the Santuario de San Antonio [SA] parish in Makati. From there, it branched out to a few other places, like the Santuario de San Jose [SJ] parish in Greenhills, which was the one I went to. SJ stopped in the 90s for around a decade because less and less people came to the retreat and prayer sessions. Fortunately, however, it was reestablished back in 2009 with the help of older Antiochers.
Before being formally called an Antiocher, and thus being part of the community, one must go through the three-day retreat that’s held twice a year – one in April and another in November. Also, there’s an age limit for joining, which is from ages 15 to 21. Once an Antiocher reaches the upper age limit, there’s an unspoken rule, which is loosely followed, that conveys that Antiochers above 21 can’t participate in the prayer sessions. Those prayer sessions happen every Friday, and they act as “follow ups” that occur after the retreat so that the new and old Antiochers alike can gather to pray and socialize. Non-Antiochers are not allowed to attend the prayer sessions since they haven’t joined the retreat, but my informant has been there for 5 years, so his influence was able to bend the rules a bit and let me in.
We arrived 20 minutes earlier for the prayer session, which was held at the conference room right beside the Church, and it began at 7:30 in the evening. It was a pretty big room, the size of two Berchman classrooms put together, and there was a huge wooden statue of Jesus, whch was probably about 7-8 feet tall. Enthusiasm and joy emanated in the room, for people were engaged in their own conversations. Some people were shouting and chasing one another, while others were just casually chatting – it was a really nice vibe. I also noticed that there were two couples of parents seated at the side of the room. I initially thought that they were some paranoid parents that wanted to observe what their kids were doing, but my informant told me that they were the parent-leaders that were a part of the group that reestablished SJ. After standing near the entrance for some time, it felt a bit awkward since it was such a closely-knit group of people, and I remember getting a couple of “Who is that?” stares from the Antiochers. Fortunately, after a while, Alfonso introduced me to some Antiochers that were from high school, and they were very friendly and really nice to talk to. It wasn’t so hard to “penetrate” and be part of the group, so I can say that they were an open community despite the whole “Antioch exclusivity.”
A parent-leader started shouting, “Let’s start! Let’s start!” Immediately, people started getting chairs from the pile and arranged them in a huge circle. Everyone settled down and sat, and everyone held hands to say a quick prayer. Shortly after, the “Introducer” initiated the prayer session by giving a short spiel that vaguely described the “Talk-Giver.” She alternated between gender pronouns, using “he,” “she,” and even “it,” and this was apparently a tradition in Antioch. After some laughs and random guesses, the talk-giver gave his talk. It was about “being myself,” and he talked about some pretty deep things about his life and related them to God’s. When it ended, people began clapping and singing a song as they lined up to give the talk-giver a hug. A parent-leader told them to sit back down and count off to seven. After forming seven groups, they headed outside, with one person from each “share group” holding a candle, and they chose their own “spot” around the church.
I went with Alfonso, so we stayed in his regular spot, which was beautifully placed under a tall bell monument. The sharing began with a prayer – we all held hands again – and then a slip of paper, which apparently came with the candle, contained some questions in relation to the talk. My share groupmates (if I can remember them right) were Kevin, Janine, Mar, and Alfonso, and we took turns answering the questions and sharing our experiences with each other. It was fascinating because these were people that I had just met, yet they were sharing very personal information with me. Naturally, I had to reciprocate the sharing, so I also shared to them some personal details about me, like things about my family, love life, and more. A bell rang, which signified the end of the share groups, so we wrapped it up with another prayer, then headed back to the room.
When we returned, the lights were closed and candles replaced the chairs that were previously there. We sat on the floor, and the “Communal” started with some songs. After that, we began praying. It was a really long prayer session – and yes, everyone was holding hands – that acted as the culminating activity of the whole session. Each one made a prayer, and as soon as it ended, the lights were turned on. Everyone started singing “Pass It On” in a really happy and energetic manner, which broke the solemnity and seriousness of the prayer session, and hugs and handshakes were exchanged. The activity ended there.
The Antioch prayer session was a really fun and amazing experience. It sort of felt like those recollections we had back in high school but in a much more mature environment. Alfonso invited me to join the retreat this coming April, but I told him that I wouldn’t fit in at this age due to the really young crowd. I thanked Alfonso again for being such a great informant and for letting me have a wonderful time in the prayer session. It was definitely a great experience: the feeling of being part of the Antioch community.
What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?
Actually participating in the activity gave me a more realistic and concrete feel of what it means to be an “Antiocher” even though I was not able to fully experience it. Looking back, I definitely would have felt the emotions and feelings more if I participated rather than just simply observing. Joining the sharegroups and getting to talk to the Antiochers about some pretty personal stuff felt new and different because it was sort of like a counseling session but full of high school kids sharing personal stories to one another. If I were only to observe, I wouldn’t have felt the reward of openness via awkward sharing.
What did having a key informant add to your understanding?
My key informant, Alfonso, definitely helped me with understanding the context of Antioch. He told me about its history and how it came to be. Furthermore, he was the one that brought me there, and he also introduced me to people and made me feel like I was one of them. Having a key informant helped me fully understand the activity.
What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
I believe that the strong emotions and the solemn ambience in the prayer session are the most significant factors that will be missed out if I were to do an interview or questionnaire. I wouldn’t have been exposed to the environment, which plays such a huge role because the prayer session is something a person must feel rather than just talk about.
For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
The only benefit I can see in doing an interview or a questionnaire is that I can clinically and efficiently ask questions about Antioch to a big volume of people. I won’t be able to get myself involved with the people there much and establish rapport, but I’ll be able to gather information from more people in a much more efficient manner. However, I don’t recommend this at all because the Antioch prayer session is something really worth experiencing personally.
Luis Española 111453
SA 21 P