Photo by Ye Jinghan on Unsplash
“But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ And Jesus replied, ‘A certain man was going down from Jerusalem and he fell among robbers and was beaten … But a certain Samaritan who was on a journey saw him, and had compassion on him.'” (Luke 10:29-33)
Throughout my life, God has been teaching me two lessons: To love Him, and to love my neighbour. But the models He chose came from the most unlikely quarters.
I come from an upper middle-class family, and grew up in a protected, educated, church-going environment. Any association with the so-called “criminal classes” was guided by a simple rule: Stay out of my way and I won’t call the police.
Consequently, National Service came as a cross-cultural nightmare to me. Though trained as a medical orderly, I was grouped with the general cleaners, the most unsavoury bunch of low-life I could ever have imagined.
One of them was a temple medium who never bathed and who frequently went into trances and danced with a parang. There was another whose only pleasure in life was to save enough money to make regular trips up north where prostitutes provided better services.
Then, there was my “patient”, a soldier whose “delicates”, having been ravaged by venereal disease, I had to clean twice a day. I decided early that I would have as little to do with them as I could.
One of the duties we had to do together was to guard the soldiers’ living quarters at night. We did that in groups of six – two for each detail of two hours.
On one of those nights, I was detailed to guard the barracks at 2am. I had woken a few minutes before time, anticipating a rude awakening by the one I was replacing. I pretended to sleep, determined not to rise even a minute earlier than necessary.
I found that beneath the hardened exteriors of these men were soft hearts longing to reach out.
“These chaps are not going to bully me into doing more than I am supposed to,” I told myself.
I could hear the outgoing pair entering the room, waking my partner. Then they approached me.
I heard one of them say: “Chiu looks so tired; I’ll do his detail for him.”
Without attempting to wake me, he left quietly to do an extra two hours of guard duty on my behalf.
Here was love in action – and from those whom I had resented and despised. I never knew we could have liked, or loved, each other, but I found that beneath the hardened exteriors of these men were soft hearts longing to reach out.
I discovered too that it was my heart that was drying up.
God was to bring across my path many more “hardcores”. His purpose, I believe, was to show me the tenderness of their hearts, in the hope that my own heart could be softened.
Who’s in the docks?
After graduating from university, I did pupillage in a law firm that allowed me freedom to attend court whenever I wanted.
One day, I went to observe a murder trial. On trial was a labourer who had been charged with the murder of his roommate. What baffled me and everyone else in the courtroom was that the accused was giving self-incriminatory evidence known only to himself.
“Doesn’t he know he is performing his own prosecution? Is he really so stupid as to not know that he is hanging himself with his evidence?” I remember musing to myself.
What manner of love was this? I knew I could never love Him so madly as to do what this labourer had done.
As I left the courtroom, I met a man carrying a Bible, who seemed to know the accused. I asked him the question that was on everyone’s mind: “Why did he give evidence against himself?”
I’ll never forget his answer: “The accused gave his life to Christ in prison. He loves the Lord so much he will not do anything to make His Lord sad!”
What manner of love was this? I thought I loved the Lord; but I knew I could never love Him so madly as to do what this labourer had done.
Tender hearts. Yearning, feeling, loving, hurting, breaking hearts.
I began to understand a little more of our Lord’s passion and compassion for those in the underworld. For behind the facade of hardness were human hearts longing to be touched.
I met Ah Seng while ministering in prison. He was one of the leaders at the chapel services we held every Sunday. He was a man filled with passion for God. And he was one who knew what it meant to stand up for Christ.
Ah Seng was a respected and feared gang leader when he entered prison. After Christ touched him, he decided to make a break with his old life. But he paid heavily for this.
He was ostracised, bullied and treated like a pariah by former friends and enemies. Yet each day his faith grew as the Lord ministered to him.
He had one deep passion: His two daughters, aged 16 and five. His wife had left him with the two girls, and when Ah Seng was imprisoned, his daughters were left to fend for themselves with the help of neighbours.
One day, Ah Seng showed me a letter his older daughter had written to him. In it, she told him of the temptations she faced as a teenager: Wild spending, drinking, smoking … and men.
She had recently, however, found Christ and wanted to be faithful to Him. She longed for the day when her father would be released, so they could start life anew as a godly family.
On one of the weekends when Ah Seng was let out for a day (this was a scheme where long-term prisoners with less than a year of sentence left were let out for a weekend, once in two months), he took me to visit his daughters.
As we entered the two-room flat, I noticed its absolute emptiness. There was not a single piece of furniture in the room.
I pray that we, church members, may see the tenderness of the hearts of those in prison.
A little girl ran out from the kitchen, followed by a lovely teenager. The latter refused to greet me and requested for her father to spend time alone with them.
I stepped out of the flat, my heart breaking. How they longed to be united as a family, to be free from fear and from intruders!
Ah Seng and I met several more times after that. Then suddenly and without reason, he cut off contact with his Christian friends.
I found out much later that shortly after his release, Ah Seng returned to selling drugs and was arrested. This time, it was a sentence for life.
Many in prison share Ah Seng’s story. Young fathers serving long prison sentences, life sentences, death sentences.
What is more painful is that many more prisoners share Ah Seng’s daughters’ story. They were in crime largely because their parents were in jail while they were growing up. They are the children of broken dreams.
For me, the long-term goal of prison ministry in church is not merely organising programmes to help prisoners. It is not even just the prisoners per se.
Instead, I pray that we, the church members, may see the tenderness of the hearts of those in prison.
I pray that our hearts may be softened as we share the work of Christ in seeking them out.
Like Christ, we must realise how the hearts of those in prison and in the underworld yearn for love and to be loved. If only our hearts could touch.
Then Jesus said to His host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner … when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14)
This reminiscence was excerpted from the book, We Speak of God, published in 2001 by the Barker Road Methodist Church, and republished with permission.