Grace and grit: Scenes from the Black Nazarene procession

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[Editor's Note: The views expressed in this piece are those of the author's.]

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — As I made my way through the dust and the crowd, the acrid smell of sweat and fried quail eggs assaulted my nostrils.

I tiptoed, and searched above the stretch of heads and limbs desperately reaching for the charred image of Jesus Christ. It’s an abstraction of the human body.

Feet, arms, hands, as long as any part of the body touched the wooden image, a miracle awaited.

Faith, fellowship, bravado. Everyone had a valid reason to try.

I looked for that slice of intimacy. Amidst the chaos, I saw a girl sitting on the sidewalk with a damp towel covering her head. She looked back at me.

She looked exhausted but placid, in her safe haven. As long as she was behind the steel barricade, she was untouchable. I took her picture and she smiled.

I climbed onto a fire truck, and aimed my camera far away, into the crowd, only to find a poignant scene beneath my feet.

A man was cradling his infant son, and breathing in the smell of his head and scant hair. They gazed into each others’ eyes, almost like they both knew that everything was okay as long as they were together. It was just a second, then the baby’s eyes wandered again.

I decided to walk around, to explore the side streets. It was my first time at the feast of the Black Nazarene. I was excited.

A man shouts “Hoy, ate! Pa-picture naman!” [Translation: Hey, sister! Take my picture!]

He said his name is Allen, although his chest bared the name Francisco. Another tattoo said “Trust Nobody.” I was intrigued.

He was very eager to perform for the camera.

I told him to look straight into the lens and he diligently pierced the glass.

I asked him if he was able to touch the Nazarene and he proudly answered, in Filipino, “No! But I held onto the rope.”

He kept his vow. I congratulated him, thanked him, and moved on.

I walked into an alleyway behind Sta. Cruz Church, and I saw a rooster; the majesty of its plumage, caged, inside wood and steel misery.

I looked past it and there was a man, with a Nazarene shirt. He was smoking a cigarette.

I took a second to look at the picture on my camera’s screen, and I noticed the man next to him was picking his nose.

I smiled. It was humanity, it was raw, and a prime beauty.

The man who was smoking told me to come take a look behind the cage. “A girl has fainted!” he said.

True enough, an unconscious girl lied inanimate, on a young man's lap, there, on the pavement. A paramedic tried to revive her. He said she would be fine.

After a few minutes, they whisked her away on a stretcher through the thick crowd.

On the opposite side of the alleyway, a boy was asleep in his father’s tricycle. A pocket of calm, while everyone around him was buzzing in excitement, over the passage of the holy image.

Devotees marched barefoot as a sign of humility and sacrifice.

By a canal, I met Mr. Bonnie. He earns a living selling plastic waste he gathers from the streets.

He earns fourteen pesos for every kilo of clean plastic he collects. He said that he looks forward to the yearly celebration because he knows he would earn as much as P300 or US $6 that day.

A man with a cross tattooed under his eye walked with his friends in my direction. His shirt said "My Lord, please forgive me."

In the late afternoon, many people, exhausted from the day’s procession, could be seen taking naps under porticos of old buildings.

It was 5 p.m. and we were beat. My team's cameraman, Ernie, told me his arms were so tired that he couldn’t lift the camera anymore. It was time to pull out.

As we left Binondo, I lazily scrolled through the pictures in my camera, and I spotted the portrait of Lito.

He was the first person I photographed that day.

He has been religiously attending the Black Nazarene procession since he was fourteen. But for a few years now, joining the procession meant saving his son’s life. His 23-year-old son is bedridden with C1Q Nephropathy, a rare kidney disease.

Lito can’t afford the costly medical care for his son, but he said he has his faith, and for as long as God gives him strength, he will strive to touch the sacred image of the Black Nazarene with the towel that he will rub over his son’s body, hoping and praying for a miracle.

One song played, over and over in my mind, it’s Leonard Cohen, he sings…

"I did my best, it wasn't much

I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch

I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you

And even though it all went wrong

I'll stand before the Lord of Song

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah."

"The holy or the broken Hallelujah."