Becoming “Live”

«Необязательно видеть весь путь.
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Early on, El Shaddai’s initial radio listening audience evolved into a rally audience as people gathered outside the radio station in thanksgiving for miracles. This gathering became a weekly occurrence, and eventually developed into mass rallies. The radio (and later television) programming expanded greatly to become hallmarks of the movement.

DWXI, El Shaddai’s radio station, is one of the more popular AM band radio station in Metro Manila. The group also buys television and radio airtime on stations throughout the Philippines. The predominance of radio and television in El Shaddai religiosity differentiates it from the mainstream Catholic experience. The El Shaddai community is, to a large extent, a mass-mediated community. Despite the fact that El Shaddai outdoor rallies and other events are now also experienced “live,” mass media actually produce this “live-ness.” As we will show, the boundaries between these two “communities” (radio and live rally) are blurred both conceptually and spatially.

Going to an El Shaddai mass rally on a Saturday in Manila involves merging the world of the mass media community with the anonymous but physically manifest congregation of El Shaddai devotees in the huge open field that El Shaddai ministries rents for its rallies. The description below, adapted from my field notes, provides an experiential account of this process.

 

I am the last person to arrive at Eddie’s dwelling—a two-room section of a house in a cramped semi-squatter area in the heart of Manila. Eddie’s wife, Celia, and their two children, are still preparing for the El Shaddai rally, as their neighbor Josie and two other young women wait on the couch. The TV in front of them is on, competing for attention amidst the bustle of the rally preparations. The TV is tuned to the live broadcast coming from the stage at the rally site. The rally has not actually begun yet, but on TV we can see the activity on the stage. A series of individuals give short, impassioned testimonies of miracles they have received, a choir from a provincial chapter sings religious songs, and an emcee mediates each transition with introductions, announcements, short prayers, and pep talks about the exciting rally, or “Family Appointment with Yahweh El Shaddai,” that will begin in several hours. As the cameras pan the crowds, we see the commotion of hundreds of thousands of followers getting settled in the open-air field for the evening. Peddlers sell plastic mats, food, and other necessary supplies. Ushers keep people from sitting in the roped-off aisles, and hand out envelopes for “prayer requests” and tithes. On the fringes, people wait in line to use portable toilets. As the emcee on stage pauses to lead a short prayer, Josie and the others present in the living room fall silent and listen, concluding the prayer with an “amen” spoken out loud, in unison with the emcee. Josie joins in, momentarily, as the choir sings the popular song, “We will serve the Lord.” Josie’s friend, Nhelin, sits beside her on the couch and writes her “prayer request.”

When Eddie’s family is ready to go, he lowers the volume of the TV, and we join hands in a circle for a “binding” prayer with each other. Then Eddie turns off the TV. Although the house is less than two kilometers away from the large open field along the coast where the rallies are held, it will take us over an hour to navigate our way via public transportation to our final destination: a spot on the rocky lawn, close enough to see the stage area, but far away enough to be able to sit comfortably, with enough fresh air.

Celia flips on the radio as we begin the journey, tuned to DWXI, where the rally is being broadcast live. We leave the house, and then the “interior” of Sinag by walking through the many iskinita, or narrow corridors between houses and buildings—the dark urban footpaths that wind around and between the two- and three-story buildings. Neighbors greet us as we pass through the densely populated neighborhood where according to the local priest, at least 85 percent of the residents live below the national poverty level. One neighbor greets us with “See you there, sister!” even though she knows she’ll never find us in the crowds at the rally. A young man, half mockingly, hums the first line of the El Shaddai theme song.

After fifteen minutes waiting by a major thoroughfare, a jeepney (publicjeep) finally stops for us, and the eight of us get on. As we sit in the cramped jeepney, we listen to a woman’s humorous testimony coming from the radio. She is talking about her husband, exaggerating his former bad qualities, and then testifying to his transformation. My companions laugh and say, “Amen! Praise God!” as we imagine those in the crowd at the rally are doing the same.

Forty-five minutes and two jeepney transfers later, we arrive outside the Harrison Plaza shopping mall. By now, all of the passengers are hot, grimy, and a little light-�headed from the humidity, heat, and air pollution. Here we pile out and walk three blocks on the side of the street to a designated spot outside Rizal Baseball Stadium, where enterprising jeepney drivers have formed a new jeepney route. These jeeps go from here, to the rally grounds, and back to Harrison Plaza, all day long, every Saturday. This particular route has expanded in recent years to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of travelers going to the El Shaddai rally.

As we wait in line, along with at least a hundred other people, for space on the next pub�lic jeep, radios of various volumes can be heard throughout the crowd, all tuned to the live broadcast from the rally stage. There is a feeling of camaraderie amongst the people waiting in line. People greet each other as El Shaddai followers—with the titles “Brother” and “Sister.”

Everyone inside the jeepney is going to the rally and a more powerful “boom box” blasts the live transmission. Within ten minutes we are inside the grounds, slowing to avoid hordes of pedestrians. We are dropped off near one of the parking areas and walk the rest of the way.

Outside the rally grounds, El Shaddai activity extends as far as the highway—�a good twenty-�minute walk from the stage. On Saturdays the area of the city surrounding the field becomes, in effect, El Shaddai space. Not only are decorated and bannered jeeps, taxis, cars, tricycles, bicycles, buses, and mobile vending stalls blocking movement and traffic, but pedestrians and vendors adorned with markers of El Shaddai membership—El Shaddai handkerchiefs, portable chairs, tee-�shirts, candles, hats, and blasting radios—seem to flow from every corner en masse toward the grounds. Those passersby stalled in traffic on the highway can sometimes gaze at vending stalls with El Shaddai religious items, which include wall calendars, banners, El Shaddai cassette tapes, and ritual items for the day’s rally, such as eggs or flowers. El Shaddai participants get a small kick out of inconveniencing the unconverted through these huge weekend traffic jams. To them, it is a form of evangelism.

As the crowds get thicker and the back of the grandstand area is in sight, we no longer need our radio—we can hear the live transmissions from countless radios around us, of people who have decided to sit down here on the fringes. Some people can’t even see the grandstand at all because their view is blocked by another building in the rally compound. Nonetheless, when Brother Mike begins speaking in several hours, these people will listen to the live radio and face the grandstand while going through all the same motions as everyone else, actively participating in the rally. As we head toward the grandstand, the sounds of portable radios are gradually replaced by the sounds coming from the loudspeakers near the stage. Soon we can actually see the emcee on the stage as we squint in the brightly lit area. We are now part of the “live” rally. Huge stands with camera and audio equipment block the view of the stage as we get closer. The area directly in front of the stage is blocked off and reserved for the “very sick”— those with terminal illnesses or deformities—so that they can receive the strongest healing power coming from Brother Mike on stage. There is a feeling of excitement, of being part of history, as a video camera’s gaze passes over us and simultaneously transmits our image to people across the country. Josie told me once that she loves going to the rally here, as opposed to the smaller rally in her local chapter, “because it’s live!” Were it not for the cameras, the simultaneous broadcast, and the instant playback (after the event is over), this “live” feeling would not exist. In the floodlights and in the camera’s gaze, we have come out of the “interior” into the spotlight. For a few hours this evening we are, it seems, significant, and in a sense demarginalized. As the crowds of people leave the area and journey home after the rally around midnight, many radios will be tuned to the playback, a repeat broadcast of the event that just occurred.

DWXI announces the upcoming rally all week. Followers journey to the rally from sections of Manila and from farflung provinces. Yet the ritual sphere of the rally extends beyond its immediate locale because radio and television are played constantly, before and after the event. Since the broadcast is live, one begins experiencing the event even while still at home. Listeners can “tune in” by listening to radios or watching oversized film screens on the perimeters of the massive rally lawn. Many watch or listen to rallies without even attending them, but go through the motions, the songs, and the prayers as if experiencing them “live.” Within the rally grounds, radios serve as links to Brother Mike at the center. During the journey, the mass mediated community is gradually transformed into the more immediate, physical community of the rally. As the crowd leaves the rally, the opposite occurs. The rally community is transformed once again into the media audience.

Mass media help to create a “live” feeling at the rally, which becomes “live” when participants enter a zone they understand to be mediated to others watching or listening “out there.” This brightly lit, colorful sphere presents a larger-than-life, amplified reality that doesn’t stop with the self, but flows outward. This feeling is enhanced by Brother Mike on stage, who is aware of this outward flow as he directly addresses people at home. “There is a woman in Naga City listening right now who is in need of a miracle. She has been suffering from cataracts for several years. Woman, you will be healed, and you will see your son graduating from high school next year!” (Inevitably a person fitting this description will surface later to publicly tell a miraculous story of healing.) Many followers I interviewed testified to having been healed through radio or television, from blessings Brother Mike gave either during a live rally broadcast, or during a radio program. Some hold up objects to the radio or television to be blessed—similar to what is done at rallies—or use the radio or the television to keep evil spirits away from the house, for example spirits that are said to bring drugs into the neighborhood or cause discord within families.

 

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