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Pastor meets anonymous encourager after 57 years

by Gemma Koh // January 6, 2021, 6:22 pm

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An anonymous note from almost 60 years ago and "a series of God-ordained contacts" led Ps David Wong (right), 71, to finally meet Robert Tan, 92 – his first Christian encourager from his boyhood. All photos courtesy of Ps David Wong.

Growing up in kampong Tiong Bahru in the 1960’s, 14-year-old Wong Wee Fatt looked forward to checking the mailbox that his family shared with five other houses.

He had signed up for a self-study Bible correspondence course. “It was quite a thrill to get something in the mail,” Wong, now 71, told Salt&Light

He did not know anyone in the kampong, or friends from school, who went to church.

In one package that contained study materials, was a simple booklet with a message that moved him to give his life to God. 

He wrote to the address on the booklet telling them what he had done.

David Wong window

At a table facing the window (on the left) in the attap and wooden family home, young David prayed to receive Christ as the captain of his life. David was in lower secondary school when this photo was taken, before he started attending church.

The letter came back a few days later, with a handwritten scribble across it – as was the practice of the day of replying quickly to mail.

It read: “Very good. This course will help you grow.” It bore no name. 

“God heard the simple prayer of a teenager without any Christian friends and led me to where I am today.”

Fast forward 57 years to late 2020. Wee Fatt, since known as Rev Dr David Wong (or Ps David as he prefers) was running through the contents in a briefcase with one of his two daughters. 

“I told our daughters that if anything happens to my wife or myself, all our documents are in there.”

Along with the retired pastor’s baptism certificate, marriage certificate, and Masters degrees, was the letter in his 14-year-old’s script – with the anonymous writer’s reply scrawled across it. His letter was dated August 8, 1963. 

“It occurred to me that I never found out who wrote the reply.

“I marvelled at how God heard the simple prayer of a teenager without any Christian friend or church contact and led me to where I am today.”

Calm in the storm

David was in Primary 3 – age 10 – when he first heard the name Jesus. It was when he was warded for a month for TB (tuberculosis) – a killer disease in the 1950s – at St Andrew’s Mission Hospital.

“Quite a number of people in the ward died.

“I used to stand by the window and I would pray to be made well. I didn’t know who I was praying to.”

When he was discharged, his parents told their neighbours: “This son of ours must be in the hands of the gods.”

“One night, a nurse handed me a tract. It had a picture of Jesus calming the storm.”

When he was discharged from hospital, his parents offered prayers to the idols they worshipped.

Two years later, he was warded again for another killer disease, typhoid, in Middleton Hospital (today the Communicable Disease Centre) at Tan Tock Seng. 

He was under quarantine. His parents were not allowed into the ward – they had to talk to their son through the window. 

One day when they visited, they got a shock. Their son’s bed was empty. “They thought that I had passed away. Actually, the hospital moved me to another ward without telling my parents.”

Again David beat the odds and recovered. When he was discharged, his parents made offerings to their gods, and told their neighbours: “This son of ours must be in the hands of the gods.”

For it was the third time he had survived a life-threatening illness. The first was when he was born.

“I almost didn’t make it to my first birthday.”

Story of the boy slave

Ps David’s first encounter with stories from the Bible came when he was in Primary 6. There were no lessons that week as the teachers were busy marking exam scripts. 

One teacher, who “was quite conscientious”, used the time to tell the class stories.

“I asked my teacher where she got these stories. She said it was from the Holy Bible.”

She read them abridged versions of classics like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Black Tulip. 

“The story that impressed me most was about a young boy who was sold away as a slave and eventually forgave his brothers who had done this,” he said in reference to Joseph who eventually became the Prince of Egypt.

“I asked my teacher where she got these stories. She said it was from a book called the Holy Bible.”

Hungry for more such stories, young David signed up for the Emmaus Bible Correspondence Course almost straight away.  

He was also attracted by “the beautiful certificates they gave each time you completed a course.”

Captain of his ship

David started with one of the Gospels. He would read it and answer the questions and mail back the exam booklet to have it marked.

In the course material was a simple booklet, Captain of our Salvation.

It compared life to a ship. “You leave the port, then you are on this journey over the sea. Who is the captain of the ship? Are you the captain, or is Jesus the captain? Who is going to take you safely to your destination?

The note written by 14-year-old David Wong, and the scrawled reply from the anonymous writer. "The date is a reminder of the day that I made commitment to Christ," said Ps David.

The note written by 14-year-old David Wong, and the scrawled reply from the anonymous writer. “The date is a reminder of the day that I made a commitment to Christ,” said Ps David.

“In my simple mind, I knew that I didn’t want to captain the ship on my own, if Jesus can be the captain and take me to safety.”

Moved by its message, David, who was 14 – Secondary 1 – at that time, prayed the prayer at the end. It was nine months after he first signed up for the course. 

“I knew that I didn’t want to captain the ship on my own, if Jesus can take me to safety.”

“I remember the moment to this day. I was alone at home.After the prayer, I stood up, went to the door and looked up to the sky. The sun broke through the clouds with a brilliant glow as a burst of joy filled my heart.”

He wrote to the address listed on the booklet: “Dear Sir, I write to tell you that I have received Jesus Christ as my own personal Saviour and have experienced the happiness in having him.” It was dated August 8, 1963.

The letter came back a few days latter – with a handwritten note scribbled across it: “Very good. This course will help your grow.” It bore no name. 

Apart from the teacher who introduced David to the classics and Bible stories, “up to that point, I knew of no Christian.” 

David went on to complete all four gospels.

It would be another two years before a schoolmate would invite David to church – a house church in Redhill. 

Ditching medicine for bible college

While a student in Raffles Institution, David “felt the call to ministry” even though his father, a taxi driver, was hoping he would go to medical school and support his younger siblings.

“When I told my father that I wanted to go to Bible College, he didn’t actually say ‘no’ even though he wasn’t a Christian. He just said, ‘You think about it carefully. Whatever decision you make, don’t live to regret it.’

David shared the Gospel with his five siblings after receiving Christ. His younger sister and brother (pictured) became Christians. The three enjoyed a close relationship, and made it to university.

David Wong RI uniform fence

David in his secondary school uniform at Raffles Institution. He was on track to study medicine, but felt the call to ministry.

“I took that as his blessing.

“My mother’s reaction more interesting. She turned to my father and said: ‘There, I told you. This son of yours will become a monk.'” 

His parents would give his life to Christ in their later years. 

His father, who was then in his 60s, told a pastor: “I’m a taxi driver. I’m not very well-educated. But I have eyes, and I can see the difference,” he said of his three of six children who are Christians.

“I have a feeling that the Christian hospital that saved my life also made a deep impression on him,” said Ps David. “Because at that time, my parents couldn’t afford to bring me to the normal hospital.”

“I’m a taxi driver. I’m not very well-educated. But I have eyes, and I can see the difference.”

David would go on to get two Masters degrees in Arts and Theology from universities in England and Scotland. He completed his doctoral studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in the US.

Over his ministry of 40 years, he served for 13 years with Haggai Institute. There, he oversaw leadership training in in Maui, Hawaii, and was a counsellor and mentor to hundreds of Christian leaders from more than 100 nations. 

In 2019, he stepped down from staff at Zion Bishan Bible-Presbyterian Church, but still holds an honorary advisory role there.

He is also a prolific writer who has written lyrics to six musicals and authored a dozen books which have been translated into 11 languages.

Bingo!

Shortly after stumbling across the forgotten letter, Ps David caught up with Dr Benny Tan, an Elder at Pasir Panjang Hill Brethren Church (PPHBC).

“I was able to encourage my dad that the work he did over many years had eternal significance.”

Over lunch, they traded conversion stories.  

Benny knew about the Emmaus course, and three brothers he knew of from a distance – including an Elder Robert Tan – who were connected with it.

He would make some enquiries. Ps David gave him a copy of the letter.

After asking three others at PPH plus a former member, Benny was down to his “last resort”: A lady at PPH. This lady put Benny in touch with an Emily Tan, who was in hospital. Emily asked him to call back in the evening as she needed to get hold of her grandson in order to get a hold of his father, Andrew.

WhatsApp Screenshot from Benny to Ps David, on locating the mystery writer who had encouraged David 57 years ago. “His message read: ‘David, BINGO!’ His search took only a couple of weeks. Very fast,” said Ps David.

It was late evening when Benny connected with Andrew, who had just arrived from the UK. Andrew, on seeing an image of the letter, confirmed that it was his father Robert’s handwriting. 

“God wanted to grant him assurance in this season of his life that he served in the ministry with purpose.”

Robert Tan, now 92, was Director of the Emmaus Bible Correspondence Course “responsible for marking the courses and writing personal notes of guidance and encouragement”, said Andrew.

He was the one who marked David’s papers.

His son, Andrew, told Salt&Light: “When I first saw the copy of the handwriting, I instantly knew it was my dad’s.

It felt really special as it was written 57 years ago. I was able to encourage my dad that the work he did over many years had eternal significance. And God wanted him to know that to grant him assurance in this season of his life that he served in the ministry with identity, purpose and calling. God is good!”

Pen pals

The four met at Robert’s house, and spent an hour and a half sharing with each other about their lives – the happy and the sad. 

“We reconnected after 57 years,” said Ps David. “Actually, our first connection was a piece of paper.

“I’m glad that as a young person, I was taught to write letters.

Robert Tan studying the correspondence from 57 years ago. “God wanted to grant him assurance in this season of his life that he served in the ministry with identity, purpose and calling. God is good!” said his son, Andrew.

Robert Tan holds a gift from Ps David – The Owl and the Fellowship of the Wise. Ps David wrote and released it in 2019 when he turned 70. “It is partly autobiographical but mostly biographical as I shared about my mentors, most of whom are authors of books I read over last 50 years.” With Andrew (standing, left) and Benny.

“In those days we had pen pals. We would find their names and addresses in student magazines, and write to them, almost like a cold call, introducing yourself. Because of this habit of letter writing, I wrote it to the Emmaus people. I am glad I did. And I’m glad Robert wrote a reply.

“See the sovereign hand of God. How we met is all God’s timing. If Andrew wasn’t in Singapore to visit his mum who was in hospital, I doubt we could have made the connection. I doubt we could have connected with Robert if Andrew wasn’t around to help.

“God used a kindly, faithful saint like Elder Robert Tan to start me on the journey through life with a certain hope.”

Ps David posted an account of their meeting on his Facebook page. It attracted about 250 likes and 50 comments – his most liked and commented-on post.

“One comment said, ‘I am glad you have the habit of keeping all this kind of stuff.’

“I’m known by my friends to be a chronicler and archiver, and have a habit of keeping papers and notes, even at this stage when I am trying to declutter our home. 

“One lesson we can draw from this is the importance of keeping things of significance.

“It has taken 57 years for Robert and me to finally meet, he at 92, and I at 71, both blessed with good health and each enjoying our walk with the Lord Jesus. I am forever indebted to God for using a correspondence course and a kindly faithful saint like Elder Robert Tan to start me on the journey through life with a certain hope of another face-to-face meeting, this time with our Lord Jesus.”


Check back soon for Part 2 of Ps David Wong’s story of reuniting with people from his past … and the one he is still searching for.   

MORE STORIES ON FAITH IN THE GOLDEN YEARS:

Found God at 15. Baptised at 80. Tan Cheng Guan discovers it is never too late.

This busy octogenarian is never lonely, even during lockdown

About the author

Gemma Koh

Gemma has written about everything from spas to scuba diving holidays. But has a soft spot for telling the stories of lives changed, and of people making a difference. She loves the colour green, especially on overgrown trees. Gemma is Senior Writer & Copy Editor at Salt&Light.

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