Peter Claver patron saint of slaves…and retirees

I have never heard of Fr Peter Claver, a Jesuit priest-missionary,  until we passed by the town he was born and grew up in during the Camino Ignaciano. Born in Verdu, Spain into a rich farming family, he was well educated and intelligent. He later joined the Jesuits and was sent as a missionary to Colombia, at that time a newly established colony called Kingdom of New Granada.

Statue of Peter Claver with African slave child

There he became a priest and served the slaves who were cruelly brought in by shiploads from Africa and sold to landowners and mineowners who needed labourers.

Peter Claver humbly served among them offering care for the sick, speaking up for them to the owners, and catechizing them in the faith. Through his hard work, compassion and solidarity with the slaves, it is estimated that 300,000 were baptized during his 40 years of ministry in Cartegena. To me this is amazing, even if you factor in the pressure on slaves to comply because of their fear of their owners.

A simple minimalist chapel at his family home, now a shrine

The irony is that after years of faithful service, in his 70s, he fell ill, and while assigned an ex-slave to care for him, Fr Peter Claver was sadly neglected and largely forgotten till the day he died. Only at his funeral was there a deeper gratitude and appreciation for his years of service, as “a slave of slaves forever”.

This story stirred in my soul feelings of sadness, and the fear of being forgotten and neglected after I retire from my position as senior pastor.

It made me recall now, with some regret, that I had somewhat forgotten and neglected my predecessor pastor P.J. Johney, after he retired. In my immaturity and obsession of trying to fix the church and move it (as though this could be done by human effort and wisdom- what audacity and stupidity!), I had not taken as much time to honour, love and listen to him as I could. I was too into growing the church, when I should be growing myself in love and compassion.

I wonder what it would be like when I step down. Probably the same: forgotten and neglected. I had better prepare myself emotionally and mentally for this. There will obviously be dimunition of one’s power and role in decision making, as well as status and honour. Its the same for retirees in the working world. During this retreat I could with the help of the spiritual director, attend to these emotions and let it sink, and process them by talking about them to the Lord and receive His peace and joy, which surpasses all logic and human manufacture.

Thank you Fr Peter Claver! Perhaps you should not only be “the patron saint of all slaves”, but also of all retirees!!

St Francis Xavier inspiration

You cannot but be impressed and moved by the life and work of St Francis Xavier. Here I was at Castle of Xavier, where he was born, and grew up. Its surreal. I once did a paper on Xavier’s missionary toils in Japan. Now Fr Jose gave us the saint’s birth to death sketch of his life. Brilliant student in Paris University, sportman, confident, respected, from a rich family. Gave up all to follow Christ in the mission fields. Served in Goa, India, Malacca, Indonesia, Japan, Macau. He died of sickness at age 46 while waiting to enter China. Estimated 30,000 baptisms in his one decade of preaching Christ. Stupendous. Just to get from Portugal to India took almost 2 years by ship!!

Castle of Xavier: St Francis early years spent here
St Francis and his passion for reaching the lost in Asia in a giant poster

What motivated him? I asked. It was the experience of the length and breadth and height and depth of God’s love. He had done the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, and had a real trust relationship with the Lord.

The tiny chapel with an unusual crucifix in the Castle of Xavier

I saw the tiny chapel in the castle where he likely prayed in. An unsual figure of a smiling crucified Christ dominated the chapel. All around the walls were dark figures of death, of white bones and skeletons.

A smile on the dead Christ’s face

Why a dead Christ with a smile? The job of saving mankind is finished? Peace and joy knowing He pleased the Father? Laugh of victory over sin, death and Satan? A smile of love as He knows He will be with His Father soon? No one knows what was on the sculptor’s mind. Anyway, it must have fascinated and moved St Francis in his younger years, or at least stayed with him through his years of hardship and suffering.

My room for two nights in the retreat house

I felt grateful too when I thought of God’s call on my life. I had experienced great encounters with God during the charismatic revival of 1970s. I believe it was experiencing this vast love of God that propelled me into obeying God’s call, with all its sacrifices and service. And it was being kept in this love of God that kept me serving in WRPF all these past 39 years of ups and downs. I feel grateful to God for this grace and privilege of serving this one church all this while.

Helping Ruth Center renovate its home for elderly poor

There is something about putting in time, talent and treasure that moves your affection towards something. Here we were, six men who wanted to help renovate a home for the elderly poor in Uthai Thani, four hours drive north of Bangkok,  in a rural area so rustic there is no shopping mall or cinema. We landed at Bangkok’s international airport at about 9am and were straightaway driven to a rural province that is full of farms. Along the way, we stopped for lunch at Texas Chicken, and after that the towns got smaller and more rural and quiet.

The WRPF construction team to Uthai Thani

Before we knew it we were moving our luggage from the van into individual colourful chalets in a neat row. SGD$10 per night per person. At this hotel rate, there was nothing to complain about. Outside all around are corn or “jagong” farms. Very serene, very quiet. The only staff a lady, whose husband and young child, stays in a makeshift hut without walls near the entrance. She is the receptionist, the housekeeper, the chambermaid, the concierge, the security guard.

Kenny and Kenneth with the colourful chalet in the background

After thirty minutes to settle we boarded the Volkswagen and headed to the home for the elderly poor which was about fifteen minutes drive away. Steve the highly skilled and committed YWAM worker from the US, who  was in charge of the construction and renovation projects of Ruth Center, showed us the scope of the renovation project and  introduced us to the elderly poor who were already settled into the home.

The temple had been renovated for use by six elderly residents. More rooms were needed.

One building, a former temple had already been renovated and fitted for use for the current elderly folk. Another huge building, formerly a barn or storage building, was partially renovated into a kitchen, dining and activity or recreation space with a TV set.  Our job was to paint, and set up the metal framework upon which to affix the wall partitions made of prefabricated mental panels and door frames. At the end, we possibly could make 4-6 bedrooms each accommodating about 2 men in each room. But this goal proved to be too ambitious.

Simon and Steve painting the walls in the former barn
Kenny and Steven painting the outside walls of the barn
Tom and Steve painting the high walls with scaffolding
Simon cutting the metal column and beams to size
Kenneth drilling holes in the metal columns and beams
Xavier sealing the windows with silicone
Xavier bashing down a disused telephone pole
Tom and Xavier drilling holes in the concrete floor to affix the metal columns
Tom Cannon leading the construction team by example
Tom affixing the vertical columns to the wall
Kenneth painting the metal beams
Steve welding the metal columns and beams
Delicious meals cooked by Not, the leader of Ruth Center

On the next day, a Saturday we started the renovation and we left our chalet at 7am in the morning and returned back each night at about 8pm. We had all our meals at the home. And we went straight to the airport on Tuesday after breakfast, saying goodbye and thank you and photo-taking. It was straight to the airport, no shopping, no reception, almost like a special forces mission haha!!

Every one was tired but feeling grateful and satisfied and joyful after the mission ended. We felt our heart was with Ruth Center and its vision We could not see the project to completion and we felt like coming back to finish it, but it was not possible. Someone else or Steve with some assistants would have to complete the rest of the work. I find myself feeling fulfilled, since the Lord had been putting in my heart to be more incarnational in my service, to be practical and concrete in showing love, to not remain in the safety and comfort zone of pastoral work.  I felt good that I had taken some baby steps in this direction and this is one of the platforms where I have been learning to obey the Lord.

I further believe such works of service are a great platform for believers who have gifts and skills of practical service to serve God in missions.

Here is a video of what we did (video will be uploaded when completed):

Noi: good things come in small packages

Her parents would never have known that their short diminutive daughter, Noi (“little”), would one day make an significant impact for Christ by serving the needs of the elderly poor in the slums of Bangkok.

Noi: short in stature, great in faith

Noi had a painful childhood marked by shame, insults, and mockery about her height. She grew to believe that the only way she would be able to gain the acceptance, respect and love of others would be for her to study hard, get a good job, and earn a good income. After all, she grew up in a very large rice-farming family in Roiet, from the poorer north-east region of Thailand. Mum had tried to abort her but failed.  God spared her life for a purpose, but her short stature was the result of the failed abortion attempts. The rest of her siblings are all of average height.

Noi was a diligent student and entered a university in Bangkok and studied to be an accountant. There she came to know the Lord. Though her parents objected to her faith in Christ, her influential brother who was working in Bangkok and supported the family back home backed her, “She is old enough to make her decision”.

She joined a small Presbyterian church that knew little about missions. She graduated from university and worked hard for a few years to earn money to gain respect and acceptance. However, she was stopped in her tracks when her father passed away without knowing Christ, and she saw the brevity of life and futility of pursuing money, and how important it is for people to know the Lord. It was a difficult period of grieving and repentance for her but the Lord was close to her and one day she heard the Lord said to her “Now is the time to work for God’s kingdom!” She did not know what the kingdom was. She asked her pastor. The pastor said that the kingdom of God is about winning people to Christ and bringing them under his rule. That stirred her soul.

Her pastor told her that YWAM Thailand needed an accountant. She went for the interview. They liked her. She was willing to join them. As she walked out she realised they did not talk about financial compensation. She went back in and got a shock. Zero salary. That is how the whole organization runs from top to bottom – nobody is paid. Everyone raises their own support. She said, “Maybe No. Let me think about this and come back to you”. One week of prayer later she gave her answer, “Yes”. That year she lived out of her savings. One year led to another till she had been with YWAM for three years as accountant! The Lord provided.

Then she signed up for Discipleship Training School (DTS)-  a six months training course. She became a good friend of a Korean. One day, the Korean lady felt led of the Lord to give a notable sum to Noi. She told her, “No need. I have enough money”. But the Lord knew better for soon after she heard her mum got ill and was hospitalised. As it turned out, the money the Korean sister had given was a God-send used to pay for Noi’s mum’s hospitalisation. After DTS she stayed on as an interpreter for DTS because her English was good. Then she attended School of Frontier Missions (SOFM) in the Philippines after which she came back and was involved in ministry to children and in auditing. Little did she know that a new chapter awaited her when the Lord gave her a dream.

One of the elderly poor Noi worked with

She had a dream of an elderly grandmother sitting forlorn with no one to talk to and looking miserable. She simple sat in one spot. Still. Quiet. Alone. The Lord gave her a scripture: “Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. (Jeremiah 31:13). The phrase, “the old” resonated with Noi. She felt the Lord was stirring her heart to reach out to the elderly in the slums.

She shared here vision with Project LIFE and the leader was affirmative about this great need that no other Christian organization was serving. So in 2008, with one other Thai volunteer they started to walk the slums, get to know them and serve the elderly with primary health care and financial assistance. The beginning was a very trying period. For three months, she cried daily. She found herself on the edge of quitting. She found the cross cultural adjustments too challenging. The slums were dirty, smelly, and she was scared of the roaming dogs. The people were quarrelsome, vulgar and selfish and she did not like the vices among them: smoking, drinking and gambling. The people had so many problems and so much needs and she felt powerless to be of much help to them. She became discouraged and wanted to quit, until she realised that this was all part of spiritual warfare. Satan was guarding his territory.

Steve with his son Evans
Mill and Mon

That was years ago. Now the ministry called Ruth Center is more developed. Jarlon, Mill and Mon are on staff and regularly make visits to the elderly in eight slum communities. Toi works with grandmothers in the craft project. Steve Webb leads the building projects that help improve the physical environment of the slums, like building common areas for them, and making improvements to safety in the homes of the elderly poor that they minister to. They also open Ruth Center for the elderly to come for interaction, fun and rest. For those interested to study the Bible, a weekly fellowship. Annually they developed  a simple curriculum for knowing Jesus through discussion on Bible passages in  small groups that meet periodically in the slums.

A church team from WRPF worked with Noi in a construction project
L to R: Kenny, Xavier, Simeon, Jenny, Noi, Steve, Jacob, Evans, Austin, Heather, Martha, Zach (mission leader), Tiffany, Steven, Simon at celebration dinner

Does she feel lonely as a single person aged 41? She said, “Not really. Very busy with work as Director of Ruth Center, coordinator of YWAM Bangkok, church ministry for students, and involvement in church ministry to students”.

Ruth Center has embarked on a major project of assisted living for the elderly. They have been praying about this for five years and have recently started raising funds to purchase a piece of land about three hours drive from Bangkok. Its about 24.7 acres (62 rai by Thai count). 1 rai of land will costs US$2,500. The vision is to house about 100 elderly residents who have no support from families, and need care because of poverty, sickness or disabilities. Many elderly in Bangkok are vulnerable. Ruth Center caters to 410 elderly over 60 years of age. 16% of these have no support. They are single again, or have no children and are given 600 thb a month by the government. This however can hardly pay for the monthly utilities. They hope to create a sustainable community through farming on the land. For more information about the assisted living project of Ruth Center click HERE. If you wish to make a donation to www.ywamthai.org/donate/

 

 

Building for a witness to Christ in Bangkok slums

Happy grandpa
Side wall before rebuild
Side wall and window after rebuild

Everybody was happy today. Everybody was smiling today. Grandpa and grandma were smiling broadly. Today was the fourth day of work. A team finished the window trimmings at the front and the alternate window panels of the side wall. Another team under the able leadership of Steve finished the sidewalk.

There were a few steps to doing the sidewalk:

1. Remove the whole unsafe wooden sidewalk portion by portion.

2. Remove as much of the rubbish below water level as possible so that the concrete beam can hit dirt. This was dirty work, unpleasant work and required perseverance. We saw tons of rubbish, mainly garbage bags and drink plastic bottles. The water was murky black and smelt rotten.

3, Insert the beam and pile drive it into the ground under the brackish water. A few heavy guys would jump in unison on a contraption and that would pile the concrete beam down.

4, If it could go no deeper, then the extra height of the beam had to be cut off.

5. The final step was to put concrete slabs across two sets of piledriven beams, and two larger longer slabs over them.

The shaky wooden sidewalk
The concrete beam
Positioning and piling in the beam
Using human weight and rhythm to drive beam down
New beams and old
Concrete slabs over concrete slabs
Sidewalk rebuilt and stable with concrete slabs

Thank God we were able to finish the whole sidewalk of about ten feet by the late afternoon. We were happy to conclude our work with a photo in front of the restored house and sidewalk, and we prayed a blessing for grandpa and grandma.

It was a most satisfying day, indeed a most satisfying project. While we were working the last four days, neighbours in the community were watching, observing and asking questions. They knew how old and unsafe and dilapidated grandpa and grandma’s house was, and how they could not afford to do anything about it. They knew we are Christians from Singapore. They knew it was done for them as an act of love and humble service. Everytime they pass the house, or see grandpa and grandma, they will  give credit to the God that we worship and serve. The house testifies of the glory of God’s undeserved blessing on the poor. Even after we have gone, the house acts as an advertisement to God’s goodness and care for the poor. We pray the slum people will have a greater openness to Christ.

The joy of completion is evident

The team members were filled with joy. Not all can preach or testify or conduct Bible studies. This project was another way of preaching, of witnessing to Christ. Only that it uses a different set of skills. This is a great ministry avenue that would involve a greater variety of people with practical skills to glorify God in missions.

Sad and hopeful slum stories

This Wednesday morning, Alvin and I were relieved of our duties on-site in order to help Noi  bring an elderly male amputee, Won Sum, a diabetic patient of about 70 years old, from his slum home to the hospital. As the staff were all women, we were asked to help carry him to the car. It turned out to be quite a forbidding experience. Zach the church team leader wisely felt the task would be more suitably accomplished by us. After all, a medic and a storyteller, would not be missed much by the other skilled team members.

We were driven to another part of the slum and walked a hundred metres of narrow walkway with some steps to the home of the amputee. Outside there was a damaged sofa, a rusty, old wheelchair, a few pails of water, and smelly poop. I thought it was dog poo. Soon we discovered the amputee who lived alone virtually lived just inside his door. His food, water, medicines, were all inside his home within an eight feet radius from the door. Our task was to carry him to the car so that Noi could bring him to the hospital to clean his wounds on his left foot.

We washed away the poo outside and cleared the area so we could bring the wheelchair in and lift him up on it. That itself was not easy. He was heavy (and we were not strong). He smelled. His pants kept slipping. Finally by two of us using one hand on his thigh and one below his armpit and the Ruth Center staff pushing the wheelchair under him, we finally managed to move him out of his home to the waiting car.

The next big problem was carrying him from the wheelchair into the front passenger seat. He had little arm strength and he was too heavy for both of us to lift in that cramped car space. Only after several tries did we finally manage to get him into the car.

The floorboards were replaced and screwed down and walls strengthened
The floorboards before the rebuild
Rotted side wall replaced with better composite material
The front wall before rebuild
The front wall after rebuild

We then went back to the construction site and there the team was making good progress in drilling screws into the floorboards, and wall boards. There were also rotted beams that had to be replaced, and the divider wall between kitchen and living area to be reinforced. It looked as though we would need another day and a half to finish the sidewalk.

Has our previous project become a dumping site

Last year, we had a church camp with a missions component and we built a concrete sidewalk so that the people living around there could have a community space to gather and chat. We passed by the sidewalk on the first day and found that it had a ladder and some junk on it. I felt disappointed that what we intended had degenerated into another dumping ground or storage area. However this was not to be so. I went to check the place at about lunch time and I saw some women eating and some of them socialising around a game of cards. Later in the afternoon, I checked again. This time another group comprising young mothers and their children were chatting. It felt gratifying that the original intention of the space was attained. I must report this to the church. They will be encouraged by this development.

Lunchtime bonding
Later in the afternoon

Making progress patiently

Steven, Simon, Jacob, Kenneth, Simeon

We were hopeful of completing the new floor and wall for the slum home of a poor elderly couple. But it was not to be. The amount of work exceeded our estimation. It could have been completed if we had better skills and tools. We had no lack of hands. We lacked skills and confidence. Nevertheless the team learned quickly by observing how Steve did things. He was amazing to watch. In fact it was fun to see how he handled different challenges and problems in the course of construction.

The floor boards were made of some kind of composite of concrete and fibre. They were heavy and even five of us urbanites could not lift them. However two of their locals easily lifted and carried all of them for us to the house.

I was not of much help to the construction, and sort of fell into the role of “unofficial” photographer and storyteller. So today I focused on taking good photos and on telling the story. I became more serious about camera angles, and interviewed the initiator and leader of the Ruth Center. I spent an hour talking to Noi the diminutive “giant” who ministered among the elderly poor. This story will require a post in itself.

So at the end of the day, we finished 90% of the floor and 70% of the walls and decided to call it a day as it was over 5pm. Then we had to give away “Cold Storage” school bags to the poor school children of the slums.

By the time we were in the van, it was 6pm. This was risky. And our anxiety was proven true for we got stuck in the Bangkok peak traffic jam at Sukhumvit. The van was stationary for close to 10 minutes. Nothing moved. So when we saw the Rembrandt Hotel through the van window, we decided unanimously to take a walk. We reached the hotel in 15minutes! I think by the time we entered the hotel, the van might have moved a mere 100 metres.

We were learning when to be patient and when to be decisive.