When he was in his teens, Jay was fond of dressing the family's image of the Black Nazarene every time its feast on Jan. 9 neared. He would help his mother and sister prepare vestments for the charred image of the suffering Jesus before the annual procession. A procession of replicas of the image is a much-awaited event for devotees. It is the prelude to one of the most spectacular religious events in the country that is attended by millions of Filipinos every year. In 1606, Augustinian friars brought a wooden life-size statue of the suffering Jesus to the Philippines from Mexico. Stories handed down say that the image turned black after surviving a fire on the ship bringing it to the Philippines. Jay's family is among thousands, if not millions of Filipinos, who own a replica of the image that is dressed for the annual procession in Manila's Quaipo district.
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"We would put the image on top of my father’s jeep and adorn it with flowers," recalled Jay. The family who lives in Bulacan province
, north of Manila, would leave home at 3 a.m. to join the procession. "It became our yearly family bonding," said Jay. He said he was more excited about the Feast of the Black Nazarene
than Christmas Eve. Devotees in the procession wear maroon shirts with the image of the Nazarene. Inside their vehicles they would stock food, water, candies, and face towels to share with other devotees. Jay's father collected memorabilia handed out by other devotees. "During the procession, our family would become part of a larger family. It felt like we already know them for years," Jay said about the other devotees they met during the celebration. Jay never missed a single procession. Not until he learned that he had acquired HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus. Thousands of devotees of the image of the Black Nazarene of Manila join the procession of replicas of the image on Jan. 7, two days ahead the celebration of the feast on Jan. 9. (Photo by Mark Saludes) Gone astray
Jay, a 26-year old industrial engineer, is the second of four siblings. As the only male child, he was very close to his father. He realized he was gay when he was still young, but he did not tell anyone. "I had no problem being gay," he said. "The problem came when I did not practice safe sex," he added. When he entered the university, he thought he had the freedom to do anything he wanted. "No one knew me. It was a place to be who I wanted to be," he said. At the height of his sexual escapades, Jay missed attending the annual feast of the Black Nazarene. "I was with my friends. I told my father I had to do some research to avoid attending the procession. It became a regular practice. Months before his graduation from university, Jay got sick. The doctors found that he had HIV. "I cannot remember how I reacted," he said. "I remember asking the doctor if I was going to die." After he left the hospital he did not tell anyone about his condition, not his friends, not his family. He moved out of the house and lived with a group of friends. "I was trying to convince myself that I was not sick," he said. But Jay found it difficult. There were sleepless nights when he just wanted to die. He even thought of taking his own life. "But I couldn’t do it. I was so scared to die," he said. A friend who also had HIV died, and Jay got scared. He realized he needed help and he needed his family. He decided to go home. Family reunion
Today, Jay is back with his family after a journey he described as "not easy." He said hiding his sexuality "built gaps and walls" in his relationship with his family. He said pronouncements made by church leaders on homosexuality contributed to his detachment to his devotion to the Black Nazarene. The stigma that usually comes with the admission of having HIV also added a lot of pressure to his life. He described it as a "spike in the throat." It was not easy for Jay to tell his family about his sexual preferences and his medical condition. "I was afraid they might disown me," he said. Words did not come easy. He cried for hours before he confessed to his father. He asked for forgiveness. He was afraid and he felt shame. He waited for judgment from his father. He waited and was ready to accept any form of punishment. Then his father cried. He too was devastated, but he did not ask for any explanation. He told Jay that it was okay and that he needed to take medication. "My father is a silent person. He was very disappointed, but I know I was forgiven when he hugged me like I was a little boy," said Jay. He started joining the annual the procession of the Black Nazarene. He said he had asked forgiveness from Jesus and prayed
for good health for him and his family. During this year’s feast, Jay said he would not be asking for something for himself but for people who continue to live "in the shadow of fear and guilt." He said he would be praying for people living with HIV and AIDS "that they may find the courage to forgive and come out of the dark." Jay said he would be praying that people with HIV and AIDS will realize that they can live a normal life. "We just have to trust ourselves and God," he said. He admitted he made a lot of mistakes and paid a high price, but the first step in solving a problem "is to recognize that there is one." From January to August last year, there were 7,363 new HIV cases recorded in the country, according to the Philippines' Department of Health. During the same period, there were 334 deaths, 118 of these reported between July and August.