As I am working to getting a deeper understanding of how and why the people here do the things they do, I look for opportunities to participate (at least as an observer) in any events that come along. Once in a while a significant ‘life event’ happens, and I have to be ready to jump in to catch all that I can as it happens.
Recently, one of those ‘life events’ came up, and I had the opportunity to observe a baptism ceremony at the Espiritista church here in the village. Until now, I hadn’t really had a chance to enter the local church while something was happening there, so I knew I had to take it. How it began was that early in the morning of the baptism, Denden, the father of the children to be baptised, went around the village inviting everyone to the ceremony and feast afterwards. He made a point of stopping by our house to explain that their three children were getting baptised later that morning and he was inviting us to be there as well.
As is often the case in these kinds of events, there was no specific time set for when the ceremony at the church would start. All we were told was it would be some time that morning. A little later I went by Denden’s house and saw that there were lots people gathered there. Many of them were involved in cooking food for the party after the ceremony, while others were arriving from other areas to join in the festivities.
One thing I’ve learned in these situations is to arrange for someone to come and get us, if we are not there when the time has finally come to start. I asked my friend, Tiwang to find me when he knew it was time to gather. He agreed to be my companion there as well, because I had never participated in something like this. (I’ve learned that having a companion for these things is important; not just for appropriate timing or asking questions, but also to guide me in not embarrassing myself unnecessarily.)
When it was time to start, Tiwang came to get me and we went over to the church. There were people gathering there, but not as many as I had expected, seeing as I had heard that there were visitors coming from some faraway places to be there. We went inside, sat down and waited while religious music was playing loudly from a sound system. (It had been playing since about 3 hours earlier, and we could hear it from our house, on the far side of the village.) After about 15 more minutes, (they were waiting for certain people to arrive) the church leader stood up and announced that the ceremony would now begin.
It began with everyone standing and singing a song (similar to a prayer) while facing the church banner that was hung at the front of the building. Then the ‘pastor’ read through a list of names; these are called ‘ninong’ and ‘ninang’, similar to godparents. After this was done, the pastor preached for 20 minutes (in Ilokano, the language that is used in this church), talking about why one should be baptised.
Afterwards, all the ninongs and ninangs were called up to the front along with the children to be baptised, along with their parents. I looked at Tiwang and he chuckled, commenting that there were more people standing up front now than those still sitting. While they stood around the children, holding their hands over the child’s head that they were to be ninong/ninang for, the pastor’s wife sung a song and the pastor read from the (Ilokano) Bible while placing his head directly on each child’s head. He then placed the Bible against the children’s chests and then on their head while saying something. He did this with each of the three children.
Once this was done, each of the ninongs and ninangs paid P100 each to a young lady who came to the front and wrote in a book as they paid. Then it was time to take pictures, because the white guy/camera man was there with his big camera. After we finished taking pictures (I wasn’t the only one taking them) it was announced that there would be a party at the house and everyone was to make their way over there.
When we arrived at the house of Denden, I realised where everybody was. There were friends and family from many different places, some of which I recognised from other occasions but many were strangers to me. I couldn’t help but notice how much food had been prepared as well. I hadn’t seen this much food prepared for an occasion since my first language helper got married. The family spared no expense!
After everyone had eaten, many people left to travel home (some came from 3 to 4 hours away by motorcycle). Others stayed and the karaoke machine was brought out. Many of the men had already been drinking much gin since earlier in the morning and that continued as well. It was late in the evening before the music stopped and the noise from the party there finally died down.
Now, I am at the place in my studies where I can openly ask questions such as “Why?” and “What does that really mean?”, so in the following days that is what I began to do. First, I asked about the ninongs and ninangs. What do they do, and why so many? (Each child in this case had about 10-15 of them.)
The purpose of the ninong and ninang is to become like a second parent, should the original parents not be able to be there for the child. This could be in the form of financial help for school, advice, or even in discipline and admonition. For example, if the child’s parents are not around and one of the ninong or ninang sees the child in need or potentially in harm’s way, it is their responsibility to take care of the child in the real parents’ absence. Therefore, the more ninongs and ninangs one has, the better they will be taken care of. The money paid by each after the ceremony was to help with the costs of the party and for the baptism registration at the municipal office.
Then I asked about what we witnessed as the pastor was performing his rituals on each child. The song that was sung while the pastor placed his hand on the child’s head and read from the Bible was about God and how He should accept the child as one of His own. As the Bible was being placed against the child’s chest it was to fill the child with the Word of God, and then as it was placed on their head it signified that they were being covered with the Word of God. Without this ritual, the child would not be able to go to heaven when they die, as their soul would not be able to find its way there. (In another situation, a child had died without having been baptised so they went ahead and did the baptism ritual in hopes that his soul was still nearby. I was told that perhaps God would still accept the child’s soul because he was baptised before being buried, even though he had been dead for nearly a week by then.)
During the message given by the pastor, I understood enough to know that he said that if a person dies before being baptised, their soul will likely go to hell. In light of this I asked why the parents had decided to wait until they baptised all three of their children at the same time, at the risk of having one of them die before being baptised. The decision to wait was based on economic reasons. Instead of doing a ceremony and big party for three individual baptism events, it was more reasonable to do it all at once and only have to throw one big party. As we talked, I also found out that many of the children in the village have not been baptised, included those of some the other officials within the church itself. I couldn’t get a straight answer as to why those parents are putting it off at the risk of having their children go to hell.
As for the party after the ceremony, the bigger the better. Not only is it a symbol of status for the family, having a big party where everyone is happy becomes a blessing for the child. It would be a tragedy if some left after having come to the baptism feeling disappointed or saddened by something. The event did potentially get spoiled when a couple got into a fight later that evening. The man was very drunk, and decided to argue with his wife about something. (They have been known to fight in the past.) Others stepped in and separated them, and the following evening several elders from the village along with family members met with the couple to reprimand them for their actions the previous night.