Following God’s voice from Singapore to the Congo

This National Day Week, Salt&Light brings you stories of extraordinary faith among Singaporeans both at home and abroad.

by Tan Huey Ying // August 9, 2018, 1:02 pm

Jem with Village Children Congo

In just a few months, God enabled Singaporean missionary to Africa, Jemima Ooi, and local leaders, to triple the number of people they were feeding as they weathered the effects of COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Jemima Ooi.

It was almost time for dinner. Missionary Jemima Ooi and her friend were preparing their meal in the small, basic kitchen.

Her friend cracked open an egg … and began to cry.

“What is it?” 

“The egg … the yolk is white, Jem,” she bawled. “Even the chickens are malnourished.” 

Severe malnutrition is a common result of the extreme poverty that Ooi faces in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

It is a ravaged land: Civil war, political instability, financial crises, extreme poverty and widespread pestilence. It is a place where, as parents, care could mean dragging your barefoot children through fields as you run for your life. Or, as a ten-year-old child, you have to learn how to kill and continue killing in order to stay alive. 

Ooi works primarily in the Congo with Justice Rising, an enterprise that builds schools in war-torn areas in order to save children from being kidnapped for rebel armies or used as child slaves.

These are the people whom Ooi, 30, is called to, a call issued by God that has brought her into contact with the intense and acute suffering of the world.

The full-time missionary has encountered more suffering than most Singaporeans can even fathom.

The God who calls

Os Guinness, author and apologist, has written extensively on the topic of calling.

He clarifies the oft-misunderstood word: “We are not called to special work but to God. The key to answering the call is to be devoted to … God Himself.”

“We are not called to special work but to God.”

Ooi was brought up by parents who knew God. She knew Him too, but it was only in university where that knowledge became intimate and personal. Each night, as Ooi walked and talked with God, she experienced the joy of deep communion.

After graduating in 2010, Ooi followed God’s leading to Youth With A Mission (YWAM) for training.

It was only at missionary school that God showed her who He was sending her to.

Is that really you, Lord?

Ooi remembers the exact moment God spoke to her when she was reading the book, Is That Really You, God? by Loren Cunningham.

Cunningham talked about the different mission fields which the Holy Spirit led him to in amazing and inconceivable ways, so much so that he would ask: “Lord, is that really You?”

Towards the end of the book, when Ooi reached a half-page mention of a refugee camp in Hong Kong in the 1980s, something strange happened: “I just wept.

“I sobbed for two hours straight. It did not make any sense to me at all. My spirit felt something deep within me, and I had to let it out.

“Then I heard God speak so clearly, ‘This is what I’m calling you to. I’m calling you to refugees because they are the one of the most broken in My eyes. Restore their value. I will give you a prototype to make refugee camps viable to their host communities, to take away the scourge and the shame that is upon them.’”

In 2018, the UN estimated that Sub-Saharan Africa hosts more than 26 percent of the world’s refugee population. Here, Ooi is pictured with refugees in Kenya.

The call to minister to refugees had been given. But God was not done yet. “He asked me, ‘When was the last time you cried like this?’”

“I go to sleep to the sound of gunshots and wake up to the sounds of children playing in the streets.”

Ooi recalled only one other instance: “I was 18 and that day, I was reading the newspaper and saw a one-page review on refugee camps around the world.”

Then God reminded Ooi of the first time she had an open vision. She was 14 and alone on the top deck of a double decker bus. With her eyes open, Ooi saw a vision of herself: Older, walking on red clay soil amongst tattered tents.

More memories came, confirmation following confirmation.

“I love the way God speaks,” says Ooi. “It’s like He pulls out this metal filing cabinet and flags out all these other times where He was speaking but I never realised.”

Facing danger

It is one thing to know the Caller and His call for you. Daring to obey that call is a different matter altogether.

The Congolese town that Ooi lives in is next to Mt Nyiragongo, one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes. With the volcano constantly at its highest alert level, Ooi has wondered how the locals would know when to evacuate the area.

“I asked the locals, and they laughed. They told me, ‘When the animals leave and don’t return, then we know we have two weeks to leave.”

Mt Nyiragongo’s 2002 eruption killed 147 people and forced 400,000 people to flee the nearby city of Goma.

There are many other dangers: Threats of rape and kidnapping, pestilences such as malaria, typhoid and even ebola, human-hazards like fires in the slum areas and raids by rebel armies. Congo is an active war zone.

Ooi says: “Sometimes I go to sleep to the sound of gunshots and yelling, but I wake up to the sounds of children playing in the streets.”

“I could leave anytime I wanted. I wouldn’t have to return. But they can’t.”

His comforting embrace

In the ongoing civil war, Ooi has been caught in raids. 

After a morning meeting at a school, Ooi, her pastor, and his wife were driving back to the village. 

As they got nearer, she saw a mass exodus of panicked villagers. Congolese mamas half dragged barefoot children who could barely keep up; papas armed with sticks hurried others along the bumpy path.

The village had been raided by rebels, and they were in pursuit of the villagers, kidnapping those whom they could catch.

The driver reversed wildly and hid their car in thick undergrowth. “It was one of those days where I wondered if it would be the last day of my life.”

Ooi and her family are painfully aware that every goodbye could very well be their last.

Soberly Ooi acknowledged: “There are many such days in the Congo.”

She and her family are painfully aware that every goodbye they say to each other in Singapore could very well be their last.

Thankfully, government soldiers got to the scene and after a brief skirmish, the rebels fled.

“Inside the car, my pastor told me to stay down. Just in case the rebels were nearby and decided to shoot at us. You could see the horror on the faces of the villagers running to safety.”

But she realised that this was not her reality. “I could leave this scene anytime I wanted to, and I wouldn’t have to return. But they can’t.”

The appalling reality of what the Congolese faced was difficult to bear.

Amazed at the resilience and the faith that the Congolese have in God despite their suffering, Ooi says: “I finally understand what God meantswhen He says that the last will be first. Because they are the heroes in God’s eyes.”

Says Ooi, who has been trained in trauma counselling: “Many missionaries, even myself, we can only weep for all the suffering that we see. But God’s comfort, His presence and His embrace; they just become everything in those moments.”

Where were You, Jesus?

Back in the village after the rebel raid, Ooi faced her next assignment: She was to preach to the whole village on the topic ‘God is good’.

Ooi is a brilliant communicator, eloquent and engaging. But how could she preach of a good God under such circumstances?

Ooi works closely with local pastors and villagers. Travelling between villages often means using any form of motorised transport available. A jeep from Justice Rising is pictured next to a tattered flag of the Congo.

“We see this happening all the time. When we come to the absolute end of ourselves and we say, ‘God, if Your presence isn’t with us, if You don’t demonstrate Your love for these people, then we are nothing. We’re just clanging gongs.”

God told Ooi to take her listeners into an encounter with Him.

“I spoke about the two storms that Jesus and His disciples encountered. In one storm, Jesus calmed it (Mark 4:37-41). In the other, He didn’t. Instead, He appeared to His disciples saying: ‘Take courage, it is I’ (Mark 6:47-52).”

“God’s comfort, His presence and His embrace; they just become everything in those moments.”

Ooi understood that the villagers’ biggest impediment to understanding the goodness of God was all the horror they had seen. So she said to the villagers, in relation to a painful memory they held: “Ask God one question, Where were You, Jesus?”

A middle-aged man stood up and said in Swahili: “A few months ago, there was a very bad raid. I took my family and we ran for our lives.”

Everyone in the room looked down; they all knew the incident he was referring to.

“I held my children’s hands and we ran to a United Nations camp. We hoped they could protect us. But when we got there, it was deserted.

A photo of latrines commonly found in refugee camps and bases across Africa. Each pit lasts for between 2 to 5 months before it is covered and a new one is dug.

“We lost all hope. I thought God was sleeping or He didn’t care about us. But then I saw Him while I held my children’s hands as we ran; Jesus was holding my hand.

“I didn’t know what to do, so I began to lower my children into latrine pits to hide. I heard a voice saying, ‘Don’t move’. Because we stayed, we weren’t killed.

“He was with us. Jesus was there.” He turned to the whole village and added: “God never leaves us. He is good!”

The Presence-driven life

Ooi, a missionary, knows that the Good News she brings is not just a “feel-good” message.

There is power in the name of Jesus.

“You can see God’s heart for His people; they are desperate. I can tell you all these crazy miracles. The deaf hear, the mute talk, blind eyes open; I have seen those things. Some of the pastors we work with have raised people from the dead; it’s not unusual over there.”

“I don’t believe so much in the purpose-driven life, as much as I do the Presence-driven life.”

After entire days of encountering the suffering of others and witnessing the power of God at work, Ooi knows that it is the abiding presence of God that makes it all worth it.

She says: “What I hold dear, are the moments I am alone in bed; I’m huddled away from the windows and stray bullets, listening to the shooting outside; and then I hear God sing over me. I feel His embrace.”

Many Christians feel a sense of unrest with their lives. They think: “There must be something more than this.”

And Ooi, of all people – her life, her experiences, her valiant exploits for the Kingdom of God – stirs up a hint of that “something more”. 

But she takes a different approach: “I don’t believe so much in the purpose-driven life, as much as I do the Presence-driven life. If we walk with God, we will naturally fulfil His purposes for our lives.”

As St Augustine said: “To fall in love with God is the greatest of all romances. To seek Him, the greatest adventure. To find Him, the greatest human achievement.”

About the author

Tan Huey Ying

Huey Ying is now an Assignments Editor at Salt&Light, having worked in finance, events management and aquatics industries. She usually has more questions than answers but is always happiest in the water, where she's learning what it means to "be still".