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Richard Chan found himself homeless and alone after being separated from his wife of 25 years. He ended up in a Christian halfway house and restarted his journey from there. Photo by Rachel Phua.

This is Richard Chan’s story as told to Rachel Phua:

By the time I voluntarily checked myself into The Hiding Place in June 2010, I had absolutely nothing. No money, family, home or job. I wasn’t even in decent health.

I was in the midst of a divorce then. A year earlier, my wife of 25 years told me that she was planning to leave me for another man she had been seeing. During the divorce proceedings, I felt as if I couldn’t continue with my Christian walk any longer. I didn’t understand why God would allow this to happen.

Imagine a drill piercing behind your eyeball – that’s how each throb felt like.

To add insult to injury, I lost physical custody of my two daughters, whom I was very close to. Based on the joint custody agreement, I could visit them only on Sundays. I think it was mainly due to my financial circumstances. I wasn’t earning much due to my illness, and my ex-wife was the primary breadwinner.

I’ve had migraine attacks since I was 15. They got more intense after I turned 30, debilitating headaches so severe they would cause nausea and blackouts. Imagine a drill piercing behind your eyeball – that’s how each throb felt like. Sometimes, I would curl up like a prawn in the back of the car when my friends drove me home after church service.

There wasn’t any cure for my chronic condition, which showed up four times a week on average. Nor could the doctors explain the cause, so all I could do was to take medication and injections to minimise the pain. Going for miracle rally after miracle rally just made me more frustrated and guilty. Over time, some pastors would attribute my infirmity to sin.

Richard from an earlier time before his divorce and stay at The Hiding Place. Photo courtesy of Richard Chan.

Because I couldn’t exercise, I ended up pale, overweight and weak. At 30, I quit my job as a forex trader –the long hours having exacerbated the aches – and became an insurance agent instead. Even then, I couldn’t work much and I couldn’t give much quality time to my ex-wife either.

The divorce left me penniless. When we liquidated the flat, most of the proceeds went to my ex-wife, as she  paid for the majority of the purchase, while I contributed mostly to the renovations. Whatever money I had left was for child support.

Desperate for Him

While preparing for the divorce, I reached out to some friends for advice. My siblings wouldn’t take me in and I was feeling so lost and upset that reaching out to the social services didn’t cross my mind.

Would I still love God even if He took away everything?

One of them, knowing I would be homeless soon, suggested I consider staying at The Hiding Place, which was primarily known as a halfway house. So I packed my one bag of barang (Malay for belongings) and left for the home a week later as the separation was about to be finalised.

God allowed me to hit rock bottom and stripped me of any remnant of self-esteem. I was in tremendous agony every night, as I lay on my bed sobbing over all that had vanished so suddenly. If there is a silver lining to my situation, it would be that the other residents began to accept me because they saw how distressed I was. 

Richard with his older daughter, Nicole, 24, whom he’s remained close to. Photo courtesy of Richard Chan.

Why did I continue clinging to the Lord? I had given my life to him when I was 15, and it wasn’t a trivial decision. If Christ said that He died for us so that we have the freedom to live (Romans 8:2-3; Galatians 5:1), then there must be a life-giving element in the Gospel. I still knew that God was the only salvation and hope we had, despite my ordeal.

My faith came alive living at The Hiding Place. Would I still love God even if He took away everything? He needed me to wrestle with that question. He needed me to be desperate for Him.

One day, during worship, God told me to throw away my migraine medication. I thought it was absolutely crazy but I obeyed anyway. I passed my pills to Pastor Philip. The next day, my migraine disappeared, and has since.

Richard sometimes goes back to The Hiding Place to share his testimony with the residents. Photo courtesy of Richard Chan.

Next, the Lord told me to go and run. The Hiding Place was at Jalan Kayu then, and there was an open area the size of two football fields – roughly a 600-metre circumference in total – behind it. Again, I told Him this was impossible.

On the first day, I could only run one round. But I continued because I would also use the time to pray, especially for my two daughters. “Would you tell Nicole this? Would you tell Charmaine that?” – we couldn’t use mobile phones then, so I asked God to convey my thoughts to them instead. At first, some of the men laughed at me but, gradually, some of them joined me as well.

Since picking up running, Chan has completed 12 marathons so far. He was inspired after spotting a man wearing a 42-km marathon ‘finisher’ t-shirt. Photo courtesy of Richard Chan.

Once, I spotted someone wearing a 42-km marathon ‘finisher’ t-shirt. It ignited a dream inside of me. I wanted to race too, because life is like a marathon. I ran my first full marathon in 2013, two years after I left The Hiding Place. I’ve clocked 12 so far.

God showed me that my suffering was for the sake of others too. At The Hiding Place, there was another resident who said that his wife would file for a divorce unless he could serenade her with two worship songs. I had two weeks to teach him how to play the guitar. In the end, they stayed together.

Finding purpose

After leaving The Hiding Place in June 2011, I moved to a dormitory in Little India. On New Year’s Eve, instead of attending a watchnight service, I went up to the rooftop to commune with God. My bunk mate, whom I had become pretty chummy with, came up soon after.

Suddenly, I felt prompted to ask if he wanted to receive Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour. He responded: “I’ve been waiting for someone to tell me how to have a relationship with your God.” This was a guy who told me on Day One not to preach to him because of his religious background.

Our purpose as followers of Christ is to empty ourselves so that God can use us to serve others.

Later, I asked him why he wanted to become a Christian. His answer was simple: “In the past few months that we lived together, you shared your packet of chicken rice with me when I was hungry but had no money.” When he needed to remit money to his family overseas, I was the one who gave him cash.

Adjusting to life after the divorce has been slow but steady. From living in a workers’ dormitory, I moved into a small bedroom, and now I’m renting a master bedroom with an ensuite bathroom. This is a small but encouraging sign of progress. I’m still trying to rebuild my relationship with my younger daughter but I’ve remained close to the older one.

In January 2015, I joined Chen Su Lan Methodist Home as a residential care officer and, later, partnership associate. Besides having the opportunity to care for children who come from dysfunctional families, I got to know one particular parent just before I resigned in March 2018. Alfred was only 37 and was suffering from colon cancer. He had two young daughters at the home. 

Richard spent time with Alfred, a former interior designer, before he died in January this year. Photo courtesy of Richard Chan.

Alfred was estranged from his wife and because all his money went to his medical expenses, he ended up living inside his lorry. He would park it behind my block and in the evenings, we would spend time together at the coffee shop talking. In his last three months, he checked himself into a hospice. Because I had already left my job at the home, I could spend most of my time with him. And because I knew how sickness ravaged the body, I could empathise with the pain he felt.

My faith was a very clinical one before I was thrown into this cement mixer.

Presently, at 62, I’m embarking on a new project, helping Immanuel Community Church set up their social arm, Immanuel Cares Centre. The church pastor, Ps Nehemiah Koa, has become a dear friend and mentor, ever since I sought him for counsel during my divorce.

I call him an angel, because I saw our Father through him. When I was too miserable to leave the house during my divorce, he brought provisions during his visits. One Chinese New Year, he came to see me on the first day of the festivities. And most touching of all, he sometimes wept (John 11:35) when I spoke.

My faith was a very clinical one before I was thrown into this cement mixer. It was all about activities and programmes. But gradually, through these encounters with other men, I came to understand that our purpose as followers of Christ is to empty ourselves so that God can use us to serve others (Philippians 2:3, 6-8, 13). I can have compassion towards them because God revealed Himself in my rawest moments. Truly, what the enemy meant for evil God meant for good (Genesis 50:20).

Faith and love overcome decades of addiction

About the author

Rachel Phua

Rachel Phua contributes to Salt&Light, where she was formerly a full-time writer. Her stories have also been carried by several US publications, including the Dallas Morning News, the Austin American-Statesman, and the Austin Business Journal.