Faith heroes of SARS: The stories you never heard
On this 15th anniversary of SARS, the SaltandLight team brings you never-before-told stories of SARS faith heroes.
by Karen Tan // May 30, 2018, 6:22 pm
The late Pastor Simon Loh with his wife, Pastor Lorena, and two young children.
Exactly 15 years ago, on May 31, the World Health Organization declared Singapore cleared and free from the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus.
Between the months of March to May in the fateful year of 2003, the entire nation was gripped with fear. The air-borne germ claimed 33 lives in Singapore, infected 238 others, and left a deadly legacy that forever changed the way Singaporeans dealt with national healthcare emergencies.
At the time, the authorities took stringent measures to prevent the spread of the disease as Singapore was identified as a global hot spot for the virus. In an unprecedented move, the Ministry of Education cancelled school for weeks. Most people stayed home to avoid contact with others.
A dark cloud had enveloped the country and turned the usual bustling city-state into an eerie ghost town.
The health, economic and social impact have often been talked about, but seldom highlighted are the faith stories, and how the national crisis had a poignant impact upon personal lives.
In a three-part series, the SaltandLight team brings you never-before-told stories of SARS faith heroes.
The kernel that fell on the ground
Pastor Simon Loh caught the SARS virus when he went to minister to the first Singaporean to be infected by the bug. Identified as SARS “patient no. 1”, the young woman had grown up in Pastor Simon’s church, Faith Assembly of God.
It was early days of the disease then, and no one had expected the air-borne virus to be so deadly.
Pastor Simon’s death came swiftly, just two weeks after he was infected. He spent his last moments alone, as visitors were forbidden so as to prevent the spread of the fatal germ. The 39-year-old pastor left behind a young family and a congregation who held him dear.
Reverend Andrew Ong, who was then Senior Pastor at Faith Assembly of God, recalls: “The most difficult time was when Pastor Simon was in the hospital with SARS. We never thought he would pass away as we prayed very hard that God would let him live on. When he died, it was quite unexpected because it came very suddenly.”
The church arises
When Pastor Simon was first hospitalised, the church immediately organised prayer meetings. The response was overwhelming and almost half the church turned up.
Tan Hoon Kiang, a church member, remembers: “When we had the weeknight prayer meetings, it was surprising to see so many people fill the halls. For the 24-hour prayer chains we had, the take-up was very fast. That was very encouraging because it is not easy to have a 24-hour prayer chain, especially for slots in the middle of the night. But people were signing up! It was amazing to see so many people committed to prayer.”
Despite the prayers, God had other plans.
“We need people who are fearless in doing God’s work so that the next generation knows faith figures can be found in church and not just in the Bible.”
Pastor Simon became the second person to succumb to the SARS virus in Singapore. It was a bitter pill to swallow.
Tan said: “The church was deeply affected because Pastor Simon was very well-loved by the young and old. He was a young and promising pastor who was labouring for the Lord. When he caught SARS, everyone was asking why. Why would something like that happen?”
It hit doubly hard because just months before, at an earlier church camp, the guest speaker gave a word of a coming revival to the church, which would begin with the Chinese congregation that Pastor Simon was leading. That word had brought much jubilation and fresh hope. But when Pastor Simon passed away suddenly, those hopes were dashed and left people bereft.
It was especially hard for Pastor Simon’s wife, Lorena Tsai.
“It was not easy to overcome. For a year I was in grief and possibly in a depression. But, God also gave me a specific word in 2 Corinthians 13:11, where Paul in his farewell told the people to be comforted. The verse spoke to me that even as my husband had gone home to be with the Lord, I must receive the Lord’s comfort. It reminded me that, yes, my comfort comes from the Lord. I had to lay hold of that truth so that I can also comfort the congregation and for them to find joy and strength as well. It was not easy, but I kept seeking God. The Lord continually reminded me to receive comfort and the Holy Spirit kept me going.”
“So, I was very clear that Pastor Simon’s passing was within God’s will.”
A dream and a vision
Another encouragement came in a dream.
One of Pastor Simon’s siblings saw him (Pastor Simon) receiving a crown in heaven. He got up from his sleep and continued seeing the vision of the crown. That vision and dream comforted the family and the congregation.
Reverend Ong also comforted the church with Isaiah 57:1, a verse he received from God. “As humans, we usually think those who are righteous will live a longer life, this verse tells you that God knows the future. It is like God’s the Gardener who comes to cut away the flower when it was in full bloom.”
Fruit from the kernel
Fifteen years have passed, and Pastor Simon’s wife, Lorena, is now serving as the Chinese pastor in the church. She had met her husband at a bible college in Taiwan, her home country. She continues Pastor Simon’s legacy and grows her own ministry at the same time. Today, Pastor Lorena is a picture of serenity with a confident and purposeful stride that belie the heavy cross she had borne more than a decade ago.
She remembers the promise for revival the church had received before the SARS tragedy and testifies: “Since Pastor Simon’s passing, more leaders have risen up from the congregation. I feel that is the revival that was earlier prophesied about.”
“God moves in a miraculous way, He removed one leader and made way for many more. Before that, many would say Pastor Simon was amazing, pinned their hopes on him and looked to him to lead.”
“But when God took Pastor away, the people had to step up. We saw more cell and ministry leaders rising to lead. It taught me that revival does not come just from one leader; many can catch the fire and be revived. The congregation is no longer centred on one pastor, but on the many leaders that have come up from within.”
It takes a congregation to raise a child
When Pastor Simon passed away, his children were only seven and eight. It was no easy task for his wife, a single mother who not only had to nurse her own grief but also care for her young ones. Her older child, who was especially close to her father, was most affected.
“I told the children it was God’s will, but I don’t think they understood that in adult terms. Even though I knew my daughter was grieving, I also knew there was nothing a human could do to heal a grieving heart. So, I just continued to pray for her and we would pray together as a family, and I made sure they continued to attend church. We all needed time to heal.”
Unbeknownst to Pastor Lorena, even before her husband passed away, God had already planned for her children.
Tan, who had spent time travailing in prayer for Pastor Simon’s healing, heard from the Lord: “God told my wife and me to take care of the children. We didn’t understand it then because we were praying for Pastor’s Simon’s healing. The ministry God gave to us to watch over the two children has been a joy.”
Tan and his family provided additional support for the two children. They were included in Tan’s regular family outings. The couple spent time speaking into their lives and guided the children like any parents would for their own. Even though both Joy and Daniel are already in their early twenties, the Tans continue to keep tabs on their well-being.
Pastor Lorena said: “They made my children feel that there were others who loved and cared for them. Besides their family, the children also received care and concern from their Sunday school teachers as well. A mother cannot replace a father; a mother’s strength is also limited. The entire church and congregation gave strength to my children.”
Both the children are now following their parents’ footsteps and serving in the Youth Ministry.
In the face of pestilence
Would Pastor Simon have stayed away from ministering to the sick if he had known how deadly the virus was?
“When we do God’s work, there’s a price to pay. But the price should not stop us from doing what He has put before us.”
Pastor Lorena shares her thoughts: “I think he would still have gone to minister. Pastor Simon had always prayed and asked God when he can share Christ and sacrifice for the Lord. He had also talked about dying for Jesus. That is the attitude he carried all the time. No matter how sick the person was, he would still go and pray. That was how he was.”
“Sometimes, I feel that we need people like Pastor Simon who was fearless in wanting to do God’s work, so we can tell the next generation that such faith figures are not only found in the Bible but within the church today.”
What about the church and congregation, would they cower or take courage?
Tan replies: “The SARS incident increased our faith even though we did not understand why God chose to take Pastor Simon home. None of us ever thought about stopping the hospital visitations. It never crossed our minds. Of course, we take more measures now and observe the hospital’s hygiene procedures. When we do God’s work, there’s a price to pay. But the price should not stop us from doing what He has put before us.”
Reverend Ong adds: “Our God has a plan for each of us and until we finish our work, nothing can snatch away our life. Although I was in direct contact with the different SARS patients, I was not infected. If our time is not up, no sickness can come upon us. We all fasted and prayed and did everything we could and yet Pastor Simon was taken away. I conclude that our God is sovereign.”