LOS ANGELES – Manny Pacquiao sat on the 10th row of Shepherd Church listening to an American evangelist talk about God. When he is not fighting, training or otherwise not busy with boxing, God consumes the boxer like no other.
It’s Sunday morning and it has become a tradition for Pacquiao to attend church service the week before fights wherever it is held. More so now that he has embraced a new Christian belief, a non-Catholic one, that has baffled many in his nation of Catholics. Some at first could not accept, but many now believe, that Pacquiao has indeed been born again.
The church service lasted slightly over an hour, the evangelist who spoke through a giant video screen, was the highlight.
Pacquiao was requested to come to the stage after the service and the champion obliged, bringing along members of his family – his wife Jinky and five children.
There the pastor prayed over him and asked the Lord to be kind and not to bring harm to Pacquiao.
Being inside the church and in communion with the Lord perhaps is the only time that Pacquiao finds contentment and peace.
In this congregation, while the service is going on, he is not mobbed, asked to pose for photos, to sign autographs, wave to distant acquaintances, or smile to a camera beside a person taking a selfie.
But the times when he is communing with his Savior are brief. In its current form, his life is like that of a call center: busy 24/7.
Through it all, Pacquiao shows grace and kindness.
His presence, like the week before, brought many to the church service. Fans accord Pacquiao respect and adulation as he made his way to a pew. He wore a brown jacket and Jinky was beautiful in white with some small leaves and flowers embossed in the knee-length dress. Like her husband, she was cool and relaxed.
But the atmosphere was different after the service when Pacquiao hosted a lunch for his entourage and some media guests at the Japanese restaurant Kabuki on Vine Street.
Though not chaotic, it was hardly the usual restaurant scene.
The Pacquiaos sat on the left side of the restaurant, separated by a built-in railing that divided the place. The resto normally seats about 100, but on this occasion, a bit more.
A spread in front of the Pacquiaos is hardly touched. A stream of well-wishers takes away his concentration from the purpose of the moment, which is to eat. Cameras were flashing all the time.
Though crowd control has been instituted, the seats around his table as well as tables near him, are still full of guests.
But souvenir hunters, the curious and unwanted guests are turned away by two burly men who wait for Pacquiao or his family to make a signal before allowing any one in.
“That was not the case before,” said a veteran journalist who had seen Pacquiao climb from relative obscurity to rock-star fame. “In the past, just anyone can move to Pacquiao’s table and engage him in conversation.”
So for Pacquiao not having to deal unnecessarily with unwanted conversation, a cordon has been built around him.
Celebrities, local and foreign, however, still have a special place in the hierarchy of those allowed to be given an audience.
The actor Richard Gutierrez and his wife, for instance, had a table near Pacquiao during Sunday’s lunch.
And two days ago, Sen. Ralph Recto brought along 15 people to Pacquiao’s residence here for a brief talk, photo op and souvenirs. They were followed by Cavite Rep. Lani Mercado and her son Jolo. Lani’s husband is Sen. Bong Revilla who is being held in prison in conjunction with a plunder charge.
At the restaurant, food flowed like water. There’s a ready set of various Japanese food for every table. The menu is open and so is the kitchen.
It was not always the case, said waitress Sandra Lee. “One day we received a call from Pacquiao and said he is coming with over 50 people.
We were not ready and we ran out of food,” she said.
She said there’s food in the kitchen now to meet the big crowd such as Sunday’s.
The bill since that initial foray by Pacquiao’s group had also doubled.
“It used to be around $2,000,” she said. “Now around $4,000-$4,500.”
Pacquiao pays the bill, which actually is about what he earns in one or two seconds when he fights.
Did they earn the day’s worth from the visit?
“Yeah, sure, a big part” she said. Then she added: “Hope he wins.”