How one man followed the call of God… all the way to Africa
All photos courtesy of Leonard Ong.
Leonard Ong would never have guessed that a relaxing evening spent watching a fishing programme would eventually lead to an extraordinary journey into the heart of Africa.
But when God calls, you answer. And in the summer of 2017, Leonard did just that.
Since the start of that year, he had been wrestling with the idea of travelling to Africa to join the work of Justice Rising, a humanitarian organisation devoted to building schools in war zones.
The prompting in his heart first began when he heard Jemima Ooi share about her work in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at the end of 2016.
As Leonard has always had a heart for young people, listening to Jemima’s accounts of Congolese children being robbed of their childhood tugged at his heartstrings.
“At that point in time, I felt a burden in my heart for the people of Africa but the whole idea still seemed very incredulous – Africa and in particular the DRC was so far away! I didn’t think too much of it but as time progressed, God started sending signs that He wanted me to go,” the 48-year-old recalls.
Although movies and books on Africa would “jump out” at Leonard, he continued to suppress his growing hunch until April 2017, when he realised he could deny God’s prompting no longer. More and more, he found himself resonating with Jonah’s predicament, and when the prophet’s story came up in a devotional one day, he knew God was speaking.
So Leonard told God, “If you really want me to go to Africa, You need to give me an absolute sign.”
“Let it not be said that God doesn’t have a sense of humour,” he remarks wryly. When flipping through nature channels one evening, he stumbled upon a River Monsters episode about catching catfishes – in the Congo!
“I was trying to avoid movies on Africa and thought this genre of shows would be safe enough,” laughs Leonard. “I immediately burst out laughing and that was when I knew I had to go.”
As it turned out, everything fell nicely into place. Leonard got in touch with Jemima and found out that she was just about to return to work on another mission with Justice Rising.
“God’s timing is truly perfect,” he reflects. “An opportunity opened up just when I was convicted of my calling and by God’s grace, I was able to obtain permission from work and the blessings of my family to go.”
GOD WILL LEAD YOU
So began the journey that would take him deep into the thatched villages of the DRC. His trip started in Rwanda, where he worked with Burundian refugees and witnessed God’s enduring love for them.
The first problem Leonard encountered was the cultural divide, which complicated his attempts to relate to the people he was interacting with. “I didn’t know how to best minister to them,” he says. “But Jemima assured me that God would show me how.”
Sure enough, God did just that through a dream: “In my dream, I was a Burundian father fleeing ethnic persecution with my daughter. As we were driving away from our home, my daughter turned to me and said, ‘Daddy I forgot my slippers.’
“On the way back to retrieve her footwear, I saw a mob outside my house with torches and pitchforks. It was like something straight out of a horror movie! The sense of fear was so palpable that it hit me there and then: the way to minister to the refugees was by addressing their trauma and fear.”
And as he grew more familiar with the refugee community in Rwanda, God began to open Leonard’s eyes to the needs around him.
He wistfully recalls his stay with Mama D, a Burundian wife and mother whose husband was separated from them, having sought asylum in the United States. “I realised that I could best minister to them by providing comfort. I could sense their sadness at being chased from their home and felt God telling me to remind Mama D and her two daughters that they had not been forgotten,” he shares.
Leonard vividly recalls being allocated 3 scoops of water a day to bathe and hearing the sounds of gunfire at night when sleeping.
He was especially moved by the plight of O, Mama D’s adopted daughter. While her sister (their mother’s biological child) was looking forward to starting university, the family could not afford to send O as well. But even in the midst of her disappointment, God’s favour continued to shine upon O.
Ensuring that this opportunity would not pass her by, He moved Leonard to anonymously sponsor her university education. “She’s actually about to graduate now!” he tells me.
“I heard that when she found out she was going to go to university after all, O said, ‘God saw and remembered me.’ She told Jemima she felt like her shame had been lifted and she could hold her head up high now.”
GOD WILL PROTECT YOU
But God wasn’t just looking out for the local community. Leonard soon realised that God had wrapped His shield of protection around him too.
Stepping into the Congolese city of Goma felt like being transported to a different world: this was a country that had been ravaged by war, volcanic eruptions and poverty. Leonard vividly recalls being allocated 3 scoops of water a day to bathe and hearing the sounds of gunfire at night when sleeping.
When you have nothing, you have everything.
Yet, it was in the “heart of darkness” that he felt God’s illuminating presence most strongly. “God impressed this lesson on my mind: when you have nothing, you have everything,” he reflects. “Because when you have nothing, God really becomes the epicentre of your life and you depend on Him for daily sustenance. That was the reality of life in the Congo.”
Leonard recalls an instance when God’s unfailing faithfulness particularly stood out to him: He had been separated from Jemima when his motorcycle driver made a detour to refill petrol.
“I suddenly found myself alone in the middle of Goma, surrounded by people who had never seen a Chinese person before,” he recounts. “As they crowded around curiously, I remembered thinking, ‘Uh-oh.’”
Just when Leonard was starting to feel anxious, he looked across the petrol kiosk and saw a sign that read “Trust God.”
“So I did,” says Leonard. “With a smile and sudden comfort in my heart, I proceeded with the journey. Moments later, amidst the din of traffic, I could hear Jemima’s voice calling to me as I neared the destination.
“I don’t know how I heard her calling, but God was definitely in charge of the situation.”
God would come through for Leonard just a few weeks later again.
Towards the end of his time in the DRC, while having to go through immigration at the DRC-Rwandan border, the Justice Rising group was worried about having to leave their vehicle unattended while they processed through immigration.
Just then, a truck pulled up with the same four UN soldiers that they had met a few weeks earlier while applying for a visa extension in a different part of town. They had gotten to know one another over a casual chat that day and even posed for a picture together.
“Of all the 20,000 UN soldiers in the Congo, what were the chances that the only four I knew showed up!” Leonard marvels. “That was really a sign that God was looking after me every step of the journey. We just wanted someone to watch our vehicle but He sent us an armed guard! That was a ‘wow’ moment for me.”
GOD WILL USE YOU
He might have witnessed God’s light time and again throughout his trip, but the experience that left the deepest impression on Leonard was the privilege he had to help work a miracle.
Leonard shared that he met a crippled girl in the village of Kingi in the DRC. The muscles in her legs were severely underdeveloped, an affliction she attributed to a curse. With his team and translator, Leonard prayed for the girl, asking Jesus to strengthen her legs and breathe life into her spirit.
“A week later, I returned to check on her and the most wonderful sight greeted me: the girl had a shy smile on her face and was practicing walking with a pair of crutches!” exclaims Leonard. “Gone was the defeated girl we had seen last week, resigned to being bedridden. In her place was someone rejuvenated with a new zest for life!”
“I have heard sermons about miracles — the blind being made to see, the deaf to hear, people being raised from the dead — but I had never been privy to one until now,” Leonard says. “Perhaps there is yet hope for this ‘unbelieving generation’!”
His encounters with those in need throughout Rwanda, the DRC and Uganda broke Leonard’s heart. But it also strengthened his spirit: “It convinced me that I wanted to spend my life reaching out to children in need.”
Unlike his earlier reluctance to heed God’s calling, Leonard immediately made the necessary changes to his life and career upon returning to Singapore. He now works with youths in the hope that God will work through him to touch their lives.
To Leonard, his time in Africa made him more attuned to the brokenness around him. “In life, you do what you can to fix the hurt around you, but ultimately, hope and comfort only comes through God’s grace and compassion,” he says.
Looking back, Leonard admits that he wishes he was more obedient at the start: “I’ve come to understand that we’re called for a season, and I’m grateful that God had a lot of grace and humour in convincing me to heed His prompting.
“I pray that I’ll always be able to hear His voice and will clearly.”
HOW TO PRAY FOR AFRICA
Most of us may not have the opportunity to fly halfway across the world, but we can still help by interceding for the people of Africa through prayer.
We can pray for:
- Godly, ethical leaders within and outside of government who have the people’s best interests at heart and are uncorrupt.
- An end to the vicious cycle of poverty plaguing the region, especially the more troubled countries like the DRC where systemic exploitation of mineral resources at people’s expense persists.
- Peace to come to the land so that the marginalised will have reprieve from the threat of war, violence and rape.
“I believe Africa has a very special place in God’s heart,” concludes Leonard as our conversation comes to a close. “He certainly hasn’t forgotten his children there.
“People call the Congo the ‘Heart of Darkness’, but it’s actually where His light shines brightest.”
THINK + TALK
- Have you ever felt God call you to something big?
- What was your response?
- What are some things in your life that might hold you back from answering a call like Leonard’s?
- Would you give those things up to God in prayer today?