By David Haldane
Sept. 19, 2019
Last week I saw God in a parade.
It was the kickoff event for the 35th annual Banok-Banok street-dancing festival here in Surigao City. To be sure, the supreme deity didn’t show himself immediately on that sultry Monday morning, but gradually and only by degree. Until, by parade’s end, both me and an American visitor were literally watching the spectacle through tears.
“What an epic event!” remarked Ron Featheringill, a retired English professor with whom I’ve been close friends since high school. “It’s like an epiphany; I may have to rethink my position on organized religion.”
That, in fact, had been a major topic of conversation in the week since his arrival, with his wife, from California. Ron’s position; that organized religion oppresses the masses by imposing a dogma damning half of them to hell. Unless, of course, they accept the dogma as their own. Mine: that, while his assertion is demonstrably true, most Filipinos I know, though deeply religious, don’t seem to be overly concerned about dogma.
That’s when we went to the parade.
It’s designed to celebrate the lives and legends of the indigenous Mamanwa tribes, the original inhabitants of Surigao del Norte province. Long before any Catholics set foot in the Philippines, these people were hunting, gathering and dancing to give thanks for their bountiful blessings. But the event also pays tribute to Saint Nicholas, the city’s patron saint. Thus, anyone willing to get up early enough is treated to the remarkable experience of seeing bright-eyed young Filipinos in colorful native garb dancing their hearts out to the rhythmic beat of drums while swooning over statues of a Catholic saint. The thing that stands out, though, is the unmistakable gleam of joy, reverence and, yes, even ecstasy, emanating from their eyes.
“If this is what religion does then religion is good,” Ron said when it was all over. “It was very moving; it brought tears to my eyes, and I don’t often cry. That people would do this in the name of religion is remarkable; even the devil would have been breathless.”
As, indeed, were me and my friends. This was the third time I’d seen the Banok-Banok parade and, for me, it’s always the same; gazing upon those smiling young faces stirs something deep inside. Is it the presence of God, who knows? All I can say is that it is similar to the feeling I sometimes get while watching a beautiful sunset or admiring a placid blue sea. Certain pieces of music have the same effect, as do my favorite works of art, literary passages and even cinematic scenes.
Not too long ago, my beloved wife sent me a surprise message bearing a heart-stopping image; that of a pregnancy test showing positive results. A few weeks later, standing next to her at an obstetrician’s office in Cebu, we stared at a small screen as the grainy image from an ultrasound slowly took shape. There, unmistakably, lay a tiny arm stretched out above our baby’s head. Then, as we both held our breaths, the air began to pulsate with the sound of a tiny heartbeat.
I knew then that God was in the room. Just as I did last week as the beat of my own heart resonated with the pulse of those drums.
(David Haldane, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, is an award-winning American journalist, author and radio broadcaster who recently moved to Surigao City with his Filipino wife and their eight-year-old son. This column tells the unfolding story of that adventure.)