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In his latest book, Encountering Covid, Embracing Covenant, Engaging Community, Dr Tan shares stories from his encounters with friends and strangers who have unexpected things to teach us about humanity during the time of Covid-19. Photo by Ang Wei Ming.

What can we learn from a delivery man in a wheelchair, a teenager with cerebral palsy, a migrant worker poet, and an old man with a rickety shopping cart overflowing with hoarded junk? Plenty, says Dr Tan Lai Yong.

In his latest book, Encountering Covid, Embracing Covenant, Engaging Community, the well-known author, educator and medical doctor shares stories from his encounters with friends and strangers who have unexpected things to teach us about humanity during the time of Covid-19.

Encountering Covid, Embracing Covenant, Engaging Community is an encouragement to “hold fast to what is good” in the most challenging of times. Photo by Tan Huey Ying.

The wisdom revealed in simple things and every day encounters is a reminder to believers of God’s covenant and an encouragement to us all to “hold fast to what is good” in a tumultuous time.

Salt&Light sat down with Dr Tan and senior counsel Lok Vi Ming, chairman of the Council of Elders at Bethesda Bedok-Tampines Church who wrote the foreword of the book, to find out more.

How do you see Covenant and Community tying into Covid?

TLY: Covid, it struck us like a storm. 

“When we embrace God’s Covenant, God always directs us back to the community.”

I was in Oman in early January. Landed at the airport – safe distancing, sanitisers – and it threatened to divide us.

God’s Covenant is uniting us eternally. Always bringing us together. And when we embrace God’s Covenant again, it brings us out of the lethargy and the busyness. Thinking that we can get by on our own strength. And now we can’t. Not with Covid.

When we embrace God’s Covenant, God always directs us back to the community to receive help, to share, to exercise compassion and to find hope. 

What does this concept of “missions in our backyard” mean to you?

TLY: It describes a reality which should not have happened. The migrant workers, the foreign students, the new immigrants, they never, never should have been in our backyard as far as the church is concerned. They were always in the front yard. 

Our churches have, over the years, grown. But yet we have grown homogeneously. 

If there are high numbers of foreigners in our land, then why are there not high numbers of foreigners in our churches? So Covid has awakened us to this stark reality.

We can’t do much about it unless we rediscover God’s love and God’s love propels us, gives us the mandate, to move afresh alongside these communities. 

Yes, it is now missions in the backyard. But it is the front yard. 

I’m sure you have a good story about this. 

TLY: Recently we started planting trees in the new dormitories. We all know that, during Covid, because of the clustering and congestion, migrant workers bore the brunt of the infection. And so the Government, rightly so, built new dorms. 

“If there are high numbers of foreigners in our land, then why are there not high numbers of foreigners in our churches?”

Singapore is a garden city, we have trees everywhere. When we visited the dorms, we found that there were less trees. And so we said: Since the workers beautified our condos, our hospitals and our schools, why don’t we plant trees with them?

So, of course we don’t know how to plant trees. And when we entered into their dorms, there were not enough trees, so we planted trees under their guidance. And our volunteers found that the migrant workers were experts: They were detailed, they were craftsmen, they were careful. 

As we left, we asked one of the workers: Where did you learn tree planting?

And he very humbly said: “Well, I have a Bachelor’s degree in Botany.”

And we knew what city he was from. His city has millions of people. For him to get into university, he’s smart. He just didn’t have the economic opportunities to continue his studies. So he came here as a gardener, a grass cutter, landscaper worker. It humbles us. 

And these are the people we should be engaging. 

Behind the scenes at the video interview by Salt&Light editor, Edric Sng (left), with Dr Tan (centre) and Lok Vi Ming (right) on the link between God’s covenant and our community. Photo by Jewel Yu.

Where is the Covenant in this?

TLY: The Covenant is because God created each one of us. The Covenant is: Whichever land or region we come from, Christ died for all. That is the Covenant. 

LVM: Just to pick up on the point that Lai Yong has shared about tree planting, the Government has said that they will plant a million trees over the next 10 years. That’s 100,000 trees over per year, that’s 9,000 trees per month, that’s 300 trees per day to be planted. Who’s going to plant all these trees? Our friends from the migrant communities. 

So their contribution to our society is very, very palpable. But we actually cannot have a sense of their labour, and their sacrifices. It’s just invisible to us. So hopefully I think in this course of handling the pandemic last year, we have an idea of the contributions that the community makes to us, and the sacrifices that they had to make.


Check back next weekend for Part 2 of Salt&Light’s interview with Dr Tan Lai Yong: Honey for the wound and the wounded.

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Salt&Light

Salt&Light is an independent, non-profit Christian news and devotional website with a passion for kingdom unity, and a vision of inspiring faith to arise in the marketplace.

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