Building a “Garden of Eden”: He uprooted his family to plant a mission school in Timor-Leste

As LoveTimor marks its 20th anniversary this year, Salt&Light shines a spotlight on the Singaporeans who have answered the call to serve in the nation of Timor-Leste.

by Gracia Chiang // April 24, 2024, 3:18 pm

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When he left the Ministry of Education as a vice-principal, David Chan did not imagine that God would use him to pioneer a Methodist school in a country he knew nothing about. From teaching a class of only 21 students, David is now leading a school of close to 800 students. All photos courtesy of David unless otherwise stated.

It seems poetic and fitting that mission schools set up in Singapore by missionaries would now raise up other missionaries to start mission schools in other lands.

Unknown to David Chan, 49, God had already uniquely prepared him and his family to love the people of Timor-Leste and to spend their lives serving in Asia’s youngest nation.

David was the Vice-Principal of Fairfield Methodist School (Primary) (2008–2010) and St Andrew’s Junior School (2010–2012). His wife had also been a teacher in both Fairfield Methodist Schools, while their three children were all former students.

These served as invaluable experiences as God called them to build a Methodist school in Timor-Leste, which would not only educate and build students with character, but also help address some of the most pressing social and developmental needs of the country.

Here is David’s story of how a simple “yes” led him across borders to pass on the legacy of faith, hope and love.

“God, you are asking me to leave something that I really love. I need to know if this is what You have really asked me to do.” 

In June 2012, I was preparing for my interview for principalship. But at that time, I also had a desire to serve in missions at the prime of my life, not when I retire. 

So I told God, “If You do not want me to continue with the Ministry of Education (MOE), let me fail the interview so that I know that it is time to leave.”

In July, the result came and I was asked to go through another cycle as a vice-principal, so I felt that God might be closing that door for me.

But just as Gideon did the fleece test twice, I asked God for a second sign.

That came in August when I watched The Dark Knight Rises. Just before I entered the cinema, I sensed the Lord say: “Watch the young police officer and see what he does.”

The whole show was about how the police officer helped Batman and fought with the villain. But towards the end, when everything was more or less settled, the officer stood on a bridge, looked at his police badge and threw that badge into the water.

That was when I felt the Lord say: “That badge represents MOE. Until you throw that badge away, then will I reveal the plans I have for you.”

An alumnus of Fairfield Methodist School (Secondary), David’s passion for nurturing the next generation led him to become a teacher in Fairfield Methodist School (Primary) and eventually the vice-principal of the school. He was also the founding Captain of the 33J Boys’ Brigade Singapore Company. Source: Facebook

Over the next three months, the Lord continued to speak to me through various ways, such as a devotional in cell group, a sermon in church and a book given by a colleague.

During this time, God also searched my heart. Was I leaving MOE because I was angry, disappointed or frustrated that I did not clear my interview? As I reflected, I realised that there was none of that. Only sadness at having to leave.

By December, I was 99 per cent certain that I was going to leave, but I also sensed that there was a message He wanted me to declare and I wanted to know what it was first.

That came at church camp (Aldersgate Methodist Church), where Pastor Benny Ho from Faith Community Church was the guest speaker. Two things happened at camp.

“Won’t You take a look at my hands? Use whatever I have for Your plans.”

The first was after Pastor Benny’s second sermon when I responded to the altar call. As Rev Dr William Sam (one of my church’s pastors) prayed for me to have the kingly anointing, he also said: “Lord Jesus, confirm in David’s heart whatever you have impressed upon him.” 

The second came when Pastor Benny shared from Isaiah 1:16-17 on the final day. That was when I felt the Lord say: “David, this is what I want you to do moving forward: Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the fatherless and plead for the widow.”

When I later went up for the altar call and knelt on the ground, I also received an additional word from the Lord: “Build a school without walls.”

I told the Lord: “I don’t know what You are talking about, but won’t You take a look at my hands? Use whatever I have for Your plans.”

The next thing I knew, Pastor Benny asked the worship team to play that same song where those lyrics came from (“Making A Difference“). 

At the end of camp, I went up during testimony time to share what the Lord had spoken to me, including my plans to resign from MOE.

It started with a simple “yes”

It came as a surprise to many, but after hearing my story my then Pastor-in-Charge, Rev Dr Lorna Khoo, linked me up with someone from the Singapore Prison Service.

That was when I found out that they were intending to build a school without walls that would help with the rehabilitation of inmates and their re-integration into society. So I got a team together and decided to submit a bid for the tender in February 2013.

After resigning from MOE, there were other job opportunities that came up. But my excuse for not getting involved in any of them was because I had bidded for the school without walls.

Although I saw my bank account draining month after month, I got to spend a lot of personal time with God. 

After sending my kids to school every morning, I would go to a coffee shop and read through the Bible. The whole Bible came alive for me during those few months! 

Then one day, Pastor Lorna sent me a text to ask: “Have you ever considered Timor-Leste?”

I had no idea where Timor-Leste is, but she encouraged me to speak to Rev Teresa Wilborn, who was with the Methodist Missions Society (MMS). That was how my journey with MMS began.

Not only did David and his family have a long association with the Fairfield Methodist Schools as students, he and his wife Jessie were also once teachers there. When the Chans left Singapore, the children were aged 8, 11 and 14.

I was waiting to meet Rev Teresa in the MMS office and looking at a map of Timor-Leste when I suddenly had a flashback to a memory in 2008.

I was walking out of Fairfield Methodist School (Primary) with another colleague when I turned back and saw the building of the school against the evening sky.

I remember telling him: “We are so blessed because of what Sophia Blackmore (the missionary who founded the school) did many years ago when she brought education to Singapore. How I wish one day we can take Fairfield international.”

Later, Rev Teresa shared with me that after applying for several years, MMS had just received news that their NGO status in Timor-Leste had been approved for community development and education work.

A Singaporean developer had also recently approached MMS with a plot of land in Timor-Leste because they wanted to build a school. 

So when MMS heard that I had resigned from MOE, they thought that perhaps they now had someone who could help.

Three stars had aligned: NGO status, land and person.

However, Rev Teresa told me that the building of the school might only start two to three years later. Would I be okay? 

That was the day that God revealed to me that having a Methodist school in Timor-Leste would be like “Fairfield International”.

David’s family with MMS missionaries (from left) Rudy David Wong, Grace Kellan, Joseph Mannar and Rev Teresa Wilborn. Joseph and Grace had also relocated from Singapore to start a hostel for senior high students in Timor-Leste.

Our church sent out our first exploratory team to Timor-Leste in September 2013. 

As I walked the land with three other team members, God opened my eyes to see that in Asia’s youngest nation, there were:

  • many youths and children, but they lacked father figures and positive role models.
  • many students with great potential and aspirations, but they lacked quality education.
  • many working-age individuals, but they lacked necessary job skills to meet the work requirements.
  • many unused lands, but they lacked proper stewardship and infrastructure for greater economic and social development.

It was a beautiful land marked with the scars of war. It was a promising country, yearning for someone to believe in her.

I returned from that trip even more convinced that Timor-Leste was where I would serve the Lord.

Later that month, I also got the results of the tender of the school without walls. To be honest, I already had a feeling that I was not going to get it. True enough, it was awarded to someone else.

It was only then I realised that the six months of waiting might have been God’s way of “locking me down” so that I would not work for anyone else and would wait for Timor-Leste. 

“Trust that the future in life is not determined by a certificate, but on the favour that I would pour upon you.”

For the two years until I left for Timor-Leste in September 2015, I joined my church as a Children’s Ministry staff where God trained and equipped me.

He brought to me children with family issues, and I learnt how to help them seek justice and how to rescue the oppressed, defend the fatherless and help the widows.

During this time, God also prepared our family of five to be uprooted.

Before we landed in Timor-Leste, only I had ever visited the land. My wife and children had never visited Timor-Leste!

But they said “yes” to following God, without even needing to know what Timor-Leste was like. Theirs was a simple “yes”, a step of faith to follow God wherever He would lead us to.

Centre row, from right: Rev Dr Chong Chin Chung, the former Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore, and Aldersgate Methodist Church’s former Pastor-in-Charge Rev Dr Lorna Khoo, at the commissioning of David as a missionary to Timor-Leste.

I always believe that if God has called, God will provide. He is a faithful God. 

But many people did ask me: “What about your kids’ education? Are you being irresponsible? Will they blame you in the future?” So I asked God for help on how to respond.

That is when He said: “David, look at your Diploma in Mechatronics. What is it doing for you now? You are a teacher, and the diploma is not helping you to be an engineer.

“Therefore be faithful to what I have called you to do. Trust that the future in life is not determined by a certificate, but on the favour that I would pour upon you.”

I knew that God would watch over us. God has always met all our needs. 

Faith: Trusting in God’s providence

In the first week my family and I arrived, we were divinely connected to a young man from another Singapore church that had already been doing missions here.

He introduced us to two Brazilian missionaries who had started a primary school, Arca Infantil in Hera, about 45 minutes east of the capital, Dili.

The school had no Physical Education teacher, so I helped out and conducted teacher training.

I also discovered that because there were four primary schools (Grade 1-6) but only two pre-secondary schools (Grade 7-9) in the area, a number of graduating Grade 6 students would not be able to continue with their education.

So I proposed the idea to MMS of renting the school premises in the afternoon to conduct a Grade 7 class from January 2016.

This was the humble beginnings of St Paul Methodist School (SPMS) we know today. The 18 students from Arca Infantil and my three children formed the pioneer batch of 21 students! 

Over the years, school enrolment ballooned. David and his family started to run classes out of their home (pictured) and two other locations.

SPMS was originally slated to be at Tasi Tolu on the western side of the capital. However, there were delays in securing the land to build the school. 

Meanwhile, the need for SPMS’ own premises became urgent. Due to the addition of a Grade 1 class in 2017 and the yearly intake of new Grade 1 and Grade 7 students, school enrolment grew rapidly.

Finding favour with the community, SPMS soon expanded from 49 students across three levels in 2017, to 470 students from Grade 1 to Grade 12 in 2022.

By this time, a suitable alternative permanent home had been identified but not secured due to issues with the land title deed.

School had to be conducted across three locations: Arca Infantil and our home, both situated in Hera, as well as container classrooms on the land of the future site in Metinaro, which is about an hour away from Dili.

Who would have thought that the critical journey to secure a plot of land for the school would receive an unexpected acceleration when devastating flash floods struck Timor-Leste?

On Easter Sunday 2021, at least 42 people lost their lives and more than 9,700 people were temporarily displaced in Timor-Leste in the wake of tropical Cyclone Seroja.

Houses were washed away, precious school resources were destroyed, and a teacher nearly lost her life when the flood waters rose suddenly and almost swept her away.

Amid the crisis, SPMS managed to still provide crucial relief help to students and some affected communities by delivering practical goods such as oil, rice and mattresses and water filters so that they could have clean drinking water.

The best of human nature was on display – a student’s parent even offered his land to build homes for the displaced teachers, so that they would at least have a shelter over their heads.

In God’s wonderful plan, this same family also had connections with the land authority that issues the title deed. They helped to expedite the land title deed approval, which eventually led to the securing of school licensing and the construction certification.

Through this miracle, we saw how God worked all things together for the good of those who love Him as we faithfully followed and obeyed.

Hope: Bringing blessing to the land

We call this three-hectare land that we now have in Metinaro a “Garden of Eden”. Why Eden?

As I studied the Bible, I realised that the growth of SPMS paralleled the four rivers in Eden (Genesis 2:10-14).

Pishon means “increase” in Hebrew. The Lord showed me that from 2017 to 2020, He had increased our enrolment by around 40 students every year. 

Gihon means “bursting forth”. From 2021 to 2023, we saw exponential increase in our enrolment by 140, 160 and 190. From one location, we grew to three. From one school bus, we later had nine. 

Tigris means “rapid”. How fast a rapid flows is determined by the terrain and the water running over it. From 2024 to 2028, how fast the school will move will depend on who comes onboard to help. We are already seeing this happening in the new areas that God is opening up, such as the enterprise of sewing.

Ephrates means to be “fruitful”. From 2029 to 2031, we will get our first fruits. This year, we are sending out our first batch of students to attend teacher’s training in Indonesia on full scholarships. Upon graduation from university, they will return to pass on the spirit and heart of SPMS to the next generation.

Out of Eden flowed these four rivers that brought forth blessing to the land around it. I believe that out of SPMS will flow a generation that can make a difference in society as well.

After seven years and seven months of operating out of various locations, SPMS’ building project for its own premises finally kicked off in 2022. The school will hold an opening ceremony and dedication service on July 7, 2024. Photo by Thirst Collective

SPMS has also brought hope to other Timorese children by making their dreams come true. Manuel was one of them.

His aspiration was to be a pilot, and he is now studying Aeronautical Engineering under a Mission Aviation Fellowship (International) scholarship.

Despite not knowing any English when he joined us in Grade 7, he topped his cohort. Due to his hard work and God-given capacity to learn, we promoted him to Grade 9 and he again topped the cohort.

Through divine partnerships and opening of doors, Manuel also qualified for a place at St Francis Methodist School in Singapore in 2019.

Manuel giving the valedictorian speech at his graduation from St Francis Methodist School. During his three-year stint in Singapore, Manuel was hosted by a family from Aldersgate Methodist Church who provided him with a home away from home.

Amid the challenges brought about by Covid-19 and the many firsts he experienced being away from home, Manuel still managed to build meaningful friendships in school.

He was recognised to be of exemplary character and appointed to be a student leader and councillor. He was also chosen to be the valedictorian of his batch!

Manuel’s journey has not ended, but his testimony reminds us how God is at work in every individual, and how He is bringing hope to the nation of Timor-Leste.

After graduation, Manuel returned to Timor-Leste and taught in SPMS while awaiting enrolment at a university in Australia.

Through Manuel, we see how God has blessed him to be a blessing to future generations in Timor-Leste and across nations.

Love: Leaving a godly legacy

Threads of God’s love for the world can be seen stringing from Singapore to Timor-Leste, and from the Fairfield Methodist Schools to SPMS.

God is birthing something here with the spirit of the Timorese and the knowledge of what God has equipped each of us with.

For those of us serving here, our role is to distil whatever we have learnt in our years of experience and teach it to the children. This is how we will pass on that legacy – where one generation passes on that baton to the next.

Beyond academic knowledge, David desires for students to come to know God through the daily devotions, Christian-based curriculum and weekly Boys’ Brigade and Girls’ Brigade programmes.

In pursuit of leaving a godly legacy for Timor-Leste, we have also begun sending our teachers on learning trips to Singapore schools.

For our first trip in 2023, the teachers who went over learnt about school leadership and management processes, teaching and learning pedagogies, and cultivating a positive discipline school culture.

The trip also exposed the teachers to ideas they could implement in school, such as allocating silent reading time and how books can be organised to encourage easy access.

Through these international learning experiences, we not only share knowledge but also life experiences as we see the parallels in the challenges and victories across cultures!

When Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan visited SPMS in July 2023, he observed that the work of helping the Timorese requires collaborative partnerships.

During his inaugural visit last year, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan announced that Singapore would establish an embassy in Timor-Leste. The Foreign Affairs Minister also met up with Singaporeans serving in the country and encouraged more people to step up and make a difference. Photo source: Facebook

This has certainly been true! SPMS was set up with the love and support of people of God from the different churches and organisations in Singapore. 

Moving forward, our desire is that SPMS will also be a platform that will unite God’s people because we can achieve more as one in the body of Christ. 

For example, we are currently in discussion with different people who have a kingdom mindset, so that we can better prepare our students for tertiary education, whether it is building up national leaders or training them in areas such as hospitality. 

There are already enough secular courses out there, but I believe God is calling SPMS to raise up a generation of Christian workers who hold a biblical worldview so that they can make a difference in the seven gates of influence

St Paul, the school that God will use

Our school is called St Paul because we want our students to emulate the spirit of the Apostle Paul.

Paul was persecuted for Christ’s sake, but yet he said: “Rejoice in the Lord always.” (Philippians 4:4)

So I always tell the students “even when we are faced challenges, we will always persevere”, which is a line from our school song. 

Whoever comes through our gates will have to decide: Will I choose to deny myself, take up the cross and follow Him?

If they truly believe in Christ, the world will not like them. But are they willing to stand firm? 

After six or 12 years of growing and understanding who God is, will they choose to serve God’s purpose in their generation?

The work of God that brings transformation to a nation usually requires a stream of many instances of obedience, both large and small. But where does it begin?

Perhaps with a humble, simple “yes”.

The Chans today: Their three children – Isaac, 23, Joy, 20, and Isaiah, 17 – are also teaching in the school.

In less than a decade…

  • A simple “yes” has led to a school being established in 2016.
  • A simple “yes” has pioneered a class of 21 into a school of almost 800 in 2024.
  • A simple “yes” has led to a divine location for the school in Metinaro.
  • A simple “yes” has brought dreams to life for students like Manuel and the pioneer batch of teachers.
  • A simple “yes” has potentially opened doors for and brought hope to a whole generation of Timorese.

It illustrates a journey of obedience to the call of God at every juncture, the same simple “yes” to every challenge that comes along.

All of us – whatever vocation we have, whatever family God has placed us in or whatever country we live – have a plan and a purpose.

All we have to do is be faithful. Will we do what God has called us to do?

Additional reporting by Rudy David Wong and Cheryl Chen

Interested in missions?

To explore your part in world missions, speak to your local church leaders or drop the Antioch21 team an email at [email protected]. Antioch21 is a missions movement that seeks to raise a missionary force of all generations within the next decade.


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About the author

Gracia Chiang

Gracia used to chase bad news — now she shares Good News. Gracia's different paths in life have led her from diverse newsrooms to Living Room by Salt&Light, but her most difficult and divine calling to date is still parenting.