Meet the woman who has washed Toa Payoh seniors’ feet for a decade
Image source: All photographs by Marcus Chow
When I thought of ministry as a young person, it often looked like volunteer work, leading a cell group or a campus programme.
But everything I knew of ministry was challenged when I met Adalena Koh and followed her around for a day.
When I first heard about Adalena and her feet-washing ministry, I didn’t know what to make of it.
It all started simply because God told her to love her neighbour.
This is a woman who has been running annual feet-washing events for nearly a decade, where hundreds of volunteers gather to play games, massage and wash the feet of the elderly living in Toa Payoh.
What especially struck me was learning that Adalena has been running this entire ministry independently and organically. She’s not a staff member at an NGO or a church.
In fact, none of what she’s been doing has been “formalised” into any sort of organisation. It all started simply because God told her to love her neighbour.
It was 2010 when Adalena, her two daughters, her grandma and her sister moved into a small HDB flat at Block 15 in Toa Payoh.
At the time, Adalena was still recovering from an autoimmune disease, which caused her a lot of pain whenever she moved.
Adalena recalled: “I remember lying in bed in so much pain shortly after we moved in. It was so painful that I just told God, use me or let me die.”
That same day, her sister had come home with a lot of fish. Her sister said that she saw a bunch of fish jumping out of the water and decided to cast a net towards that spot.
She hauled in more than 90 fishes that day and since then, Adalena’s sister has always managed to catch 15-50 kg of fish.
It was so painful that I just told God, use me or let me die.
“I believe that this was God answering my prayer. Not only did He provide food for my family, we were able to use the fish to reach out to our neighbours and help many other needy families living in our block of rental flats.”
Prior to this incident, Adalena had already been going down to the market at 1am every day to pick up unwanted, damaged vegetables from the market. She would be pushed on her wheelchair by her helper to collect the vegetables despite the great pain she was in.
“I would take everything back, then cut and cook the vegetables for my family and our neighbours. Through this, I managed to build a closer relationship with our neighbours and elderly living in the other blocks of rental flats.”
A few days ago, I joined Adalena on her annual feet-washing event.
Though with COVID-19 measures in place, it was scaled down. Instead of a mass event, Adalena is doing visits on separate days throughout December.
We knocked on doors and handed out goody bags sponsored by missions agency OM, as well as lunch packets that Adalena bought with her own money.
Lunch was a healthy biryani set that generously came with several sides and papadum. I found it amazing to see how Adalena has come such a long way since giving out old vegetables and fish.
Adalena and I ate at the home of an elderly man named Richard. In Uncle Richard’s house, I noticed a wooden cross that hung on the front door.
Adalena shared that Uncle Richard used to dabble in gambling. As a result, his relationship with his family was strained for a long time.
But he came to know Jesus through Adalena’s ministry, and his whole life turned around because of Christ. Since then, Uncle Richard has reconciled with his family – they have forgiven him and are now one happy family again.
Uncle Richard now opens his home to host worship sessions every week with the other seniors Adalena has befriended.
Being with Uncle Richard felt like I was with a long lost grandpa. He kept offering us water and making sure we were comfortable – it was hard to imagine he had such a past.
And as I listened to Uncle Richard sing worship songs in his house, I wondered how washing feet could be so effective.
Adalena explained: “Washing feet can help you build a very close relationship with the elderly. I’ve seen many come to know Christ’s love just from having their feet washed because actually nobody wants to touch another person’s feet.
“The elderly themselves know that no one will dare touch their legs. So when we are able to humble ourselves to touch their legs, the elderly are very touched.
“They know that you sincerely love them and it becomes very effective to show our love which can touch them to Christ.”
Adalena also shared with me that her grandmother used to be a physician. So growing up with her grandma, Adalena learnt about natural therapy using herbs. As such, she applies these skills to helping her elderly neighbours in her ministry.
“An elderly person’s foot can be particularly hard to touch because it’s dirty, there’s a lot of dead skin and it can be very smelly. Some of the elderly persons have diabetes, so the skin swells and becomes old and black, the smell can also be very strong.
“But washing and massaging their feet helps with blood circulation. It helps them walk better, which helps them in many other aspects of their daily life, improving their overall health.”
As we walked around to visit different units, it was common for Adalena to get sidetracked by bumping into another friend along the way.
Her vibrancy is a stark contrast to the dark and quiet halls we walk through. In fact, one of the residents in the block often jokes that he can hear Adalena even when she’s on a different floor.
Indeed, Adalena’s energy is contagious. She doesn’t hesitate to burst into song just to cheer up the elderly. When she’s with them, they can end up talking for almost half an hour.
Conversations jump from one language to another as she listens to their problems, inviting them to have their feet washed and to be prayed for.
My day with Adalena was certainly eye-opening.
I was used to doing ministry in an organised manner, often with a clear agenda – go into the house, drop the food, say thank you, maybe pray and then say goodbye.
But Adalena’s ministry wasn’t like that. Instead, she took her time to genuinely converse with every senior she encountered. She truly met them and served their needs, rather than accomplish her own agenda.
Adalena could share with me the life story of every person we met: this uncle’s wife recently had dementia; this aunty had an adopted son in prison now (both of whom have since accepted Christ!).
It was obvious that she had come to befriend almost every single person in the two blocks we visited.
“When you journey with someone, it cannot be halfway in and out.”
“Ministry is like that,” Adalena explains. “When you journey with someone, it cannot be halfway in and out.”
A favourite testimony Adalena often recalls as an example of what ministry means to her is of an elderly man she visited for seven years.
He kept rejecting all her invitations to accept Christ but on the seventh year, he randomly called her up and asked to be baptised.
For 10 years, Adalena has visited the elderly and needy in Toa Payoh to wash their feet, hand out food and conduct worship sessions.
She even helps bring the elderly to the hospital and arrange funeral services. “For my elderly ministry, I journey with them until they go home to the Lord.
“Though it need not necessarily be feet washing, I hope to see more people genuinely love the elderly and win them for Christ.
I journey with them until they go home to the Lord.
“We’ve worked with Boys’ Brigade and Girls’ Brigade students, and simple tasks such as filling up the water and helping to change it is enough. We even had one girl who knew how to cut hair and she was able to lend her skills to bless the elderly.”
“I believe that once the elderly feel your love, they will know this love is from Jesus and they will come to know the Lord,” Adalena encouraged.
“I hope for volunteers and the next generation to be able to see how genuinely befriending the elderly and your neighbours can win them for the kingdom of God.”
Witnessing Adalena’s dedication made me reflect on my own attitudes towards my ministry.
I can’t imagine serving a specific people group for 10 years as Adalena has done. Walking alongside a person or community often requires sacrifice – I find it’s not the easiest call to answer.
Indeed, Adalena shares that her current concern is seeing very little committed volunteers: “I’ve been praying for people who come in to feel a deep sense of ownership, to show genuine love and compassion for the elderly.
“But so far most volunteers remain ad hoc, coming as and when it’s convenient for them.”
While Adalena recognises God’s sovereignty over the elderly, knowing He will still have ways to touch their lives even without her ministry, it is her hope to see more people rise up in compassion and love and see this community through God’s eyes.
Wanna be a part of this? Adalena will be going around on December 12, 2020 from 9am to 2pm. Join her in handing out goodie bags and lunch to the elderly, as well as washing their feet. You can also help to buy things for the seniors’ goody bags or contribute to Adalena’s ministry if you are led to. For more details, email Adalena at [email protected] or text her at 90061701.
THINK + TALK
- What are some of the gifts or talents you possess?
- How might they be used to bless your neighbour?
- This week, what is one practical way you can begin serving those – especially the elderly – around you?