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Anthony, Jennie and Samara Chee on the final leg of their five-day journey home from Mozambique on April 14, 2020. All photos courtesy of the Chee family.

Do we stay or do we go?

For over three weeks as the coronavirus crisis escalated into a global pandemic, the Chee family grappled with the decision of whether to make their way back home to Singapore, halfway across the world, or to stay in their mission field in Mozambique, at the risk of a global lockdown.

First hints of change

Anthony and Jennie Chee, a missionary couple in their 50s, have lived in a small village in north Mozambique since 1996.

In mid-March, the coronavirus was still of little concern in Africa.

With little internet access in the village – the connection is so bad that communication is limited to WhatsApp texts because anything else that requires more data does not get through – neither Anthony nor Jennie gave the novel coronavirus much thought.

A photo of the village in northern Mozambique where Anthony and Jennie Chee have lived for the past 18 years.

A photo of the village in northern Mozambique where Anthony and Jennie Chee have lived for the past 18 years.

So, when notice came from their younger daughter’s school in Kenya that school would close two weeks early because of the virus, the Chees duly made their way to Kenya to pick up Samara without much regard.

“We had a lot of space, but there was the feeling of being trapped, of not being able to get out if I wanted to.”

Based on the prevailing knowledge at that time, Anthony thought it was similar to the SARS outbreak in 2003 or MERS scare in 2012. “Initially, I didn’t think too much about it,” he explained.

At the airports, early measures were already in place.

Are you from China? No? Okay, go ahead.

Returning to the village, the Chees decided to play it safe. With Samara, they self-quarantined for two weeks. In the slim chance that they had caught COVID-19 whilst travelling, Anthony and Jennie did not want to be responsible for bringing it into their community. They were the only outsiders in the village of about a thousand and social distancing is an “alien” concept to villagers, said the Chees.

Still, not much was known about the virus or its impact and the Chees felt safe in their village which had little contact with outsiders.

Plus, they were just getting back into the rhythm of things after being back in Singapore for a six-month furlough. The area was hard ground, Anthony said. Though they now pastor a small group of believers, it took them more than 10 years before they saw the first believers come to Christ.

Jennie (in pink) speaking to villagers. The couple speak Portuguese which is the national language of this Southern African nation which neighbours South Africa. They only saw their first converts after 10 years in the village.

Jennie (in pink) speaking to villagers. The couple speaks Portuguese which is the national language of Mozambique, a nation that neighbours South Africa. They only saw their first converts after 10 years in the village.

Borders closed

However, by early April, when they came out of self-quarantine, the world looked very different.

Circumstances had changed drastically: Italy was in acute crisis with the death toll climbing well into the thousands. America was seeing a rapid spread of the virus in New York. Singapore had just announced Circuit Breaker measures. African states recorded their first infections and deaths.

“It is easier to face the uncertainties with more of us. But my whole body was trembling when I said, ‘Yes.’”

More importantly, countries started closing their borders worldwide.

With South Africa’s borders closed until April 16, they would no longer be able to take the most direct route back to Singapore through Johannesburg.

To get home would involve a circuitous route through Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, one of the few African states still open.

Jennie started to worry. “We had a lot of space, but there was the feeling of being trapped, of not being able to get out if I wanted to,” she said, her fears amplified by Anthony’s susceptibility to the coronavirus due to his asthma and the lack of support in close proximity.

But Anthony felt that it was wiser to wait. “Our lives are in God’s hands anyway,” he reasoned. “It didn’t make sense to try to rush, to pay so much money for the flights out.”

The Chees gathered often as a family to pray, seek God’s guidance and commit to a shared decision.

While they decided to stay, the waiting was hardest on Jennie, who described both Anthony and Samara as rational and level-headed. She recalled that her feelings about the decision fluctuated, not just daily, but even hourly!

The Chee family: Younger daughter, Samara (second from right), 16, attends a school for missionary children in Kenya while Tanya, who is 19, studies in Singapore.

How would they leave?

Then the border closures were extended. First, Kenya for one month. Then South Africa for another two weeks into early May. 

What would have taken 24 hours door-to-door, would now take them through four countries over five days.

Anthony realised that, should the need arise for them to return to Singapore, it was safer to do so sooner rather than later. Or they risked being stranded in the event of a complete shutdown.

But leaving was not so simple now. 

News of flight cancellations and delays were increasingly common – those at less than 50% capacity were often cancelled.

Could they leave even if they wanted to?

Then the Lord stepped in.

“God has been with us all this time; He is not going to abandon us now.”

Anthony received word from the mission base closest to them: The Brazilian family there were being evacuated by their sending agency. This family, two hours away by flight, was the closest form of support for the Chees who were alone in the northern province of Mozambique, one-and-a-half times the size of Thailand.

The Chees realised that this opportunity to tag along with the Brazilian family to Addis Ababa was the push from God that they had been asking for.

Jennie recounted how terrifying the decision was for her: “It is easier to face the uncertainties with more of us. But it was just my family. My whole body was trembling when I said, ‘Yes.’”

On Sunday, April 12, the decision was made to leave. Tickets were bought on Monday. Tuesday was to be their flight home. Tensions were high. Would flights be cancelled? Would they make it home?

Jennie says that Samara (left) and Anthony are the "logical" ones while she has a "very active imagination". Anthony has asthma puts him at higher risk because it is a respiratory virus.

In Lichinga domestic airport early Tuesday morning to catch their first of four flights. Jennie says that Samara (left) and Anthony are the “logical” ones while she has a “very active imagination”. Anthony has asthma, which puts him at higher risk for the effects of COVID-19.

Afraid to trust

By Monday night, their bags were packed. Another comfort from God: In the short two days between deciding to return home and actually leaving, Anthony and Jennie managed to fully place the small church they had started into the care of three local elders.

“I was so afraid to trust, but yet, God loves me in spite of my doubts and my fears.”

They were all set to return.

The trio started their long trek home on April 14. Under normal circumstances, what would have taken 24 hours door-to-door, would now take them through four countries over five days.

First, two domestic flights, three days apart, to get to Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. Then the flight to Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia, with the Brazilians. Then on to Heathrow airport in London, before their final long-haul flight home on Singapore Airlines.

While airports were eerily empty, the trip back was surprisingly and unexpectedly smooth, which was a huge encouragement to her, Jennie said.

“I was so afraid to trust, but yet, He showered all that favour on us. It’s like, wow! God loves me in spite of my doubts and my fears.”

Most of the flights were less than half full which Anthony noted was a miracle in itself. They might easily have been cancelled.

The flights home were "non-eventful" and most were at less than 50% capacity which usually results in cancelled flights.

On the third flight from Addis Ababa to London. The flights home were “non-eventful” and most were at less than 50% capacity which usually results in cancelled flights.

I am your God

Back in Singapore, the Chees were quarantined at Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa where they processed this recent upheaval.

Checking in at Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa hotel when they arrived in Singapore.

Checking in at Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa hotel when they arrived in Singapore.

Jennie shared: “I asked myself, why was I so afraid? Was it much ado about nothing? But it was very real when I was there.”

Speaking from the lush hotel room in Sentosa, Jennie commented on the effect that circumstances can have on feelings and perspective. “When you’re in the situation and when you’re outside looking in, it’s different. I came to the conclusion that God was leaving the decision to me, but whichever I chose, I had to trust Him. 

“Each one has to decide for themselves what their response should be. Decide that before God and be at peace,” she concluded. 

“It can be difficult. But the promise we can claim is that God’s plan is good for everyone who loves Him. (Romans 8:28)”

One major challenge was receiving different input from different people amidst the changing situation. “And they had valid reasons!” Anthony quickly pointed out. But early on, God reminded him that his trust was to be in God Himself, and not in his co-workers nor the opinions of others.

“God told me, ‘I am your God.’ That was very reassuring. He’s been with us all this time. He is not going to abandon us now.

“To me, this episode has been just another affirmation for trusting in God and walking with Him,” said Anthony. “It’s given me more confidence to obey God in the next thing He asks me to do.

“We’ve been missionaries for almost 20 years. But God loves us and still wants us to get to know Him more and more each day.”

 

By divine appointment: “Godincidences” kept this missionary walking the road

 

The post-COVID-19 landscape for missions

 

About the author

Tan Huey Ying

Salt&Light writer Huey Ying is a millennial with a résumé to prove it – she was a plankton-sized part of the finance industry before serving in a Christian organisation. She loves the sea and you will find her somewhere near the water during her holidays.