Service // Missions

In their retirement years, they left home to serve God in a country they had not heard of before

As LoveTimor marks its 20th anniversary this year, Salt&Light shines a spotlight on the Singaporeans who have answered the call to serve in the nation of Timor-Leste.

Gracia Lee & Joanne Chua // April 16, 2024, 5:15 pm

Joseph Mannar and Grace Kellan (first row), pictured here with local Timorese students, up and left their comfortable life in Singapore to run a student hostel in Timor-Leste more than a decade ago. All photos courtesy of Joseph Mannar.

Joseph Mannar and Grace Kellan (first row), pictured here with Timorese graduates from their hostel, left their comfortable life in Singapore to run a student hostel in Timor-Leste more than a decade ago. All photos courtesy of Joseph Mannar.

While most people in their retirement years would be thinking of taking things easy, Singaporeans Joseph Mannar and Grace Kellan obeyed God’s call to start a new life in a country they had not previously heard of.

Then in their mid-60s, the married couple moved to Timor-Leste, where they have since run a Christian hostel for senior high school students for the past decade.

Now 76 and 75, Joseph and Grace chatted with Salt&Light over Zoom from Gleno, Ermera, to share why they took the leap of faith to serve God in a foreign land at their age, the persecution they have faced and the wonders they have witnessed in Asia’s newest country.

How did you begin your journey to Timor-Leste?

Joseph: I was a missions coordinator at my church for three years. Toward the end of my contract’s third year, I was told that the church was not going to renew it because I had turned 65. So I was praying about what to do next. 

At the time, I saw in the Harvest Force magazine by Methodist Missions Society that they were looking for people to go to Nepal and Timor-Leste. Since 1999, I’ve been going on mission trips to various countries, so I’ve always had an interest to go to the field.

“Though you are well advanced in age, there is work to be done. Go to the land.”

I reached out to the contact person and within a week I was in Timor for the first time with a team of three others. That was in 2012. It was just a recce trip for four days.

When we returned, my teammate encouraged me to speak to my church about sending me back to Timor if I was interested. I didn’t know anything about Timor before, but since there was an opportunity, I decided to avail myself.

It took my church nine months to make a decision about sending me to Timor.

In the meantime, I was waiting and praying. In one of my devotions, the Lord gave me Joshua 13:1, where God promised Joshua: “Though you are well advanced in age, there is work to be done. Go to the land.”

That was a very encouraging word. I’m well advanced in age – or rather, over advanced in age (laughs). So I hung on to this word.

Finally, the church agreed to support me in Timor-Leste for a year. By God’s grace, it has been more than 10 years now.

Grace: For many years Joseph and I were already praying about going for missions. We didn’t know what country, so we just waited. Our mindset was: Whichever country He sends us to, we will go.

Joseph made the leap, so I just followed.

Did you have any reservations about moving to a whole new country at your age?

Joseph: I had friends who had retired and were enjoying their time with their grandkids and drinking coffee in coffeeshops. But I felt that I was still good and strong and healthy. If I can go another mile, I will go another mile. So I took the challenge and went as God called me.

“If I can go another mile, I will go another mile.”

Our family – we have three sons, three daughters-in-law and three granddaughters – was fully supportive.

We ourselves didn’t have any reservations either.

We were excited to take on the challenge and prepare ourselves to land in Timor.

Grace: At 24 years old, I had made a commitment to God during a conference to go and make disciples of all nations.

Over the years, God slowly helped me to grow so I could fulfil this promise I had made to Him, so I didn’t have any reservations about going when He called.

What do you do in Timor-Leste?

Joseph: We set up a hostel called Sundemeier Hostel in Gleno, Ermera, for students from Grade 10 to 12.

We arrived in Timor in 2013, and completed building the hostel in 2015. In 2016, we had our first intake of students.

Joseph and Grace, pictured here some Singaporean volunteers, focussed on teaching the students God’s Word, as many of them did not know it.

Grace: We learnt the Timorese language on our own. It was too taxing to travel to the capital of Dili for classes, so we just bought a book and practised speaking with the locals. We made mistakes, they laughed at us, but that’s how we learnt it.

Joseph: Most of our time is spent with the students. We teach them English and the Bible, as well as gardening, housekeeping and cleaning.

Students at the hostel celebrating Grace’s birthday.

Grace: In the mornings before breakfast, we will have a five-minute devotion where we share one verse and pray. Then at night, after dinner, we have an hour of devotion. We read a small passage and then we talk about it. So that’s how they get familiar with the Bible.

How have you seen God at work in Timor-Leste?

Grace: There are 34 students staying at the hostel now. Some of our students have graduated and left the hostel to study in the city for university, and we are so encouraged to see them connected to churches and some even getting baptised.

Students praying for their house parents, Joseph and Grace.

There was this girl who had a lot of fear. When she was growing up, her mother would punish her severely and she would run off to the woods to hide and cry.

“It’s very encouraging to see that it is God who works, not us.”

When she came to our hostel, she would experience a kind of seizure during worship. She would fall down and shake and seem unconscious. She had these attacks quite frequently in the first year.

All we could do was to pray for her and calm her down. We would also show her verses from Psalm 91 and ask her to pray over these verses, because we didn’t know what was troubling her.

Slowly, all the seizures subsided. She told us that she believes in Jesus and began leading worship at our hostel. She also went on to share her experience with others at her school and prayed in Jesus’ name for those who were facing the same problem.

Today, she’s graduated and working in Dili as a kindergarten teacher at a school that another Singaporean missionary set up there. We are glad to see such things happen.

How long more will you be serving God in Timor-Leste?

Joseph: (Laughs) I think we have 25 more days. We’re leaving for good in May.

Grace: We have been praying for this matter for about two years now. Slowly, God has helped us to let go. We are happy and at peace to see that there will be two Timorese, both former students at our hostel, taking over the operations. One was from our first batch of students, while the other was from our third batch.

They are among the students we have sent to the local Bible school. They have also gone through some internships in the local church. We also have other Singaporean missionaries who will continue to support them in their work.

Singaporeans have come over to support Joseph and Grace in their ministry to hostel students over the years.

Joseph: We feel very sad about leaving. This is no longer a strange land to us. We are a part of it. But when the time comes, we have to go.

We will go back to Singapore and take a break for maybe two to three months. I’ll have my exit interviews, but I’m not closing the door yet. I’m still open to the idea of going back to serve God.

“Whether we are young or a retiree, we should go with faith that God will do great and mighty things.”

Grace: I am, too. Looking back at our ministry, I feel very happy and thankful to God. It’s very encouraging to see that it is God who works, not us.

God just asked us to go and share the word of God, and He is there to do more things than what we can do.

We just have to pray and call upon Him, and He does much more than we ever, ever think or expect.

We pray that our students who have received Christ at the hostel will continue to grow in their faith and bring the message of the Gospel to their families. We also pray that every village in Timor will have a witness, and that the families will be saved, so that disciples can be multiplied.

God’s word is not void; it will fulfil its purpose (Isaiah 55:10-11). As the Word goes forth to the villages, we pray it will produce fruit among the families.

What would you like to say to the Singapore Church?

Joseph: It’s hard to get workers to the mission field despite efforts to recruit them.

We can’t only depend on Singaporeans to go. We have to teach and train the locals for them to be equipped, so they may also disciple their own people.

“We pray that our students who have received Christ at the hostel will continue to grow in their faith and bring the message of the Gospel to their families,” said Grace, pictured here hugging one of the students.

Grace: I just want people to know that it is not by might, not by power, but by the Spirit of God that all things work, so glory to God. We are so happy about what He has done for people here and in our lives.

We must always bear in mind that God is great. Whether we are a young person or a retiree, we should avail of  ourselves and go with the faith that God will do great and mighty things.

Don’t have to fear and think, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t do that.’ We depend on God, and He will do the wonders. 

Just come and serve!

Interested in missions?

To explore your part in world missions, speak to your local church leaders or drop the Antioch21 team an email at [email protected]. Antioch21 is a missions movement that seeks to raise a missionary force of all generations within the next decade.


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About the author

Gracia Lee & Joanne Chua

If you ever meet Joanne, expect her to either be vlogging on her camera or recovering from a laughing fit. She hopes that everyone will become friends with Jesus. Gracia is Assistant Editor at Salt&Light.