Have We Disintegrated Mission and the Gospel? 

(7-10 minute read)

A Singaporean Christian was on his way for a short-term mission trip to a village outside Phnom Penh. He saw an injured man lying along the road. He thought to himself, if I can preach the gospel to him after I help this man, then I will go help this man. As he approached the injured man, someone else came and tended to the man. So the Singaporean stopped in his track, and continued on his way to his short-term mission trip. Was this Christian a Good Samaritan?

No? But that’s what many Singapore Christians and churches do in missions–a false view of missions which we inherited unthinkingly.

Continue reading “Have We Disintegrated Mission and the Gospel? “

Injustice is our problem: Why indifference is not an option

Have you been bullied in school or witnessed someone getting bullied?

I have.

Have you met employees who have been unfairly treated – not paid their hard-earned wages, not given adequate rest, mentally abused, physically abused?

I have.

Have you ever spoken to a foreign lady who was promised a job as a waitress in Singapore only to find herself working as a prostitute?

I have.

Have you heard from a person whose loved ones have been attacked, thrown in jail or even killed for their faith?

I have.

Have you ever ostracised someone — whether because of race, beliefs, dressing, mannerism, language, disability, gender or the colour of their skin?

I have.

I hope you see then we have a serious problem of injustice. Social injustice. All around us, there is injustice.

This has been the case since the fall of man in Eden. The first story we read of after humanity’s eviction from Eden is the murder of a sibling. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” was the defiant defence of the murderer.

Today, we are seeing unprecedented levels of modern slavery and human trafficking. The number of people displaced by conflict is larger than that during World War II. Wealth and income inequality are at an astounding level, with 1% of the world owning 99% of the world’s wealth. In Singapore, many migrant workers are systematically and individually unfairly treated, certain people groups like people with disabilities are economically marginalised, and yet other groups are socially marginalised.

The sobering news is that we are all participants of the injustice.

Today, the number of people displaced by conflict is larger than that during World War II. Wealth and income inequality are at an astounding level, with 1% of the world owning 99% of the world’s wealth.

We who lust after women and consume pornography act by the same cause which drives human traffickers exploiting women and girls for sex.

We who greed for that little bit more wealth, for that harder bargain, act by the same cause which drives exploitative employers and perpetrators of forced labour.

We who perceive people different from us with disdain act by the same cause which drives terrorists to kill people who do not share their same views.

We who say or do nothing about unfairness and injustice to people around us act by the same cause which resulted in the Holocaust: The genocide of about 11 million Jews, Poles, people with disabilities, people with same sex attraction, people with differing worldviews.

The worse news is that those of us who try to rectify the injustice are still doomed to be partakers of the injustice.

“WHAT DOES THE LORD REQUIRE OF YOU?”

Henri Nouwen wrote that in fighting injustice, we will realise that the wounds and needs underlying the injustice we fight against are the same wounds and needs – insecurity, bitterness, desire for affirmation, etc – underlying our own actions. “We too are part of the evil we protest against,” Nouwen wrote in his book, Peacework.

Throughout the time of God’s relationship with humanity, God has constantly demanded that they seek justice. The prophet Isaiah relayed God’s word: “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:17)

The prophet Micah summed up all of God’s demand of humanity as follows: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

The bad news is that none of us can meet this demand for justice. We are ourselves partakers of injustice.

There is however good news. Very good news. The good news is that since as long as humanity has been steeped in injustice, God has promised that a perfect King would one day come to bring perfect justice.

As Christians, our response to Jesus’ gracious sacrifice and salvation must be grace-fuelled justice-seeking.

This King is Jesus Christ. He was perfectly just. In all his relationships, he did right. His love for people brought inclusion and restoration.

Even so, that doesn’t solve the problem of pervasive injustice. King Jesus’ plan to bring justice to the world is this: By bearing the suffering, shame and spiritual consequences of injustice through bearing and dying on the Cross on behalf of the whole world, he released those who are found in him from God’s demand for justice. They are then free to pursue justice in the world in response to his grace. In other words, Christians are justified in Christ to be just.

This justice is to be first established through the community of King Jesus’ followers. Because they shall be transformed inside out by his grace.

The just community is then to go out into the world to establish justice and bring others into its fold.

Cosmic justice enables social justice. As Christians, our response to Jesus’ gracious sacrifice and salvation must be grace-fuelled justice-seeking.

WHERE THE CHURCH COMES IN

Look around us. All the brokenness and suffering and oppression is not meant to be. Throughout God’s word to his people, he calls for free and full inclusive participation of every person into a community which dwells with him.

As people of his covenantal community, this is our integral mission: The proclamation and demonstration of the Gospel of King Jesus, the manifestation of the Gospel by good works and good words, that all may be saved into a community of perfect justice and peace with God.

The early Church understood and practised this. When a deathly plague settled on the land in the Roman Empire, the non-Christians threw out their own sick family members to die. The Church not only cared for their own sick members but also the non-Christian people around them. The pagan Emperor Julian was affronted and ashamed by how noble the Church was.

This spirit of justice continued in the Protestant Reformers like John Calvin who established in Geneva, institutions, policies and efforts to care for the poor and sick through hospitals and the creation of employment for poor and refugees.

In Singapore, the early missionaries in the 1800s started with humble efforts of establishing small medical dispensaries for the poor locals, schools for all including girls many of whom were abandoned by their Chinese families, and shelters for the coolies who had been trafficked and exploited. Many local beneficiaries became Christians. They are our grandparents. They are the parents of our church leaders today.

The problem of injustice today is daunting for us. But we take heart in the fact that King Jesus is already there with the victims of injustice, and He calls His servants to join Him.

“Where I am, there my servant will be also” (John 12:26). Are we servants of King Jesus? Will we follow the King of justice who calls us to justice today?

This post first appeared on Thir.st at http://thir.st/blog/injustice-is-our-problem/

Advocating for Survivors of ISIS’s Genocide of Christians and Yzidis in Syria and Comforting the Oppressed and Trafficked in the Middle East

Advocating for Survivors of ISIS’s Genocide of Christians and Yzidis in Syria and Comforting the Oppressed and Trafficked in the Middle East

This short film tells the stories of many Syrian Christians who watched their loved ones tortured and killed at the hands of men who hated their religion and their God. The martyrs were unfazed at the hands of their tormentors. “I am blessed because I am persecuted for my Yeshua,” cried a lady who was tied to a pole in the middle of the street in Aleppo, spat on and punched day after day. A man was crucified in the city, having the glory to die in the same manner as his own saviour. These were the stories I heard tonight from Jacqueline and Yvette Isaac, a mother-daughter team of Egyptian Christians who started Roads of Success, a humanitarian NGO which provides support and care to the downtrodden and oppressed, and advocates for those whose stories have been suppressed.

Jacqueline is a lawyer who started her career in a top London firm practising international arbitration, working 18 hour days and loving the prestige and benefits of a magic circle London law firm. As she was about to continue into her second year of practice, a 35 year old newly minted female partner told her, “I’ve been observing you; you still have a soul. As for me, this is my life.” That gave Jacqueline pause. After some searching, she realised her calling. But she struggled with God. Large commercial law firm prestige or the deep unknown and unglamorous of a calling to humanitarian work? She surrendered to God in desperation. And in no time, a series of events led her to start her own estate planning law firm which gave her the flexibility to do humanitarian work at her own time. God brought a senior lawyer to her who would hand over his 30-year-old practice to her in one year. And the rest was a blur.

In the short time that she and her mother founded Roads of Success, they have travelled to places ravaged by terror, come into close contact with ISIS, and stood before the United Nations, the US Congress and the U.K. Parliament to tell the stories of those who have been torn by terror. They have a programme which care for and empower 24 girls who have suffered sexual abuse and slavery. They have sent shipping containers of humanitarian aid to various places in grave need.

One particular story sticks out. The story of how they were instrumental to advocating for the UK Parliament to pass a resolution to recognise ISIS’ acts of horror to the Christian and Yzidi minorities in Syria as genocide, which would have significant although unimaginable consequences.

This was what happened. Yvette Isaac was given the resources to go into Syria to interview the Christian and Yzidi minorities. In the meantime, separately, Jacqueline Isaac was just in London doing her work, right after having a hectic travel schedule. Where she was at a cafe in London, she saw some protests and demonstrations outside. But she was too tired and had too much work to do, so she didn’t bother about it. Just at that time, some friend from California dropped her a message saying she was in London too. Turned out that the friend was just a few doors down from where she was. She went over to meet her. Her friend urged her to go out together to take a walk. So they ended up witnessing the demonstration, discovering that it was led by an EU Parliament member. She couldn’t get close though she tried to reach out to the Parliamentarian. In vain, she went up to a man whom she thought was a security guard, and gave her a name card, hoping he would pass it to the EU Parliamentarian.

As it turned out, the “security guard” was actually a U.K. politician connected to the media. That very evening he called her and said tomorrow you will go live on the most watched show in UK. She would go on Jon Snow’s show and she was asked to share about what was going on in Syria. But she had no idea what to share.

In the meantime, Yvette Isaac had just finished shooting 8 hours of material collecting the stories of the many survivors of genocide. She was at the Syria-Lebanon border trying to get out when she realised that the border officers were confiscating and destroying all the electronic equipment they could find. She prayed and pleaded to God. She made a bargain with God. The exclusive rights to the video material belonged only to God, she decided. So she called her sponsor who had given the condition that exclusive rights to the material belonged to him. She told him, too bad, I will return you the money, this belongs solely to God. Right after she put down the phone, someone in the line recognised her Egyptian accent and said hey you should be going to this other line. So she went. At the immigration counter, the man looked at her and said, hey you’re the one on the Arab television channel. I became a Christian because of the show. Thank you for coming here. Please come back. He let her pass without even checking her belongings. Wow.

At that point, Jacqueline called Yvette and said, Mom, come to London instead of the US (where Jacqueline was based at). I’ll explain. So with all the video testimonies, Jacqueline and Yvette went on UK television live to share of the stories of the Christian and Yzidi minorities.

Unbeknownst to them, Lord David Alton in the UK House of Lords was watching the Jon Snow show. He is the politician who has been pushing in vain for the House of Lords to vote and agree on a declaration that the ISIS’ acts were genocide. There were political consequences to this. Including prioritising Syrian refugees and allowing Britain to table a resolution at the UN Security Council regarding ISIS, and possibly resolve to have them tried by the International Criminal Court. But it was not happening. When Lord Alton watched the Isaacs on the show, he knew that this was his prayer answered. He contacted them and asked them if they could come back to the UK Parliament to testify at a special hearing if it happened. They said yes of course. They returned to the US, and 48 hours later, they received the call from Lord Alton.

So they went before the UK Parliament in a closed door hearing and screened the video testimonies as well as got one of the girl survivors whom they support to testify of how ISIS murdered her father and raped a young girl so many times her body just gave way and the girl died before her eyes. With that, the House of Commons voted unanimously in favour of a declaration that ISIS’ acts were genocide.

This is not a story about ISIS. It’s not a story about genocide. It’s a story about God weaving everything together seemingly like patchwork but in reality, like a master craftsman pulling everything together in one stroke. This is a story about God’s sovereignty and glory. It is about how He works through His servants to untie suffering and brokenness from evil and instead bind them to stories of redemption and beauty. The Isaacs are continuing their ministry in working with girl survivors, empowering them to flourish. This is a story of redemption and glory. This is a story about Jesus Christ being the one who holds all things together and who is reconciling all things to Himself. And how He uses different people, big and small, from all across the world for His beautiful purposes. Praise be to God.

For more information on the Isaacs’ ministry check out www.roadsofsuccess.com.

Interview with Derrick Wong: cafe partner serving the homeless community in Chinatown

Derrick Wong serves customers western bistro fare in his cafe every day and evening, and serves the homeless community residents in Chinatown zhap chai png and desserts on Monday and Friday nights.

Derrick runs The Loft Cafe in Chinatown, located at the intersection of Smith Street and South Bridge Road, on the second and third storey of a shophouse overlooking the colourful, lit-up Smith Street food walkway where tourists throng for (overpriced) local dishes. He is a co-partner in the cafe, oversees the daily operations, gets his hands dirty preparing food and serving customers, and manages backend aspects of the business as well. Throughout my conversation with him, he was interrupted several times by things calling for his attention. Customers to attend to. Food preparation. A turkey to carve for a private event on the cafe’s third storey for which he was preparing food just prior to our conversation. The cafe is a comfortable space for a chill Friday evening: dim Edison lamps, ambient lounge music and cosy couches.

He tells me that on Mondays, which are his rest days, he uses the cafe’s kitchen to prepare food for his homeless friends. Zhap chai png, mee rebus, and so on. He tries to include more meat into the dish because his homeless friends don’t often get to eat that much of it. Some other people give the homeless residents leftovers. It belittles their dignity, he says. He tries to give them something better. The money for the food comes from his own pocket. Some volunteers have also been pitching in with love gifts.

Every Monday and Friday night, he and his small group of volunteers would bring food and go out to Sago Lane, Smith Street and Chin Swee area at about 10pm and hang out with the homeless residents, sometimes until 3am. He’s been working with poor residents at the Jln Kukoh area since 2014, and only this year started reaching out to the Chinatown homeless. At first, the homeless residents were skeptical. Many other people doing charity to them would come and go. But it took time and persistence before they opened up and accepted Derrick and friends. It’s about honouring their promise that they would be there faithfully each week, he says. They now feel encouraged when they see Derrick and friends. When the haze turned severe this year, he started distributing ‘liang teh’. Frequent customers of the cafe joined them after he put the word out on their Facebook page.

The ministry extended organically to what he calls job therapy. Some homeless residents expressed interest in finding a job. So Derrick brought them in to the cafe to work for a couple of hours. Over the course of a few months, 6 of them tried out he cafe work. 1 stayed on as permanent part-timers staff. The rest left because they couldn’t really handle the lifestyle. He explained that many of the homeless residents were substance abuser. The elderly folks however were more positive. 2 of them worked at the cafe and picked up some skills–he taught them to make bread, for instance–and experience. As a result, they later landed jobs with the Sports Hub during the recent SEA games. This is what he calls job therapy. The homeless persons are properly paid the same rates as other part-time staff. It gives them experience, confidence and relational skills. Many of the homeless residents actually have rented houses but are on the streets because of relational problems with co-tenants of the houses. Homeless shelters feel like prisons to them because there are many restrictions, so they want out.

Derrick Wong Loft
Derrick Wong (far left)

Why does he do all this? For one, it’s about the cafe business’ responsibility to the community. His partners and he started this cafe as not a charity but a missional business. It’s sustainable. It is socially responsible. And it manifests God to the people they encounter. He also shared that he’s an ex-convict. He has experienced social stigma. He knows what it feels like to be marginalised. But he’s been given a second chance. He hopes to offer the same to the homeless residents, many of whom also feel social ostracism. They look unhygienic. People shun them. People ask why they don’t work when they’re able bodied. But each of them, Derrick says, has a unique story. It’s not so simple. Get to know their stories instead.

Derrick previously went through a particular church’s School of Theology. As part of the programme, he volunteered with the dialect services. They’d load residents from the Jln Kukoh estate on a bus and send them to church, preach a message, pray with them, give them food and then send them back. He thinks there’s a problem with that. There’s no relationship with the residents. He says it’s about getting to know the individual persons. To know their needs, desires, hopes. So that strategic prayers can be offered. Sometimes, they lie about certain things. He says, you discern and you’ve got to make hard decisions about these things.

His ministry to the poor and the homeless has not always received endorsement. His former church didn’t support it. Maybe because it wouldn’t bring much benefits to the church, to put it bluntly. The church’s aim was to increase its membership. He didn’t agree with that. He stopped attending the church’s service after a while. He comments that local churches don’t have the environment for people like the homeless folks. Church members would probably see the homeless as ‘us’ and ‘them’. If Jesus is here  today, He’d be out ministering to these people, Derrick says. Do Christians see ground-zero as church? Jesus went everywhere and saw ground-zero as church. He performed healing everywhere. For churches to be outward looking, they need to see where the needy are as church and not just ministry ground. Are church members willing to spend more time at ground-zero than in their church buildings? It’s the harvest field out there.

Derrick effectively does church in the cafe. Other than outreach to the community, a lot of youths hang out at the church community in a prayer room tucked away on the 3rd storey of the shophouse. “This place becomes a place where people come not just for church services, singing, but more about fellowship. We have a life group. Three of us. Share about our week. Ministry work. Confess our sins. Help us grow stronger. We don’t spend more time deliberating on traditions rather than going out to act out on the Great Commission,” Derrick says. Church is about a community of believers. Where 2 or 3 gather. “You can have church in a bar.” Acts 2:42 describes the church. Breaking of bread together. Sharing the word. Traditions come after that.
Loft cafe

His ministry is enjoying more partnerships with other Christian community groups. There aren’t enough volunteers. So groups led by James Seow and Abraham Yeo team up with him. They have extended their reach to Chin Swee, from Jln Kukoh and Chinatown. I asked if he had the opportunity to share the gospel with any of the people he’s journeyed with. He says yes. “Chinatown I’m pretty surprised. Within half a year already. 7 salvations. First time round I brought 10 packets of food, couldn’t give out everything. Subsequently, get to know more of them, some of the more influential. They get to know us. They know us as the Jesus people. Brings comfort. Start to know they see us manifesting the God we trust.”

Given the multi-faceted needs of the community, what did he think about the government’s role? While he thinks the Singapore Government is doing a good job, he says some government agencies don’t understand the complexities of the needs these residents and households face. He notes that some of the Jln Kukoh residents approach their Member of Parliament (MP) and the MP does try to help. Sometimes, the homeless and  the elderly try to find more ways to get more money from social services. Some people keep complaining, grumbling. They don’t want to work. Because they’re trapped in this vicious cycle. And that in turn is because there are too many barriers to escape the cycle. He explained that the estate comprises of 4 types of people: elderly, poor, single parents, and foreign brides. They have their own stories and problems. “You can’t expect the elderly to travel all the way to Woodlands to work and come back. Can’t expect single mom with two children at home to travel to Woodlands. And F&B and cleaning work have long hours.” As a result, many of the residents are not given opportunity to work. Companies and employers don’t offer the flexibility needed for these residents. Most businesses and employers are just looking at profits.

And he has a solution. He wants to start a social enterprise right inside Jln Kukoh, called “Walk Strong”, which is a direct translation of the estate’s name. Another social enterprise thought of this idea but they didn’t follow through with it because they found it practically unfeasible. But Derrick says to me matter-of-factly, with God it’s possible.

“We want to do manufacturing. Thinking of starting a central kitchen. Low entry level. Anyone can hop on. Catering. Bake bread. Gift packaging. We will have a Walk Strong brand. Approach hotels, companies. Offer competitive prices. But it helps the residents. These people can come in clock hours. Minimum is clock one hour. People say won’t work. But we have a massive manpower there. 7000 residents in Jln Kukoh. We haven’t done numbers, but numbers from SSO, 60% employable age.”

He says that he’s tried applying to the Housing Development Board (HDB) to offer discounted rates for rental of premises there. This is a social cause after all. HDB rejected his application. “They ask us to go through normal bidding process and rent could go up to $10,000 per month. Rent is expensive.”

More immediately, Derrick wants to do a census of the Jln Kukoh residents. He says the Government doesn’t do a full census of the estate. And they won’t want to release the information to him anyway because it’s confidential. Together with James Seow and Michelle Yeo (incidentally, all friends of mine), he has discussed possibilities of conducting this census. But they haven’t been able to proceed because they couldn’t find enough volunteers. There are 600 households, almost 7000 residents. The census has to be done within at least 10 months or otherwise, there’d be too much variation over a longer time period for meaningful data.

The census will be helpful for many other organisations. There are a lot of different organisations serving the Jln Kukoh estate. But they’re duplicating efforts. If they can share information, e.g. age group, who’s employable, who’s in prison, they can coordinate efforts. But many of these do-gooders have full-time jobs and are very busy (many of the volunteers are civil servants, lawyers, and other professionals).
Loft Cafe

Properly appreciating the needs of the residents is important because, Derrick says, the ministries must meet tangible needs. “We experience parents who don’t care about their children. Just want to drink, take drugs. They tell their children don’t go school. When we fulfil their tangible needs, it helps the youth, the community to be more happy. My first impression when I first walked into Jln Kukoh is everyone’s so sad. Unlike in Toa Payoh, Ang Mo Kio, where people are alive, there, it’s a dead estate. People don’t smile. Whether the census amounts to the social enterprise [is] not important. It’s to know their needs. Present a more reliable plan that the government can look into.”

Taking a step back, he says, “never a single organisation can make a difference. But with every organisation, it can make a difference. Just imagine so many businesses in Chinatown. If they take time to walk around get to know these people, give them a second chance. You’ll see massive change in their lives.”

**

The Loft Cafe is at 268A South Bridge Road, 058817. It opens daily except Mondays from 7.30 am to 11pm. 

For more stories of Christian social justice ministries, check out my book, The Justice Demand. To connect with Derrick or other social justice practitioners like him, drop me an email at thejusticedemand[at]gmail.com. 

Social Justice in the Singapore Church: Micah Singapore Brunch Conversation

The Justice Demand

On 6 February 2016, a group of young adult Christians gathered at The Living Room Cafe in Zion Bishan BP Church over brunch to chat about their experience with engaging fellow Christians in their local churches about biblical social justice. The discussion revealed a pessimistic picture about the local churches’ attitudes to justice and mercy, and the glaring need for engagement.

We started by asking the 13 participants the following question: “On a scale of 1-10, to what extent do you think your church members have a positive understanding of social justice? Why did you give this answer?” The average response was 3.82 of 10.

Engage Social Justice in the Singapore Church

Continue reading “Social Justice in the Singapore Church: Micah Singapore Brunch Conversation”

Peter Singer and Effective Altruism: What’s Wrong?

In Peter Singer’s 2009 book The Life You Can Save [1] and 2015 book, The Most Good You Can Do[2] he makes moral arguments on why people in richer nations should donate money to charities to end poverty in developing nations. He is a proponent of Effective Altruism, the idea that people in rich nations should give their disposable income to charities through evidence-based processes to ensure maximum positive impact.

Continue reading “Peter Singer and Effective Altruism: What’s Wrong?”