You might think it’s too early to start celebrating Christmas but festive cheer is already resounding in one of the most ulu places in Singapore.
Held at Tuas South Recreational Space, close to 300 migrant workers turned up for a Christmas carnival last Sunday on December 5.
Something else that’s interesting? This event was specially organised for them by a group of five young Singaporeans.
It might be surprising to hear how such a small team helmed this project — even more surprising was the short runway they had.
HOW A BIRTHDAY BIRTHS A CARNIVAL
It all started with a birthday celebration just last month. While celebrating, a question popped up amongst the five friends: “What can we do for migrant workers this Christmas?”
When asked why the focus on the migrant worker community, Koe Zi Yan, one of the organisers of the Christmas carnival, pointed out that the dormitories that migrant workers live in are usually in secluded areas of Singapore.
“They are segregated from the society that they play a part in to build,” he explained.
This was something Zi Yan saw clearly after he got to know a migrant worker friend during a Deepavali celebration a few weeks back.
After the celebration, Zi Yan’s new friend posted a photo on Facebook, mentioning how Zi Yan was actually the first Singaporean friend he had made in two years here.
“Not having a Singaporean friend after having lived here for two years, I think that speaks volumes not about them but about us as Singaporeans,” reflected the 28-year-old.
And so, Zi Yan began texting Pastor Samuel Gift Stephen, who befriends and serves migrant workers daily, as both of them had previously connected while delivering food to migrant workers during the lockdown last year.
Pastor Samuel’s immediate reply was: “Do a carnival for them”. He explained that migrant workers essentially travel to three places a day – their dorms, their workplace and their assigned recreational space.
As such, it would be great if Zi Yan and his friends could organise a Christmas carnival for them at their recreational centre on one of the Sundays.
The problem was that December 5 was the only Sunday left to hold this event, which effectively meant they only had a few weeks to get the carnival up and going.
But Zi Yan decided to take the leap of faith. “This is something I’ve learned in my faith in very recent times as well,” Zi Yan shared. “To not let challenges come in the way of doing things for God.
“It’s kind of like the five loaves and two fishes; attempt to do great things for God and expect great things from Him.”
FIVE PEOPLE, ZERO RESOURCES
The first issue to tackle was manpower. A good ratio of volunteers to participants would be 1 to 5.
Hoping to have 100 attendees, Zi Yan and his four friends needed to gather 20 volunteers. But even after adding up all the youths from their church, it still wouldn’t be enough.
But that was when he remembered Matthew 9:35-38. Taking God at His word, Zi Yan began praying for labourers.
In the meantime, Zi Yan also asked his colleagues for help, who in turn asked other people too. As word started to spread, Zi Yan eventually managed to get over 30 volunteers!
“It’s amazing because when I think about it, previously, I was worried about getting 20 people,” he marvelled.
With this excess in manpower, the team decided to increase the number of target beneficiaries. That was how they went from targeting 100 attendees to 300 attendees.
Next, they had to figure out the budget and funding.
Zi Yan wanted to provide ice cream for the migrant workers when he heard that they enjoyed it and began getting quotes from companies.
That was when Zi Yan encountered great generosity: “One of the companies replied, ‘We have some ice cream that is going to expire. But it is after the date of the carnival. Would you like them?’
“So they decided to just donate 200 plus cups of ice cream!”
Zi Yan was awed by God’s provision and the generosity of such companies: “When I think about it, we didn’t ask for free ice cream. And they could have sold it to us at a discount.
“Instead, they went above and beyond. They said they would give the ice cream and even provide free delivery!”
For Zi Yan and his team, food took up more than half of their budget, so news like this was a huge weight off their shoulders.
“These small things really just came together,” mused Zi Yan.
“In all this, we saw the hand of God working in ways that we never expected.”
WHAT’S CHRISTMAS WITHOUT CHRIST?
While Zi Yan and his team gave their best in running the carnival, they were also convicted that they weren’t just organising a Christmas event like any other.
Zi Yan determined to share God’s message and love with all who came to the carnival, encouraging volunteers to take active steps to create meaningful conversations with participants.
The carnival also led up to the weekly church service held at Tuas Recreational Space, where migrant workers usually attend their religious services, depending on their faiths.
So Zi Yan roped in his church elder to preach — and even sing a worship song in Tamil — for the Christian service.
The turnout was comparable to the number of people who stayed after the Deepavali celebration, also held at Tuas Recreational Space previously, despite the latter having eight times the number of carnival participants.
“I believe it was the highest number of service attendance so far which is really amazing because the gospel is the main point,” Zi Yan concluded excitedly.
3 TIPS TO START AN OUTREACH
To anyone who is looking to serve others through a gospel initiative, but may be daunted by the task in front of them, Zi Yan offered three handles in encouragement.
1. Start small but be prepared to go big
“Go by faith — and faith expects great things — but also be practical and realistic about it,” shared Zi Yan.
Five loaves plus two fishes divided by 20,000 people equals 12 baskets full. That’s kingdom mathematics. Things don’t add up.
Giving the example of how his initial group of five targeted 100 beneficiaries based on the resources they had, Zi Yan said that such numbers were “above expectations but still realistic”.
At the same time, Zi Yan’s encouragement was not to let small starts and humble beginnings discourage anyone. Quoting from a sermon he heard recently: “Five loaves plus two fishes divide by 20,000 people equals 12 baskets full.
“That’s kingdom mathematics. Things don’t add up.”
To the 28-year-old, ultimately we just need to “overcome the inertia and take the first step in faith, and trust God to lead.”
“It’s one thing to pray Jeremiah 33:3, but another to experience it,” reflected Zi Yan. “I went into the carnival knowing that God is with us on this because He brought the people and money.
“So I knew He would also be with us in the execution of the event — and He was!”
2. Know that the sacrifices are worth it
Planning an event – especially with such a short turnaround time – takes sacrifice.
When asked how he managed his time in the leadup to the carnival, Zi Yan laughed and replied, “Sleep less lor!”
He was also prepared to cover the rest of the budget should there have been insufficient funding, telling his team to go ahead with the planning “as if they had the money” (within reasonable limits!).
Zi Yan was quick to clarify that he isn’t a rich person. He simply believes souls are more important than money, and trusted that God was going to provide.
“When you have a right perspective of the value of souls, you know that there’s no sacrifice which is too great,” he affirmed.
“And when you see Him working in small ways like providing ice cream and ice cream freezers,” added Zi Yan, “You can trust Him to provide more.”
3. Just do it
Many of us have heard of the parable of the lost sheep.
But Zi Yan shared that a quote from Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission, had really caused him to see it in a new way.
“The parable is about leaving the 99 to find that one. But these days, we are so comfortable with the one we have in our church that we leave the 99 out there perishing,” paraphrased Zi Yan.
Zi Yan’s caution was not to let comfort bring about complacency, and to be willing to be that one person who starts something for God.
“That’s how God works because we are called to provoke one another to good works,” he continued, recalling that all it took for the carnival to happen was just a simple question from a friend.
“It is the hardest step, but also the biggest one.”
As we closed our interview, Zi Yan shared with me the parable of the sheep and the goats, in which God reveals how He will distinguish the righteous from the rest.
Zi Yan said: “Christ says this: ‘When I was hungry, you gave me food, when I was thirsty you gave me drink… Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“How He separated them was based on how they conducted themselves towards those who are the least amongst the brethren.”
Zi Yan shared that we don’t often think of ourselves being judged in that way.
Instead, we have our own measures and metrics like church attendance or service in ministry.
While there is nothing wrong with those things, Zi Yan’s takeaway from the parable is that there must be a “reality to the believer’s faith”.
I wonder what living out my faith looks like this season. What might yours be?
Whatever it looks like, this Christmas, let’s remember the needs of others and see how they can be met so that we can love them as God has loved us.