margie bird sanctuary syndey retreat

Margie Teo, a spiritual mother hen to many, soaking in the stillness of a bird sanctuary in Sydney. All photos courtesy of Margie Teo.

A 99-year-old army veteran in the UK who pledged to walk 100 lengths of his garden to raise £1,000 for the National Health Service (NHS) became an international sensation in the early days of Covid. He ended up raising more than £13 million after his story captured hearts and inspired donors around the world.

Slowly and modestly, a Singapore octogenarian is walking in a similar direction to raise funds for prisoners and their families. Within a month, she surpassed her initial target of $10,000. As of October 21, almost $14,000 (and counting) had been donated via her page and cheques sent directly to Lakeside Family Services. It is part of the social service’s A Million Steps initiative that’s symbolic of their commitment to walk the long journey of recovery and reintegration with prisoners and their families. They are still far from their overall target of $280,000.

Margie Teo, aka Auntie Margie to many, turns 80 in December. 

Age and retirement hasn’t slowed down the former director of a polytechnic library. Even during this season of Covid, which has isolated many a senior. 

How does she manage?

She’s had an arthritic knee and has barely been able to walk without assistance on more than two occasions.

Margie Teo great wall ChinaMargie Teo great wall China

Margie at the Great Wall of China the year after experiencing miraculous healing for her arthritic knee – one of three physical miracles she’s experienced.

She’ll tell you that her memory is not so good. So how did she manage to come up with the names of 70 friends to write to, asking for support? 

She’s lost 50% of her hearing, but hears crystal clearly from the Lord.

She’s lost 50% of her hearing, but hears so crystal clearly from the Lord: Including walking for this cause, and rallying helpers to support other prison ministries that are close to her heart.

“What I am able to do is not on the strength of my efforts,” she reiterates over and over to Salt&Light. “Prayer support is the most important in everything that I do in ministry.

“It’s not about me. I am nothing. I am an old octogenarian.”

“I am supported in prayer by spiritual mentors and brothers- and sisters-in-Christ who pray for me and with me. And it is not about us. It’s all about God.

And she has a true equanimity and an infectious joyful smile that seems humanly impossible, given the trauma she went through last year.

Becoming an Alphaholic 

Teo lost her earthly father when she was 12 years old. But found her heavenly Father when she was baptised at 48 years old. 

“I had a religion. But I did not have a relationship with God,” she said.

“I did not read the Bible. In church, I was thinking of what to cook for dinner, and did not concentrate on the sermon.”

Someone prayed and laid hands on her and “I cried buckets of tears. It was like a cleansing.”

Then two years later in 1990, she stepped into a “very cute” little red-brick church originally built for British troops in 1910. (She had been dropping her daughter there at that time, but going to her own church)

The vicar’s sermon resonated with her. She’s been a well-loved figure at St George’s Church for 30 years.

Then she attended the church’s second ever Alpha season in 1994. Someone prayed and laid hands on her. “I was just so touched, I cried buckets of tears. It was like a cleansing.

“I felt my life was transformed. I was renewed and restored. I now had a relationship with God.”

The Word she received was: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11) 

She subsequently became a facilitator for Alpha in church, in homes, and in the marketplace (for working people during lunch hour).

Twenty-six years later, she is still an “Alphaholic”, also involved in Alpha’s ministries to migrant workers in Singapore and prisoners in Cambodia.

Retreating to advance

When the world entered the millennium, she retired and entered a new season in her life.

“So humility is a lesson I learnt.”

“I had a lot of irons in the fire,” she says of having her hands full organising activities at church. “But my prayer life was up and down”.

In her quest to be “still”, she went on all the retreats she could – including silent ones – in Singapore and beyond. They included Selwyn Hughes’ in the UK, and the Walk to Emmaus in Hong Kong.

“With each retreat, I advanced in my walk.”

At one, the song Refiner’s Fire touched her. “I asked the Lord to show me my blemishes. Then I asked God to forgive me.”

“I was worldly. Perhaps I had a motive behind what I did. So I had to die to self first.”

“With each retreat, I advanced in my walk.”

She admits she was “a perfectionist”.

“I felt that things had to be done my way. I would even say I was controlling or demanding. ‘Think of others better than you’ (Philippians 2:3) I did not. I honestly thought quite highly of myself.

“So humility is a lesson I learnt.”

At another retreat, the Lord impressed on her to have “dove’s eyes, to fix my gaze on Jesus. And not be distracted by worldly things and situations.

“I need to be sensitive to His presence, and He will instruct me, teach me, and counsel me”. (Psalm 32:8-11)

Prison connection

Teo has always had a soft spot for prisoners and their families.

Walking on a path parallel but separate from her son (who happens to be the executive director of Lakeside),  she joined Prisons Fellowship International as an intercessor nine years ago. She heard the call through one bishop’s sermon on Isaiah 61 on “preaching the good news … and proclaiming freedom”.

On a personal retreat, Teo used the guide, Encountering the Compassion of God, which required her to personalise statements that God makes in Exodus 3:7-8. Through this, she felt children of prisoners crying out because of their abandonment.

“‘All who hear from the Lord would be saved’. But how can they hear, unless they are told?”

“So I prayed. God connected me to 20 people.” Since 2015, they have sponsored the education of 20 children of prisoners in Cambodia.

In subsequent years, in her study of Romans, she heard the Lord say: “Go to places where the Gospel has not been preached.

“‘All who hear from the Lord would be saved’. But how can they hear, unless they are told?” she said. 

Separately, the Lord also gave her the word “connect”.  She obeyed and introduced the Prisons Fellowship and Alpha directors in Cambodia to each other.

She prayed. “How to start? This is a big thing.”

She got the word from Exodus 18, from Jethro to Moses: “You cannot do it alone; go raise a team.” The Lord sent several people, including an accountant, and some donors to contribute funds for “simple things” that were needed. They included TVs for screening the videos, petrol for the pastors, and biscuits for attendees. Eighty pastors were trained by Alpha to go into remote villages to speak with prisoners.

Alpha prisons cambodia April 2019

An Alpha session with prisoners in Cambodia, April 2019. Photo from Alpha Cambodia Facebook.

In 2018 and 2019, they reached out to slightly more than 1,000 prisoners in 11 prisons in Cambodia. More than 50% accepted the Lord. 

“My role is very small. I only connect,” she said. “Others do the work.”

“To me, the most encouraging thing is that they feel happy to be asked.”

In this season, walking to fundraise for A Million Steps, she tells those she’s reached out to: “Every step counts, every dollar counts. But every prayer counts most.”

She’s been bowled over by the overwhelming response from Singapore, Sydney and Hong Kong, which has included a cheque for $5,000 from an old friend. When she thanks the donors, many say: “We thank you for giving us the joy of being a part of this.” 

“To me, the most encouraging thing is that they feel happy to be asked.”

Walking has been good for her. “Because it’s a discipline. And my legs don’t hurt.”

A bonus? She’s lost weight. “I couldn’t get into these jeans. Now look, I can wear them!”

Covid’s silver lining

While seniors have felt less socially satisfied and more isolated during Covid and the Circuit Breaker according to a survey, and there have been reports of greater friction at home, Teo has bucked these trends. 

“The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary.”

“This Covid period has been very special for me,” she said.

Not going out so often means she’s cooking lunch and not just dinner for her husband and herself. Time together has heightened their appreciation of each other. When she is able, she also cooks and brings meals to friends and relatives who are ill.

The pandemic may have curbed her retreat-going. But it’s given the retiree a proliferation of online sermons and Christian conferences to “Zoom into” – from her beloved St George’s Church and beyond the shores of Singapore. 

During homestay, she’s been “soaking in the presence of the Lord, and feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit”. 

She rises at 8.30am each day – “or earlier if God wants to tell me something” – and spends between 0.5 to 1.5 hours in her “prayer closet” which is a walk (weather permitting) or on her balcony.

“I am never lonely. I talk to God all the time.”

“The Lord would deposit different songs on different days”. Worship puts her “in a posture to receive”.

“The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.” (Isaiah 50:4)

She gets names for who to telephone and pray with and encourage each day in her personal ministry “to sustain the weary”. Who to mentor or “upsize”. And how to prioritise her time. “I often pray for the Lord to protect my time. I pray for wisdom for who to respond to. I don’t have fear of men. I fear God.”

“If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:22). Yet she stresses that “I have prayers not answered. Prayers that I had prayed year in year out for many years. But I know in His time, he makes all things beautiful.

“I am never lonely,” she says. “I talk to God all the time.”

Don’t let them steal your peace

However, there have been times that she has not been able to connect with God.

Like last year, when she was cheated of a large sum of money. 

“I was traumatised. I could not pray. I felt I was stupid.

“I went to my son’s house and he prayed for me. 

“He’s already stolen your money. Don’t let him steal your confidence.”

“Then I got Romans 8:28: ‘In all things, God works for the good of those who love Him.’ So I surrendered to the Lord.

“I felt the overwhelming love of God.” And then the overwhelming love of her husband, daughter, son, their spouses, and her three grandsons, ages 23, 21 and 18. 

“They would say: ‘Don’t blame yourself.’ My son said: The person who cheated you instilled fear in you. You are not stupid. He’s already stolen your money. Don’t let him steal your confidence.”

“I don’t have to prove anything. I am the daughter of the King of kings.”

When she released her trauma and the situation to the Lord, a few things happened.

One, she had such peace and joy that no one would have guessed what she had just gone through.

Two, God released a word of knowledge to her. This word led someone to share with a relative on his deathbed that God’s hand was upon him. The dying man had previously brushed off attempts to talk to him about Christ. But he accepted Jesus and was baptised before he passed on. 

She reiterates that “it is all God” and she is only His vessel.

A poem that has stuck with her is The Chosen Vessel by Beulah V Cornwall. It is about the potter who is looking for a vessel to use. He ignores the beautiful-looking ones of precious material. 

Then the Master looked down and saw a vessel of clay.
Empty and broken it helplessly lay …

I need not the vessel with pride of its self …

Then gently He lifted the vessel of clay.
Mended and cleansed it and filled it that day.
Spoke to it kindly. There’s work you must do,
Just pour out to others as I pour into you.

“There are lots of people who feel that they are useless, that they cannot do anything. But they must know that it is God’s power and His might that’s in us that enables us to do what we do.”

Passing on the baton

Teo continues to overflow with joy “because I know how much Jesus loves me, just as I am. I don’t have to do anything, I don’t have to prove anything. I am a princess. I am the daughter of the King of kings.”

“I am filled with joy because I feel loved by my family, my siblings, my spiritual family. I want to show love, because God first loved me.

“I know the purpose that He created me, is to bring Him Glory.” (Isaiah 43:7) 

In her golden years, she asked God: “How can I serve you? What can I do?

“Again, He answered me with His Word”, she said, thumping her Bible.

“He gave me Psalms 92:12-14: ‘The righteous will flourish like a palm tree,  they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon … they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh …

“With these words, I have inner peace. It is not difficult to maintain.

margie teo prayer partners

Margie (left) with some of her prayer partners who feed and nourish her spiritually.

And Isaiah 46:4: “Even to your old age and grey hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you …”

She has experienced it through three physical healings.

She received instant healing about 10 years ago at a retreat. She was “paikar” (Hokkien for limping) from a bad knee. The speaker laid hands on her, and she was overcome by the spirit, and slid to the floor. She was able to visit the Great Wall of China the next year with her daughter. 

A few years ago, she could barely walk. A spiritual mentor with a gift of healing saw her limping along with an umbrella; she was too shy to use a tongkat (Malay for walking stick). He prayed for her. Afterwards, he said: “Walk.” She reached for her umbrella, but he repeated: “Walk.”

“Not only did I walk, I jumped,” she said.

“Your faith healed you,” her mentor said.

Recently, she was unable to use her hands. Through a Zoom conference, the word of knowledge “carpel tunnel syndrome” came. She claimed it, and felt herself shaking even though the prayers were through the internet. The next morning, she did not have hand cramps when she woke up. She regained full use of her hands. “My orthopaedic doctor is unable to explain medically what happened.” 

Margie Teo and spiritual daughters

Pictured at a retreat in Sydney with two of her many spiritual children.

In the last few years, Teo has been investing significant time in the second generation that she believes the Lord will “upsize”. She said: “The Lord gives me names of people to spend time with, minister to, give confidence to, to share and pray with.”

The Lord had earlier given her the image of “passing on the baton”. 

“The elderly have a treasury to draw from that they have accumulated in their lives,” says Teo, who unsurprisingly got this message from yet another retreat. 

(Updated – October 20, 2021)

4 Million Steps

 If you’d like to be a part of Lakeside Family Service’s 4 Million Steps initiative to raise $300,000 to support 4,000 (ex-)offenders’ long journey of recovery and reintegration, find out more here, or through Margie Teo Koon Neo’s page.


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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.