“Following God is worth the cost”: Missionary of 18 years who was called to a land of earthquakes
by Janice Tai // November 21, 2020, 3:17 am
Alice and Ame trusted God as they stepped into marriage in a foreign land. All photos courtesy of Alice Tan.
The song “I have decided to follow Jesus” is a well-known hymn. Its familiar melody and lyrics are almost instantly recognisable to believers worldwide.
Yet not many people may not know the true life account behind the song.
When revivals swept across Wales in 1904, a Welshman ventured halfway across the world to India. He trekked up the mountains towards a remote village in the east. He was told to turn back as the tribesmen in that village were famously called “headhunters” for a reason: They frequently carried out decapitations.
The Welshman ignored the warnings because he felt that even the savage headhunters should have the opportunity to hear about the mercy of God. He shared the Gospel to one man called Nokseng, his wife, and two kids and they received Jesus as their Saviour. The good news was too good to keep to themselves and they shared the Gospel with others in the tribe.
The Chief of the tribe was enraged with what Nokseng was doing and he had him and his family dragged before the village.
The Welshman felt that even savage headhunters should have the opportunity to hear about the mercy of God.
Stop following Jesus, the Chief demanded.
Nokseng replied, No. I have decided to follow Jesus. I am not turning back.
The chief was furious and ordered Nokseng’s children to be shot with arrows in front of his eyes.
Stop following Jesus, the Chief insisted.
Nokseng answered him, Though none go with me, still I will follow. No turning back.
The chief showed no mercy. Nicola, the tribesman’s wife, was also shot dead.
Now you will stop following this Jesus, the Chief said.
Nokseng looked at his Chief in the eyes and replied, The cross before me, the world behind me, no turning back.
The Chief could not believe his years, and he killed Nokseng.
The Chief was extremely disturbed by the faith of this man. He could not understand why Nokseng and his family gave up their lives for a man who lived some 2,000 years ago in a continent far away.
But that day, the Holy Spirit touched him and he himself became a follower of Jesus Christ. The whole village followed suit.
Will you follow me?
This song, and the story behind the song, is close to the heart of Alice Tan, who left Singapore when she was a single, 32-year-old woman to preach the Gospel in a foreign country in South Asia.
She was not blind to the costs involved: Near death experiences, separation from family, earthquakes.
She lived among its people for 18 years, and only returned to Singapore – with a family in tow – three years ago.
“I can identify with the song because God also called me to follow Him. I was already a Christian then and told Him: I am already your follower. But the real question He was asking of me was not just about going through the motions of being a Christian,” said Alice, now 53.
“It is about whether I will follow Him where He leads me, it is about the Great Commission. It is also about whether I am willing to pay the price, because there is always a cost to be counted,” she added.
What caused Alice to follow Jesus in an extraordinary, radical way?
She was not blind to the costs involved: Near death experiences, separation from family, her children traumatised by earthquakes.
Yet she was also not blind to the realisation that it was all worth it, because having God with her – wherever He called her – was the best place she could ever be.
A deadly earthquake
She believed she was at the right place at the right time, even when she found herself sitting at the edge of a mountain cliff a few years ago.
Her bus and other vehicles along the mountain road had stopped when the trees on the mountain shook from earthquake tremors. A 7.8 magnitude earthquake had struck near the city, which would eventually result in a death toll of 9,000 people and the city borders being closed for more than a week.
She saw massive destruction and people being pulled out of the rubble.
Alice had travelled to another part of the country to run a training course and was on the way back to see her family in the city when her journey was disrupted.
The mountain was shaking and a landslide was imminent. So she got back onto her old bus even though it was now moving in the opposite direction of where she needed to go – retreating from the city and epicentre of the earthquake.
Later on, she would decide to leave the bus, carry her bags herself and try to walk back home to the city as the roads were all closed. Along the way, she saw massive destruction and people being pulled out of the rubble. There was no Internet connection for an hour and it was only much later that Alice managed to call and reassure her family members that she was safe.
To her, the anxiety of being separated from her family was worse than death. Her teenaged daughter was so traumatised by the whole episode that the family decided to accept the Singapore Government’s arrangement for them to be evacuated back to Singapore by plane.
While they were back in Singapore, God showed her daughter during a church worship session that He had been with them, even when the family had been separated during the earthquake.
Flashback after flashback came and her daughter suddenly saw that the sequence of events that had taken place that was divinely orchestrated.
Back then, Alice’s daughter had an uneasy feeling about the trip that her mother was due to take to another town.
Unlike previous times, this time she would try to persuade her mother not to go. Alice was unsettled by her daughter’s response but knew she needed to get to her destination in order to teach and train the people.
She decided, however, to cut short her trip and come back one day earlier. This change in plans allowed Alice to return to the city in time before it was closed to incoming and outgoing traffic for more than a week when its roads became badly damaged.
“Mum, I am not scared anymore. Jesus was with us then and will be with us. It’s time for us to go back.”
Alice’s daughter also began to see another way in which God had ensured that her mother would return home safely.
While her mother was slowly trudging back to the city on foot, not knowing how long she had to go before reaching its outskirts, a group of church workers had gathered for Sunday service at a church near Alice’s home.
They usually attended other churches that were scattered elsewhere in the city but all of them happened to attend this church that week. They were left stranded in the area when the earthquake struck that day.
Remembering that their friend Alice lived nearby, they went to her house to seek refuge. Because they were at Alice’s house, they were able to watch over her two children as Alice’s husband, Ame, headed out with another church worker on their motorbikes to look for Alice and bring her home.
“Anna wept when she had a revelation of how God was at work during the earthquake. She told me, ‘Mum, I am not scared anymore. Jesus was with us then and will be with us. I think it’s time for us to go back,” said Alice.
Worth the cost
Despite being a missionary family in that country for 16 years by then, Alice and her husband were prepared for the family to remain in Singapore because they did not want their children to go through further trauma from earthquakes, which was frequent, as the country is located along the earthquake belt.
Yet their hearts were still back in the South Asian country. When the children urged them to head back after one and a half months, they thanked God for doing His healing work in their daughter and all of them returned to the country.
Her daughter may have processed her fears with God, but Alice still had some semblance of fear that was clinging on to her. When she returned, she was fortunate to not to be called to do any travelling for seven months.
Out of the nine female students in the class, seven of them had either been raped or sexually abused.
Then the dreaded assignment came that would require her to take a 17-hour journey in a night bus in order to reach a discipleship training school where she was required to teach.
After praying about it with her family, her children told her: “Yes mum, we think you should go.” In her heart, Alice did not want to go. On the bus, she cried her heart out to God: What if another earthquake happened? What if I cannot make it back home? She was so exhausted from all the crying that she fell asleep on the bus.
When she arrived and began teaching at the school, she realised God’s purpose for her there. Out of the nine female students in the class, seven of them had either been raped or sexually abused. Little did they know that Alice herself had been sexually abused for two years when she was six years old.
She was with an adult trusted by her family in a supposedly safe place when he molested her while pretending to engage in role play with her. He warned her with: “Don’t say anything … or else.” That put a great fear in her and she did not dare to tell anyone about what was happening, even her own mother who had single-handedly brought up Alice and her three siblings.
From then on, Alice grew into a troubled teenager, always feeling dirty and worthless like a piece of rag. She questioned the meaning of her existence and had suicidal thoughts.
Alice shared her own story with the girls in the school, which led to their opening up about their own lives.
“In the culture of the country, such things are not spoken of as it brings a lot of shame and will not be received well in their families and in society. But as they opened up, God was able to administer healing and restoration to them,” said Alice.
“God was also teaching me that, yes, it was costly for me to come all the way here, but what He leads me to is always worth it.”
God’s good plans
Alice’s father died one month before she was born. He was hit by a motorbike.
Since then, her poorly educated mother struggled to bring up her four children. She took on two jobs. The family was poor and often had only watery porridge to feed on.
Her mother was stressed and angry from the pressure of being the sole breadwinner and caregiver, and frequently scolded and disciplined the children harshly. Alice found herself walking on eggshells every day, keeping to herself and nursing a low self-esteem.
When she felt God calling her to go to the nations for cross-cultural missions in 1999, she had a bleak vision of how that would pan out.
“I thought I would just serve Jesus and then maybe die in the mission field. I had such limited understanding. But God always has good plans for us,” said Alice.
Little did she expect that He would also be concerned about the relational hurts she carried in her heart and the person she would marry.
Unbeknownst to Alice, Ame, a missionary from Fiji, who was serving in the same country, was praying about his life partner. He was getting interested in Alice but she was wary.
She was afraid that he would ask her for money, as missionaries often have to raise their own living expenses.
Ame felt God had put Alice on his heart but he was nervous about rejection so he asked God to send him a sign if it was His will for him and Alice to enter into a relationship.
“If she is the person for me, let me bump into her on the streets so that we can have a meal together,” Ame prayed.
One day, Alice was cycling on the streets when she spotted Ame talking to a man on the roadside. She stopped and asked him what he was doing there. His eyes lit up and he asked her out for a meal.
Throughout the meal, Ame was tense but he managed to ask Alice if she would consider praying about being in a relationship with him.
She told him: “I don’t like you. And I don’t want to pray about it.”
She protested and rejected him immediately, saying that she just wanted to concentrate on what God had called her to do in the country instead of being distracted by the prospect of marriage.
She knew, however, that the real reason she protested was that she did not like him. He was simply not her type.
He encouraged her to pray, saying: “You have to hear what God is saying to you.”
She told him: “I don’t like you. And I don’t want to pray about it.”
Still he persisted. “Take time to pray. We can talk about this one month later.”
She agreed to but did not do so.
When one month was up, he eagerly awaited her answer.
“Did you pray?” he asked.
“Yes I did, and He told me not to explore any relationship with you. Do not call me again,” she answered.
She had lied on both counts. She had not prayed about the matter at all.
She was afraid to be in a relationship because she saw broken relationships all around her.
One month later while she was doing quiet time, God spoke to Alice.
“Have I been a good father to you?” He asked her.
She replied in the affirmative.
“Would you trust me in a relationship meant for marriage?” He asked again.
She said yes, if He were in it. Immediately, she saw Ame’s face in her mind’s eye.
It was then that God revealed to her that her resistance to Ame stemmed from two aspects.
The first was that she was afraid to be in a relationship because she saw broken relationships all around her – in her family and even among missionaries.
The second was that she was unconsciously harbouring prejudice against dark-skinned people because of the culture she was brought up in.
Alice broke down and repented, realising that here she was, a missionary who supposedly loved the dark-skinned people in the country so much so that she would uproot herself from comfortable Singapore to share the good news with them and live with them. Yet now her prejudice was exposed.
Alice presented God with a practical problem.
The minute she said that, God poured warm love into her heart.
How am I going to explore a relationship with Ame when I am not attracted to him nor do I have any chemistry with him?
The minute she said that, God poured warm love into her heart.
“This man – I didn’t even know which part of the world he came from. I don’t even know where his island was on the map, you know, at that time. That was so crazy. But the love that God put in my heart for this man was not that of sexual or sensual love. It was just pure love, pure love,” said Alice, who eventually married Ame.
They now have a 17-year-old son, Amos, and an 18-year-old daughter, Anna, who both studied in a Christian mission school.
Three years ago, the family felt led to return to Singapore, after 18 years of living overseas.
It would prove to be a huge adjustment as their children had grown up in an underdeveloped country where there was a constant shortage of basic necessities such as water, food, electricity and petrol.
They had grown up living carefree lives, exploring nature and playing sports in vast, open spaces.
Yet they returned to Singapore because Alice felt God leading her to come home to equip and train Singaporeans for long term missions. She joined YWAM when she returned to Singapore.
“The children had to adapt when they came to Singapore. They were so amazed that people here have access to so much clean water that they initially kept drinking water from the showerhead whenever they bathed, said Alice, who now lives in a flat with her family.
Ame works part-time at a fast-food restaurant to help supplement the family’s income. The teenagers are adjusting to mainstream school education in Singapore.
When the pandemic occurred this year, plans for Alice to train Singaporeans for long-term missions were disrupted. She is now waiting on God for her next assignment.
The family is open to continuing to live in Singapore, or to go to Fiji to live in Ame’s country of islands, or be sent out for further missions.
“I don’t know what is next. I can do anything, including cleaning tables, as long as it is where God is calling me. Where is He calling you today and are you willing to go?”
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