“There’s a love here I’ve not experienced before”: Migrant workers in Geylang feast, laugh and dance at Christmas party by Operation Honour

No room at the inn for Jesus. But will you offer hospitality today? This Christmas, Salt&Light tracks down those who show us what hospitality looks like in neighbourhoods, businesses and homes.

by Gracia Lee // December 19, 2023, 12:03 pm

A volunteer and migrant worker dancing to the music from a live performance.

A volunteer and migrant worker dancing together to music from a live performance at YWAM Singapore's Christmas party to honour migrants working in Singapore. All photos courtesy of YWAM Singapore.

Under strings of fairy lights glittering along the ceiling, the men gather around tables of food, snacks and drinks as they chitchat and try their hand at building towers with wooden chopsticks.

Breaking the chatter in the hall, a group of men step to the front and break out in an upbeat tune in Tamil, accompanied by an accordion and tambourine. The audience claps along, and some members even bust out a dance move or two.

Over two weekends in early-December, some 160 migrant workers of various nationalities gathered on the first floor of the YWAM Singapore building in Lorong 9 Geylang for a joyous Christmas party filled with food, games and fellowship.

In line with the theme “Second Home”, the atmosphere was welcoming and cozy as around 120 volunteers from local churches, including young children, mingled with the men throughout the evening and even stood up to applaud and appreciate them for their role in building the nation.

“We wanted them to come and feel like they had a family away from home,” said Virla Brownell, better known as Aunty Virla, who was in charge of the event.

Honouring the sojourner

The fun-filled Christmas weekends were part of Operation Honour, an initiative to bless migrant workers living in Geylang through the weekly distribution of food and friendship.

“We wanted them to come and feel like they had a family away from home,” said Virla Brownell, who heads YWAM Singapore’s Operation Honour initiative.

Started by Mercy Centre, the social arm of YWAM Singapore, Operation Honour seeks to love the sojourners in our land as God commanded (Leviticus 19:33-34) and to honour them for helping to build Singapore, said Aunty Virla, a long-time YWAMer in Singapore who heads the initiative. 

“We wouldn’t be where we are today without them,” she told Salt&Light. “The buildings, the roads, the MRT, the streets, the trees – none of these would be taken care of it we didn’t have migrant workers.”

As someone who left her hometown of Fresno, California, more than 30 years ago to live and work in Singapore, Aunty Virla understands the struggles of being far from home.

She said: “I know what it’s like to not be near my grandchildren, my friends. But we have people here who love and care for us, and I’m thankful that I can do the same for these men who have left their countries and families.”

A spontaneous beginning

Operation Honour had started spontaneously during the COVID-19 pandemic after a friend of Mercy Centre offered to send over some food for staff and students.

In came an abundance of rice, oats, eggs and bananas. So staff members went around their neighbourhood in Geylang with a trolley of extras, looking for people with whom they could share the food.

Supported by local volunteers from various churches, Operation Honour hopes to be these migrant workers’ home away from home.

They stopped by an apartment building across the road from them, where they knew some migrant workers lived.

“The roads, the MRT, the streets, the trees – none of these would be taken care of it we didn’t have migrant workers.”

“Come down! Free food!” they yelled out in Mandarin. 

The workers were pleased to receive the food items, especially the eggs, noted Aunty Virla, so whenever food came to Mercy Centre, staff members would go out to share some with them.

“Some of them were a bit wary of us at first, but as we went to them week after week, they started to trust us and some of them would even invite us into their homes,” she said.

As more donated food came to Mercy Centre by God’s providence, she decided to open up the first level of their building every Thursday as a food distribution point.

At first some 30 men came. As the word spread, the number grew to 70, then 100, then 200 – and sometimes even more. Women from the red-light district, domestic helpers working in the area and other neighbours have also come by.

The men bonded over table games during the Christmas party.

“It’s by faith that God provides,” said Aunty Virla, adding that she receives all kinds of food – vegetables, fruits, rice, noodles, chocolates – from individuals, organisations and churches. She has also received, and given out, household items like fans, washing machines and fridges.

Aunty Virla credited the late Joseph Chean, the former national director of YWAM Singapore and her long-time friend and ministry partner, for being a huge champion of Operation Honour.

“When he would speak at different places, he would tell people about our ministry – and put my name and phone number up on screen!” she said with a laugh.

“I’ve gotten lots of messages and phone calls about all sorts of interesting things, but it’s good. We’re always surprised by what we get.”

Reflection of God’s heart

Looking back on the past two years of Operation Honour, Aunty Virla sees God’s fingerprints everywhere.

“This has really been just a God thing and He has provided all along the way, through so many miraculous ways and people,” she said.

The initiative itself – and how it landed in their laps – was an answer to Mercy Centre’s prayer about how they could connect with and bless the migrant workers living around them.

Migrant workers got to enjoy food, fun and fellowship at Operation Honour’s Christmas party.

She added that she has been “over-amazed” to witness God’s provision of food and volunteers week after week.

“Sometimes I would say, ‘Lord, we just don’t have enough for this week. What can You provide?’ And someone would call me and say they’re going to send two pallets of biscuits or noodles or something like that. So we’ve always had enough to give something,” she said.

Recounting her favourite story of God’s provision, she shared that just before they were about to set up the food distribution point one Thursday, a friend who was supposed to deliver bags of rice informed her that he was not going to make it.

“I said, ‘Lord, I’m so sad that I can’t give rice out. But we’ll just do what we can do. We know that You’re the Provider’,” she told Salt&Light.

Half an hour later, a man came up to the building wheeling a trolley stacked with 1kg bags of rice. He told Aunty Virla: “I heard about what you’re doing and some friends and I decided to bring some rice for you.”

As foreigners in Singapore themselves, Aunty Virla (right) and her husband, Jerry, know what it’s like to be away from home.

She told Salt&Light: “I really thought he was an angel. We had enough rice packets for everyone that day, and it was in the perfect packaging to distribute too!”

God’s provision has shown her His heart and love for these men, and when they comment on her generosity, she cannot help but point them to God. “This is God’s love for you,” she would say. “We’re just the agents of giving.”

A different kind of love

Another way Operation Honour hopes to demonstrate God’s love to these migrant workers is by simply being a friend.

Regular volunteer Franky Fok from Kum Yan Methodist Church, who joined the initiative in December 2022, sits and chats with them about what’s on their hearts: The Chinese worker who struggles with insomnia, the Turkish worker who is looking for a job and worries about his family and others affected by the earthquake.

“This is God’s heart, that we treat these people well. We just hope that we’ll continue to be God’s gift to them.”

Some of them are open to being prayed for and are even thankful for it, said the 44-year-old.

This love has not gone unnoticed by the men.

One Chinese worker, who had received prayer and concern from volunteers after injuring his arm, approached one of them one Thursday after collecting his food and said: “I want to follow Jesus and be a part of God’s family.”

When asked why, he shared: “Because there’s a love here that I have not experienced before.”

So long as God provides the food and the people to keep Operation Honour going, Aunty Virla and her team will faithfully serve these migrant workers.

“What keeps me going is the joy that I see,” she said. “This is God’s heart, that we treat these people well. We just hope that we’ll continue to be God’s gift to them.”

Operation Honour is open for food donations (especially eggs, rice and fresh fruits), volunteers and financial support of $50,000 to purchase a van to transport food items.

If you’d like to support Operation Honour, drop Aunty Virla an email at [email protected]


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About the author

Gracia Lee

Gracia is a journalism graduate who thoroughly enjoys people and words. Thankfully, she gets a satisfying dose of both as a writer and Assistant Editor at Salt&Light.