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“There is a drug that poisons the body but there is a more insidious drug that poisons the spirit,” says ex-offender Ivan Lim (right, with Joseph Lai). “The only cure for this poison is Jesus Christ and His blood." All photos courtesy of Ivan Lim.

“I’ve always loved you. I’ve never given up on you, but you gave up on me.”

When Ivan heard that, he came undone, the toxicity of anger, hurt, bitterness, and frustration built up in his life gushing out in a torrent of tears and snot. The hardened junkie, incarcerated multiple times for drug peddling and abuse, cried like a baby that night in his prison cell.

It turned out to be a watershed – a new Ivan was rising from the ashes of his grief.

Hooked on heroin

Ivan Lim, now 57, is familiar with imprisonment and desperate attempts to break free, not from the physical cell, but from the physical and mental vice of drug addiction.

For 18 years of his life, Ivan was in and out of prison six times, each sentence longer than the previous, directly proportionate to his growing dependence on drugs and increasing desperation to secure them.

He joined a secret society at 15 and started on glue-sniffing and marijuana. At an age when the biggest source of stress in most teenagers’ lives was managing the looming ‘O’ levels examinations, Ivan was busy securing the next hit. Instead of graduating to higher education, he graduated to heroin.

He became so enamoured with the euphoria from heroin he progressed from using to selling to support his expensive habit.

Instead of graduating to higher education, he graduated to heroin.

For his 18th birthday, Ivan was slapped with one week of jail time for peddling heroin. Over the next 19 years, Ivan would go through the prison doors another five times, held captive by the lure of drugs. The dysphoria from the inevitable crash and incarceration was never enough to dislodge drugs from his life.

Ivan always ran back for more, often immediately after release.

“I never thought of quitting. I was doing drugs the whole time I was in prison,” Ivan recounts. 

His mother cried at each arrest, and upon each release.

“She was overwhelmed with sorrow when I went in and overwhelmed with fear when I came out,” Ivan sighs. The weight of his mother’s grief eventually crushed Ivan’s wilfulness and he resolved to quit.

“I really wanted to change for my mother’s sake,” Ivan says.

After the honeymoon

Through meditation and willpower, Ivan succeeded in cutting himself loose from drugs. For a year.

He cleaned himself up and got a proper job working at his mother’s beancurd factory.

Taking the St James Church prison ministry staff for a visit to The Helping Hand.

At that time, Ivan thought having a family to love and care for would also help displace his longing for and dependence on drugs. He got himself a girlfriend, and they decided to get married and start a family. In the run-up to his wedding day, he received a red packet of blessing filled with heroin instead of money.

All Ivan wanted to do at his honeymoon was to end it and return to the jealous embrace of the drug.

Ivan did not think twice. Unwisely sanguine about his ability to cut himself loose from drugs anytime, Ivan took on the eve of his wedding day what he thought would be his last hit. That hit proved fatal, dragging Ivan back into the merciless claws of heroin.

The heroin so captivated him all over again that all Ivan wanted to do at his honeymoon was to end it and return to the jealous embrace of the drug. When his young wife found out about his addiction shortly into their marriage, she threatened to take her life.

They had just had a daughter a few months prior. Ivan promised to stop and put in a good faith but futile effort for a few weeks. He even went to a doctor, who could not prescribe a cure. He started selling drugs again to support his addiction. His wife despaired of him ever changing and took off with their daughter.

The loss of his wife and daughter drove Ivan to desperation and to halfway house The Helping Hand, close to where he lived.  So determined was he that he did not care that he was seeking help at a Christian halfway house when he was of another religion.

“I figured I could benefit from what they could do for me. I had no intention of turning to Jesus Christ,” Ivan confesses. 

Livid with God

However, a few weeks after he was admitted into The Helping Hand, he had a change of heart after hearing a hymn about confiding in God.

That hymn touched the depths of his soul, and he decided to turn over his life to Jesus. He started to experience joy for the first time in his life – genuine joy, not the high from any drugs, or sex, or even love. His wife saw the marked improvement in him and opened herself up to a new relationship with him.

Amid a promising upturn, however, his life crashed again.

He started to experience joy for the first time in his life – genuine joy, not the high from any drugs, or sex, or even love.

On one of his visits to his wife at home, Ivan caught her with another man. Blinded by red-hot rage, Ivan lunged for the cleaver to attack his wife’s lover, but he could not move.

“I was livid with God for holding me to the spot like that,” Ivan says. But a gentle voice in his heart took over and reminded him of his little girl. Instead of attacking the man, Ivan very calmly told him to leave. He found room in his heart to forgive the man and his wife, who eventually left him anyway for her lover.

Just two years after Ivan broke away from the painful grip of heroin, he was trapped again.

His church mates tried to help him, each time taking him to various halfway houses, but Ivan was incapable of escaping drugs despite his fierce determination and best efforts. He was arrested for the sixth time for drug possession and consumption.

On his month out on bail, Ivan did any type of drugs he could get his hands on every day. It was to be his last hurrah; he was in a drug-induced stupor every day. Three days before he went to jail, his wife filed for a divorce.

His life was over.

Sobbing over a Bible

When Ivan was thrown into prison that final time, he suffered severe withdrawal symptoms.

During yard time, the one hour that inmates were allowed to roam freely in the yard, a friend saw him huddled in pain, having the shakes, tears rolling down his eyes, snot dribbling from his nostrils. Instead of drugs that gang members would typically supply to ease the agony of withdrawal, that friend gave him a Bible.

Ivan and his ministry team praying in a prison in Tanjong Pagar before church service started.

It would prove to be the ultimate panacea for his addiction. But at that point, Ivan tossed it aside, drawing no relationship between the Bible and his suffering.

Ivan started to recover after two weeks from the effects of withdrawals, but insomnia plagued him. He always felt the Bible calling out to him during those sleepless nights but he never responded. In the still of one dark night, as Ivan was blaming everyone else, especially God, for his sorry state, he heard a voice.

That night, he picked up the Bible for the first time, clung to it for dear life, and sobbed like a child.

“I have never left you, nor forsaken you. I have loved you with an everlasting love. I have never given up on you. You gave up on me.”  

That voice unravelled Ivan, throwing him into complete disarray. That night, he picked up the Bible for the first time, clung to it for dear life, and sobbed like a child.

That night, the drug addict gave up on all his own efforts, all of his futile attempts to change, and got real.

“Jesus, if you are real, don’t let me slip and fall again. I have no confidence; please give me confidence.”

His life was again over. Ivan was about to embark on a new life.

No wasted day in jail

Every day following that night, Ivan started reading the Bible and praying in his cell. His mind started to change, then his behaviour.

Ivan stopped watching TV or reading magazines, turning to spiritual books and studying the Bible three times a week with his mentor Joseph Lim. He played basketball during yard time instead of smoking with the inmates. He started attending chapel services in the prison, and progressed from attending to organising and coordinating those services.

He jumped in deep.

“I did not want to waste a single day in jail,” he proclaims.

When he found hope in the Bible, Ivan began praying for fellow inmates, checking in with them about their families and praying for the families as well.

He started to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ, telling anyone who would listen.

His speech turned from negative to positive, and he dropped all profanities from his lips. He was watchful of his fellow inmates, checking in with them about their families and praying for them.

There was an inmate whose sister gave birth to a premature baby at five months; the child was barely surviving. Ivan prayed with him and the baby lived. That inmate turned to Christ.

The members of the gang to which he used to belong opposed his conversion to Christianity as it meant a loss of one member and one resource. They tried to keep him by offering extra protection, extra care, extra supplies to him but Ivan declined them all.

He also refused to pass supplies to inmates from other clusters at chapel time, the only time different clusters were allowed to mingle.

Released into a new life

As Ivan’s relationship with Jesus strengthened, his relationship with his ex-gang members soured. The opposition did nothing to deter Ivan; he decided to stop the talk and walk the walk instead.

They left him alone, convinced his uncharacteristic behaviour would not last.

They were wrong.

Several inmates, including ex-gang members, sought alone time with Ivan. They longed to know the secret of his transformation.

One of the inmates he preached was Timothy Koh, a 17-year-old gang leader in jail at the same time. Timothy listened out of politeness for the first couple of times but got irate with Ivan eventually.

“I could not stand him! He would not stop talking about that ‘foreign god’. I eventually told him we’d no longer be friends if he insisted on continuing,” Timothy recalls. But Ivan did not stop.

Timothy had an awakening and turned to Jesus six months before he was released from jail. Ivan moved the teenager to his cell and started studying the Bible with him for three hours each day.

Today, Timothy, is one of Ivan’s partners in ministry to ex-convicts.

After serving three-and-a-half of his five-year sentence, Ivan was released in January 2001 for good behaviour.

Two weeks before his release from jail, several of his inmates, including ex-gang members, sought alone time with Ivan. They longed to know the secret of his transformation.

“Many are inspired to change, but few have the courage to turn away from family, known community and a way of life that is familiar,” Ivan laments.

Taking part in the 10km Unlabelled Run 2018.

It was during those final weeks in prison that Ivan heard the call from God to return to serve the inmates: “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back. Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20).

He determined to come back in three to five years. After three-and-half years, right on time, his mentor Joseph Lim asked him to return. He picked up Joseph’s mantle and started to counsel the inmates.

Spreading hope at halfway houses

Upon his release, Ivan headed straight to Breakthrough Missions, a halfway house, in keeping with his promise to God that he would turn his life over to the God who had saved him.

For the next five years, Ivan went from halfway house to halfway house to serve, despite his struggle with chronic and severe hepatitis C that resulted from years of drug and alcohol abuse to his body.

He was even more committed to surrender his life to God as God provided financially and physically for the treatment of the hepatitis C. At the tail end of that season in his life, Ivan met his wife, Corinne Lee, through a co-worker in Sion Halfway House.

Ivan met his wife, Corinne Lee, through a co-worker in Sion Halfway House. She would go on to be his ministry partner as well at House of Anatole.

Corinne did not just become Ivan’s life partner but also his ministry partner.

In a bid to upgrade himself to better help others, Ivan signed up for disciple training school Operations Dawn in Taiwan, established by an ex-offender to serve ex-offenders.

He spent three years equipping himself with knowledge of the prison and drug culture, and skills to minister specifically to this group of people.

Ivan yearned to set up a halfway house to cater to the many he saw who were in desperate need of handholding and help. It would be more than 11 years before he was able to realise the dream, but he patiently nurtured the dream, praying for God to bring all needed things together in His time.

“Ivan reminds me of Abraham [in the Bible], who waited so many years for a child that was promised to him, only to have God tell him to lay the child and the vision down,” St James Church vicar Pastor Chua Siang Guan, 59, says. 

Ivan’s ministry to ex-offenders is often fraught with verbal abuse and mental anguish. Many of the struggling ex-offenders would accuse him of things he did not do; he would have to make the rounds at halfway houses pleading with them to take in some of these addicts whom he could not bear to leave out in the streets.

Ivan would drop everything at any time to help these men, testified his friends and his wife. He dealt with the mental anguish and crushing heartbreak of losing many who saw no way out and ended up surrendering themselves to drugs, despair and death. And yet, he pushed on.

House of Anatole

By 2020, God had revived his dream of setting up a halfway house. On the way back from a short-term mission trip to Taiwan in 2019, Pastor Siang Guan asked Ivan if he’d ever considered establishing a halfway house.

A few months after that encounter with his vicar in January 2020, Ivan decided to go by faith and to start establishing the house with one person, trusting the rest would follow. Pastor Siang Guan would become one of the board members for the halfway house.

Ivan’s ministry, House of Anatole (“sunrise” in Greek) was set up to bring the light of Jesus to those living in the dark shadows of drug and substance abuse.

Ivan called Timothy, who, to his surprise, agreed to join him. Timothy was running a very lucrative logistics business by then but, unknown to Ivan, Timothy had gotten a word from God to move in that direction.

God had also brought Jason Teo, 52, another ex-offender, into Ivan’s life. Jason was to become Ivan’s successor for the prison fellowship ministry in St James Church, and one of the assurances to Ivan that God had released him from the St James prison ministry.

Jason had ended up in St James when he was released from prison seven years ago, connected to Ivan by a minister from the prison fellowship.

With Singapore mission team members in Tainan’s Mingde Prison. Ivan led a team there from 2011-2019 to conduct an annual Alpha course.

The onset of a global pandemic in March 2020 put a screeching halt to their plans, but by the end of 2020, Ivan was ready to present the proposal to his church family at St James. It was to be called House of Anatole, Greek for sunrise, because it would bring the light of Jesus to those living in the dark shadows of drug and substance abuse.

Ivan and his team finally realised the dream that Ivan had been nursing for 11 years. His wife Corinne, 50, also left the corporate life and joined Ivan in the ministry. On February 1, House of Anatole found a home. The house took in its first resident on February 21, 2022.

Ivan (left) leading worship with Jason Teo during a mission trip to Dabo Singkep in Indonesia.

“This will provide a place for those needing a second chance for a new life,” Ivan says. “Only when one is born again into a new life will they have a new (physical) life. Only then will they be able to conquer the chains of addiction and put off their old man.

“There is a drug that poisons the body but there is a more insidious drug that poisons the spirit,” Ivan says. “The only cure for this poison is Jesus Christ and His blood, and the only chance for a new life in His resurrection.”

Ivan should know.

What determination and sheer willpower could not do, the love of God and the power of the Gospel did in one clean cut.

Ivan is finally a free man.


For more information on and to support House of Anatole, please visit https://www.houseofanatole.sg/


IF YOU LIKED THIS, READ:

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“If You can change water into wine, please turn the urine test from positive to negative”: A drug addict’s desperate prayer

“Do you know this is a forsaken place?”: How Pastor Caleb’s heart broke for the drug addicts, ex-offenders and mentally ill in Chinatown

About the author

Peck Sim

Peck Sim is a product manager in an MNC providing information and consultancy services. She loves stories, corny jokes, short runs and long walks. The world is her oyster but Heaven is her home.

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