Faith and Spirituality

[OPINION] Finding God in drag: A Catholic take on Pura Luka Vega

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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[OPINION] Finding God in drag: A Catholic take on Pura Luka Vega
'How can vile comments against Pura Luka Vega constitute a defense of a faith that teaches love, not hate?'

“What was your visceral reaction when you watched the video?” a colleague asked while we were buying lunch a few days ago.

The talk of the town was the performance of Pura Luka Vega, a Filipino drag queen, who dressed up as Jesus while the crowd danced to a rock version of the “Ama Namin” or “Our Father.”

“I felt uneasy,” I told my friend.

I was born and raised a Catholic, I studied in Catholic schools and was even a sacristan in grade school, and I continue to practice, study, and teach my faith now in my mid-30s. I am used to the rigid structure of Roman Catholic liturgies, where all the words said at Mass, except for homilies, have to be approved by Rome as part of a centuries-old tradition. The “Ama Namin,” as I know it, is more like a slow and sentimental love song, not rock and roll.

But visceral reactions, driven by instincts, can be wrong. I needed to step back, reflect, and view the issue through a different lens. Is there a way for a Catholic to interpret this not as a form of blasphemy, but as an act of faith?

I am writing this not to pass judgment on Pura Luka Vega’s performance, but to open our minds to a Catholic perspective that goes beyond black and white, good or bad, blasphemous or not. Many things in life, after all, are gray areas filled with tension in our complex world.

Different expressions of faith

First, we need to understand that religion comes in different shapes and sizes. When I took post-graduate courses in religion in Singapore, and until now that I teach religion reporting at a Catholic university in the Philippines, our classes would start with one basic principle: there is no single, universally accepted definition of religion.

Is religion a belief in God? But there are religions, such as Buddhism, that do not believe in a supreme being. Is religion the practice of going to church? But there are religions, such as indigenous ones, that do not use church buildings. “‘Religion’ may seem like a straightforward term,” wrote my British professor, Paul Hedges, in his 2021 book Understanding Religion. When we start to contemplate certain “categories and definitions,” however, “we soon find ourselves facing a range of problems.”

We cannot put religions in a box with clear and distinct parameters.

It gets more complicated when it comes to individual religious practice. While churches have rules and regulations, believers can have different ways of expressing their faith. Many Filipinos blend folk superstition (e.g. sukob, pagpag, tabi-tabi po) with Catholic beliefs, for example, to the dismay of bishops and priests. In Filipino-Chinese communities, many Catholics put the Santo Niño side-by-side with Buddha for good luck. Every believer has the right to express faith in his or her own way.

But, one might ask, what if the believer expresses faith in the most inappropriate of places?

Which brings me to my second point: We should disabuse ourselves of the notion that God can be found only in church buildings. From a Catholic perspective, God became man – Jesus of Nazareth – and entered all dimensions of human existence. God experienced hunger and fullness, friendship and betrayal, desire and sacrifice. God trekked the hills, slept in boats, prayed in a garden, and died on a cross.

God, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness (Phil. 2:7),” can enter the most secular of human activities.

My third point is closely related to the second: Why do we associate the sacred only with the serious? Humor can be holy. As a Catholic, I refuse to believe in a God who became “fully human” but never laughed and just looked like a church statue all the time. Faith involves a lot of imagination, and I always love to imagine Jesus smiling. Did he laugh boisterously at his disciples’ jokes? Did he dance, did he jump with joy along with other guests, after turning water into wine during the Wedding at Cana?

If Jesus lived in the 21st century, I wouldn’t be surprised if he also joined parties. And if God is truly ever-present and all-powerful, how can any creature declare that finding God in drag is impossible – and blasphemous?

‘God meets us where we are’

The Jesuits – the nearly 500-year-old religious order whose members include Pope Francis – have a phrase for all these: “finding God in all things.” 

Founded by the former soldier Ignatius of Loyola (whose feast day we mark on July 31), the Jesuits emphasize that God can be found even in the mundane aspects of human existence – eating at a restaurant, watching movies, sweeping the floor, or playing one’s favorite sport. This is why we have Jesuits from Ateneo de Manila like Joaquin Bernas, the constitutionalist; Bienvenido Nebres, the mathematician; and Jett Villarin, the astrophysicist. Pope Francis himself is a chemist.

Whenever I join the Retreat in Daily Life organized by the Jesuits, my retreat guides would remind me that I can pray while commuting, walking, or doing daily chores. And whenever I lack time for formal prayer, that is, the usual five decades of the rosary or the occasional weekday Masses, I can whisper a short prayer to God (a simple “I love you, Lord” or “Lord, have mercy”), and make my work my prayer.

There is no place God cannot enter, and as the Jesuits would also say, “God meets us where we are.”

Saying it was her way of praising the Lord, Pura Luka Vega told GMA News Online that she intended “to embody a version of Christ that is one with the queer audience.” On Twitter, she said that while people call her performance “blasphemous, offensive, or regrettable,” they “shouldn’t tell me how I practice my faith or how I do my drag.” The drag queen makes a valid point about her faith.

I understand that despite her reasons, many Catholics still found her performance offensive. I acknowledge this, and their criticism may be valid. Whether her performance was an act of blasphemy – an “arbitrary concept,” as sociologist of religion Jayeel Cornelio wrote in a Rappler article – is for another conversation.

Mockery of faith

Let me end, though, by zooming out to the big picture.

How did many Filipinos react after Pura Luka Vega’s performance offended their sensibilities? 

Homophobic remarks flooded Twitter after Pura Luka Vega’s video was posted on Monday, July 10, going viral with more than 18 million views on Twitter as of posting time. “Sa impyerno kang bakla ka! (Go to hell, you gay!)” said Twitter user @maginoongtunay in a public tweet. “Ulol kang bastos ka! (Rude person, you fool!)” said @DownByTheRive20. 

Let us assume for the sake of argument that Pura Luka Vega’s performance was indeed offensive. What did the Lord say about people being hurt by other people? In the Gospel of Matthew (5:39), Jesus said, “When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.” In another verse, he said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt. 5:44)

How, then, can all the vile comments against Pura Luka Vega constitute a defense of a faith that teaches love, not hate? How are we defending God if we mock, curse at, and gang up on a fellow human being who, according to the Book of Genesis (1:27), was created in God’s own image?

Which is the real act of blasphemy: dressing up like Jesus at a drag party, or wearing the mask of faith while keeping a hateful, rotten spirit? –

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email