SA 21 Ethnographic Fieldwork: A Faith Wholly Other
Monasterio, Chelsea Bettina
Moradas, Hannah Gwyneth
The Christian Church and its long-standing history certainly has an impressive list of traditions that would give anyone, even the most devoted of them all, a challenge in keeping track of. For example the Catholic Church— the biggest Christian Church as of the moment, specifically the Filipino Catholic Church, still practices to this day that they had inherited and learned from early Catholics is the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. It is a form of thanksgiving, a sacrament, and a sacrifice where, by the consecrated bread and wine, the Lord Christ is contained, offered, and received by the whole community. Every Sunday, each unsuspecting Filipino child gets to tag along with his or her parents for around an hour and while the adults are off attending the holy mass, the children get a character balloon that serves both as a treat and as a bribe in not embarrassing the whole family during the whole service. This was our earliest memory of visiting our local parishes and we are almost a hundred percent sure that most of us, if not all, have the same one.
His Life Christian Church, as we later discovered, provided a similar kind of setting for Filipino families, although on the surface it seems and is actually very different from the usual hour-long celebrations for the holy mass. The “service”, as they call it, was supposed to have started at 10AM. However, our informant kindly insisted that we arrive an hour earlier. Upon arriving, we were directed towards a big parcel of land with an enclosed tent-like structure in the middle. There was conversation everywhere— and we do not just mean small conversations where people in the community smile at each other whenever their eyes met, nod their greetings whenever they happened to be in the same line, or ask how each other was. No, these were actual meaningful conversations. Since the church has been doing it for quite a few years, it should not have come as a surprise when we realized that everyone seemed to know each other and that these people arrive at the church an hour earlier not only for purposes of punctuality but also for the conversations— they catch up with all the things that happened to them over the past week.
Aside from that, we were also given the chance to interact with the people in attendance with the help of our informant. This kind of opportunity would not have come so easily if we were in attendance of the usual holy mass where people are in and out of the church so fast you barely have anytime to talk. Not to mention, this kind of custom— talking to all the attendees so easily and over some food— is not practiced in most of the churches that we had attended. The people we had talked to were also ever so welcoming. When they found out that it was our first time attending the service, they were very happy, even saying: “Oh, God bless you hija! Welcome to the church and enjoy.” The given time before the service, we realized, was not only to give the people time to interact with others. It actually also ensures that when the service starts, the attendees would have already had the time to catch up with each other and talk, they would instead focus more on the events during the service and it enables them to immerse themselves in the service as compared to the attendees of the regular mass where friends would, subconsciously or not, sometimes talk to each other the whole way through.
Before the church service started, the volunteers gathered all the kids in one big room to separate them from the adults, and have the chance to learn about their faith through playing different games, and reading different books. Often times, the informant notes, they would listen to a teacher as he or she conducts the interactive environment. The venue for worship was rather enormous. Though it does not come close to the size of a coliseum, it is bigger than most parishes. On estimate, it has more than enough space to accommodate 1,500 people, and on that particular morning, it was full. The interior of the venue was minimalistic. The design of the main stage did not consist of more than a band, a mic stand in the middle, and a big sign that spelled out the name of the Christian Church: His Life. The walls were colored in plain white, and the ceiling had white drapes that followed the shape of the tent-like structure. There were speakers and projectors in both sides, and monoblock chairs were put closely together. We found our way at the middle section as we sat beside our informant’s family friends.
The church service started with lively songs played by their very own band. Intuitively, we thought they were original compositions by the band because they were unfamiliar, or, more accurately, completely abstract, to us. To the rest of the people, however, it seemed like songs that they hear on the radio, or sing in the shower— the type of music that was not only memorized by the brain, but sung by the heart. We eventually got a hold of the songs, starting from the rhythm, to the beautifully put lyrics. It was repetitive, but it wasn’t tiring. The mere energy of the crowd who were on their feet, raising their hands above while singing in unison was more than enough to keep us going. The crowd did not only consist of adults, but also teenagers, and even adolescents. Everyone’s compassion was felt throughout the room, and it was moving. After about 20 minutes of singing, one of the volunteers approached the microphone in front to ask the people to settle down. Not long after, three individuals of seemingly different age brackets came up the stage. They were the preachers. It left us in slight confusion, thinking that the preachers were going to be pastors, experts on the field of their own faith. Instead, they were two men in their late twenties, and a teenage woman. Moreover, instead of talking about the gospels, or any structured reading about the life of Jesus, they talked about their personal faith experiences. The first man talked about his way of life before and after a tragic accident. He used to be an alcoholic, and he had no direction in life. He barely thrived in college, and would only frequently go out with his friends to drink. One night, after their usual night-out at the bar, he hit a truck on his way home. His car was in total wreck, and he had 16 stitches done throughout his body, but thankfully, he survived. Since then, his life was changed forever, and his faith, more strengthened than ever. The second speaker talked about the financial problem he faced during the first few years of his marriage. He worked as a hotel manager, and his wife worked as a bank manager. Their means seemed to be sufficient to get by daily, until the hotel where he worked in went bankrupt and forcefully had to close down. For almost 6 months, he couldn’t find the drive to look for a job. He was idle and depressed at home, constantly thinking about how much of a failure he is, but his faith was regained from his understanding wife who reminded him his worth. Now, he has a successful restaurant that has been running for almost three years. The last speaker talked about love, or the absence of it rather. She narrated the story of her heartbreak with her boyfriend of two years. She was 16 when she met him, and she was naive. They cared for each other deeply, but the same love that kept them in high school was unable to sustain their relationship in college. They studied in different schools, and eventually ended up going different paths. She is 19 now. During her sharing, she says that her heartbreak was also a blessing in disguise. Through her faith, she was able to overcome the pain of her past that allowed her to recognize the love that was around her— the love from her parents, siblings, and friends.
When asked about this practice, the informant responded, “Although there are times when pastors preach, it is also inspiring and empowering for us to hear the faith stories of one another, and we believe that in doing so, not only does one’s personal faith increase, but the communal faith of our church as well.” After the faith sharing and discussion, a brief moment of reflection was allotted for everyone, and a pastor led the communal prayer. At this point in time, people are often heard uttering the words, “Amen!” or “Yes, Lord!” in response to the statements of the pastor. However, it is more of a personal than a communal response. It is not expected of one to communicate a response, but many individuals, especially those who are touched by the heart-rending prayers and stories, make it a point to do so. The church service finished with a song. It was a composition written in Tagalog. As the crowd acted in unison one last time, with their hearts poured out, their hands stretched above, and their compassion to their faith glowing and blooming in them, they sing, “Ang iyong pag-ibig ay walang hanggan.”
In the aspect of its sociocultural background, church services like His Life Christian Church is not common in the Philippines. According to Professor Susan Russell, the Philippines is the only predominantly Christian country in all of Asia. In fact, 85% of the country’s population identify as Christians. A quick research would also tell us that 80% of that consists of Roman Catholics while the rest is composed of other Christian sects. Therefore, since a staggering percentage of the majority of the country’s population not only identify as Christians but further identifies themselves as Roman Catholics, it is safe to say that the Filipinos are used to a certain type of “service” that is slightly different and more specific to the Catholic Church than what a Christian Church would provide: the Holy Mass. In Roman Catholic Holy Mass, the service takes less than an hour and does not provide the same type interactive opportunity for the people as compared to Christian services. Another difference is that in Catholic masses, like what is common in the Philippines, the mass is presided by the priest the whole time. There is no allotted time during the service where people from the congregation get an opportunity to speak about their experiences with their faith. Therefore, although Roman Catholics also identify as Christians, there is not a very huge demand for Christian churches when Catholic churches were what is most common and convenient to attend solely because of their sheer number which makes churches like His Life Christian Church uncommon in the Philippines.
His Life established a harmonious community, whose goal is to grow together as people rather than practitioners bounded by separate religions and distinct beliefs. The response of the people to us was overwhelming. They consisted of Christians, Catholics, and non-believers who find solace in their own personal faith-relationships. It was as though we belonged, despite engaging in the service for the very first time. In participating in the songs, and responding to the sharing sessions and prayers even in silence, we were able to fully immerse ourselves in their faith. Rather than merely observing, we chose to step out of our comfort zones and grasp a practice of faith much different from our own. Rather than trying to understand from an outsider’s perspective, and in addition to that, from a position that is susceptible to criticism and vulnerable to what is seen through the lenses, participation also allowed us to answer the whys. Why are there so many attendees? Why are people full of energy when singing to the songs? Why is there an urge for certain individuals to respond to the prayers through shouting statements, and at times, even by crying? The answer was found in immersion— in the realization that this particular Christian Church relates to its participants in a more intimate level because it allows room for self-reflection shared to the community.
Moreover, while immersing oneself in the experience is already important enough, His Life enables individuals to share so much more than the experience of the service itself. It actually provides them the opportunity to share the experience with other people who they could most likely relate with. During the service, we felt that there was a level of intimacy that passed between all of these people. This kind of intimacy, we believe, is a result of people being within a certain ‘safe space’. A huge factor in this conclusion is because during the service, they actually allow people from the community to share their own experiences with God, seemingly without judgement, as we would like to think. Admittedly, this aspect of this church is very different from most of the parishes we are used to. The apparent absence of judgement that we had observed was even more surprising because of the kind of people who attended the service. The service was not only attended by older people who we would have expected to be the sole participants of the event, there were also children and even teenagers. In His Life, there was no judgement when a nineteen-year-old girl wanted to talk about her faith. There were no: “She’s too young to know what she’s talking about!” or “Teenagers these days use every reason they can.” There was also a speaker who is a reformed alcoholic and we did not hear judgement from the crowd at all, which is, once again, very impressive once we considered the varied kinds of people who were in attendance of the service. In fact, the speakers seemed very comfortable in sharing their personal experiences. It is for this reason that we perceived the service as non-judgemental and therefore could be another reason why people enjoy being a part of it.
His Life Christian Church allowed us to practice our faith in a whole new lens. It didn’t have symbols that would remind us of who, and what we’re pouring out our beliefs in. There were no images of saints, nor were there candles and sacraments. Neither the symbol of the Cross nor the very face of Jesus Christ were displayed. There was nothing but a white wall, and a microphone. It didn’t even have the slightest bit of incense that takes us back to the solemnity of our own celebration of the Eucharist— the familiar fragrance that radiates its smell all throughout the Catholic Church. There was nothing but a gigantic speaker on each corner of the room to amplify the sounds produced. It didn’t have responses what we could have answered in unison, the kind of testimonies that echoed within the premises of the Church. There was nothing but a response that demanded a personal take— a testimony that didn’t necessarily have to be said out loud, or amongst the many other individuals present in the service because even an answer said in silence would suffice. It didn’t have room for us to go down on our knees, and feel every bit of pressure hurting through them, that certain pressure that reminds us how it feels to beg, to humbly ask before someone greater than our own selves. There were nothing but chairs put closely together to make room for all the practitioners gathered in the name of their faith. No, it does not come close to the Catholic Church. But why does it seem to hold more people every Sunday? Why do its believers gather around in harmony to discuss and explore rather than talking behind one’s back, and ignoring the essence of discourse? Why does His Life Christian Church, despite being wholly other, seem to reflect our ideology of how the Catholic Church should be? The answer is, it doesn’t really matter. Out of the many religions in the Philippine society today, an individual has all the freedom to practice whatever he or she wishes. In fact, an individual may even choose to disregard, and refuse to believe in any religion, and that’s okay. We have no right to practice inferiority or superiority with respect to one religion over another, because they are all equal, and are all rooted towards one goal— to find solace in spiritual apprehension and faith as they walk towards the path of discovering a “God”, may it within the higher, infinite being, or within their own selves.
Mercado, Je. “His Life Christian Church.” Personal interview. 19 Apr. 2017.
“Philippine Demographics Profile 2016.” Philippine Statistics Authority. N.p., July 2016. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.