“If we had not stepped in to intervene, she would have been the third generation to go into prostitution,” shared Mr Joseph Chean, National Director of Youth With A Mission (YWAM) Singapore, as he talked about their work in reaching out to women who are mired in the flesh trade along the streets of Geylang. Many of these women are young mothers saddled with small children, several of whom are unschooled.
It was both disquieting and grimly fascinating to hear that cosmopolitan Singapore does have and continues to harbour a darker underbelly of the poor, the helpless, and the socially immobile – individuals and families stuck in the rut of destructive lifestyles, often not out of choice but due to sheer circumstance.
Joseph (pictured below left), who gave the keynote address at the ‘Rich Church in a Poor World’ seminar on 7 Sep 2017 at the Bible House, was one of four speakers who shared their experiences working with vulnerable groups in Singapore. The seminar was organised by The Bible Society of Singapore’s NextGen ministry with the support of the Evangelical Fellowship of Singapore.
Even though YWAM Singapore was birthed as an agency dealing chiefly in foreign missions and missionary training, Joseph sensed God confronting him about YWAM’s need to get involved locally with the plight of the street denizens of Geylang – impressing upon him a quote from Habakkuk 2:14, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
“There was a point in time in the early 2000s that the population in Geylang boomed due to the influx of foreigners, which in turn compounded the vice issues in the district, which we could no longer ignore,” recalled Joseph.
After three years of listening, prayer, discussion and planning, the Mercy Centre — a part of the ministry of YWAM Singapore – was founded in November 2013 to offer aid to the vulnerable and marginalised.
An initiative called Tamar Village, established three years prior, functions as part of the Mercy Centre’s ministry to the disadvantaged. It is a safe haven to bring healing, help, and most importantly, hope to former prostitutes who are seeking a new life.
Its founders had witnessed the true, horrid conditions that the ladies in the streets had to live through – some local women were selling their bodies for as low as $5, just to buy the next meal for their children or to pay their rent. Now, the facility helps equip the ladies with viable trade skills that will allow them to earn a living after they leave the compound, and also offers their children and partners a proper education and job opportunities.
Joseph contended that the glory of God should not be an abstract, vague concept, but a tangible one that entailed facing up to and addressing the social ills and injustices of the day, feeding the hungry, and clothing the poor.
A key example was the overnight carnival that God led YWAM to organise for the Geylang community in 2015, offering massage services, manicures and pedicures, free and brand-new household items, games for the children, and food around the clock.
“Now would you massage a prostitute or trim the toenails of the homeless? How do you even put this across to churches in the vicinity and convince them to join in?” questioned Joseph. “It was then that I realised: My goodness, the Church in Singapore has become middle- or upper-class – the poor and needy have become invisible to us. God save us from ourselves.”
“And God replied, I am sending the poor to you precisely to do that. This is My party, you only need to send the message out.” The reply galvanised YWAM, and the carnival saw 700 Christian volunteers across more than 20 churches coming together to serve 1,800 members of the neighbourhood who came, which even included a pimp bringing his entire brothel.
“Martin Luther himself said that if the Gospel is not relevant to the issues of the day, then it is not Good News at all. Good News is not good if it is only so to the Christians and the Church, but does very little else when you hold up the Bible to the prostitutes and the pimps and they have no idea what you are talking about,” said Joseph.
Jason Woo –
is Methodist Message’s Editorial Executive. When not working on the latest articles, he enjoys long jogs and cuddling up with his three cats along with a good book.
Photos courtesy of The Bible Society® of Singapore