“I hated guest workers. Whenever I saw them, I would get very angry.
“Sometimes I would sit at a coffee shop opposite Yishun MRT and whenever the guest workers walked past to go to church, I would shout insults at them.”
Those were the last words I thought would come out of Reverend Samuel Gift Stephen’s mouth. You may or may not have heard of him, but Reverend Samuel is deeply involved in serving Singapore’s foreign workers, who see him as a big brother and champion of their rights.
“The word ‘guest’ means they are here as guests, and we are the hosts. And what is the role of a host? It is to care, to make them feel comfortable, to make them feel honoured and appreciated.”
He is the founder and lead director of Alliance for Guest Workers Outreach (AGWO), an organisation that champions the welfare of guest workers in Singapore, and also serves as the vice president of Hope Initiative Alliance (HIA).
In fact, there’s a reason why Reverend Samuel uses the term “guest workers” instead of “migrant workers”. It is his belief that the term “migrant” tends to put the brothers at a distance, as if they don’t belong here.
“But if they are guest workers, the word ‘guest’ means they are here as guests, and we are the hosts,” he explained. “And what is the role of a host? It is to care, to make them feel comfortable, to make them feel honoured and appreciated.”
That was why I found Reverend Samuel’s confession so surprising, to say the least. But to understand why he resented guest workers, we have to go back to the beginning.
It was the late 1960s. Reverend Samuel’s father, the late Reverend Dr. John Sam Stephen, was on a gospel ship sailing back to Sri Lanka, where he was from, after a missionary trip.
Reverend Dr. John got caught in a storm and his ship started to sink. Getting onto a small boat, he then made his way to the nearest island – Singapore.
“Singapore welcomed my father with open arms at that time,” Reverend Samuel told me. “And so, he was housed by a church called Pentecostal Evangelical Church.”
In return for lodging, Reverend Dr. John would upkeep and maintain the church’s facilities.
While doing so, he would greet the Indian foreign workers walking by the church every day. Soon, the church saw a growth in the number of guest workers coming for fellowship.
When Reverend Dr. John became the senior pastor of Pentecostal Evangelical Church, he pioneered a smaller assembly just for them.
Having been a migrant himself, he had a heart for them.
Reverend Samuel recalled: “Every week, my dad would go to some shipyard where there were thousands of guest workers. And he would bring his van and then pick them up and bring them for meals.”
It even became common for Reverend Samuel to share his bed with guest workers since his dad would invite them over to their house so often.
Reverend Samuel grew acquainted with the struggles guest workers faced. But he also felt that certain lines were being crossed.
”I saw my father giving his life for these guys,” said Reverend Samuel. “And my father would in fact spend more time with them than me.”
Why was it that our whole life was surrounded by them? They are here in our house, they’re in church, they are in our car… Because of them, we don’t have time with you.
Questions like these were frequently asked by a frustrated, young Samuel.
The breaking point came when one of the guest workers remarked to Reverend Dr. John that Samuel was a rebellious young man.
It didn’t seem help that Reverend Samuel had blonde hair and was into hip-hop culture at the time. But the misunderstanding occurred anyway, as feelings soured: “They actually didn’t understand who I really was. It was just made up stories.”
Feeling deeply betrayed, Reverend Samuel left the church with a seething hatred for guest workers, a deep resentment that would linger for the next 13 years.
A CHANGE OF HEART
Nevertheless. there was one foreign friend who had stayed by Reverend Samuel’s side, even when the latter joined a gang and became wayward.
That same friend invited Reverend Samuel to his church camp, which would end up changing the course of his life.
At that point in time, even though Reverend Samuel had left God, he had carved out a successful life for himself. He was 26 and his business had made its first million. He had everything a man could want.
“This person has everything yet nothing. He’s looking for something, not knowing what he is looking for. He thinks he’s looking for a thing or a position. But what he is looking for is a Person — and His name is Jesus.”
But Reverend Samuel shared that he lived with such a deep emptiness that he had to down a bottle of Jack Daniels just to sleep every night.
It was only at that church camp when his life finally changed. The preacher at the camp was from Australia, and as he walked up the stage, he declared that he came to this camp for one person and one person only.
“This person has everything yet nothing,” said the preacher. “He’s looking for something, not knowing what he is looking for. He thinks he’s looking for a thing or a position. But what he is looking for is a Person — and His name is Jesus.”
Those words from the Australian preacher exactly echoed the cry of Reverend Samuel’s heart.
“I remember being so desperate because I was empty to the core,” recalled Reverend Samuel. “I stood up and I said, ‘How do I have this relationship with Jesus?’”
The preacher then led him in saying the Sinner’s Prayer. Right when he finished praying was when Reverend Samuel felt contentment surging through him like never before.
“For the first time in 13 years, a tear trickled down my chin, my cheeks. And I knew that something had happened inside of me,” he said.
“Money didn’t matter anymore. My job, my name, my status, my gang didn’t matter anymore. Because I had found something that was far more precious than all the world could give me.”
So moved was Reverend Samuel that he gave up his company and came into full-time ministry.
One of the first things God told him to do? Love the migrant brothers.
It was a call that Reverend Samuel initially struggled with: “How do I love someone who has done so much harm to the relationship I have with my father?
“If I could love you and forgive you even when you did so much to me, how much more can you do for this brother?”
“But God said, ‘If I could love you and forgive you even when you did so much to me, how much more can you do for this brother?”
“These were the guys who I persecuted. I would yell at them, shout profanities at them,” Reverend Samuel continued. “So, imagine going up to them and giving them a hug!”
Eventually, Reverend Samuel was convicted and humbled himself to obey God: “I embraced them and I said, ‘I love you brothers. I’m sorry for what I did.’”
A hug was how the ministry began. Even till this day, Reverend Samuel still hugs all brothers who come to his church.
LOVE IN ACTION
Since then, Reverend Samuel has daily endeavoured to improve the lives of guest workers in Singapore.
Inspired by the 2013 Little India riot, Reverend Samuel and Reverend Ezekiel Tan, Chairman of HIA, and the team from Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach organised an exhibition in 2019 to foster better understanding and relations amongst Singaporeans and guest workers by holding an exhibition in 2019.
Called Walking in Your Shoes, it showcased the history, contributions and living conditions of these brothers. The exhibition saw thousands of Singaporeans and even ministers who attended the event.
Reverend Samuel also organised an appreciation night at Fullerton Hotel to thank guest workers for building the country, an event that was graced by Deputy Minister of Singapore Heng Swee Keat.
“God reminded me to honour them and bring them to a place of honour,” recalled Reverend Samuel. “So we reached out to one of our partners and they opened up the hotel and we actually had 350 guest workers who came to the event.”
Many of the beneficiaries thanked Reverend Samuel after the event. One sister from Myanmar cried because she had always felt that she was not worthy to enter such a place, let alone hear the Deputy Prime Minister thank workers like her for building the nation.
During the initial phase of COVID-19 last year, Reverend Samuel also delivered thousands of food packets to dormitories upon hearing that they were under lockdown and had no access to food.
“For Singaporeans, we have Grab and Deliveroo. But these guys have no means of getting food if they don’t leave the dorms to go out and buy it,” said Reverend Samuel.
“That was what pierced my heart very deeply. There were men in Singapore who hadn’t eaten for five days!”
Every day for a month, Reverend Samuel would pick up food at 6.30am and drive to nearly 70 different dorms in Singapore to deliver the food.
He would only reach home around 11pm, and the cycle would start over again the next day.
There were men in Singapore who hadn’t eaten for five days!
During that period, he tried not to come into contact with his family and slept in a separate room in order to protect them.
It was very difficult, Reverend Samuel admitted, but he knew he had to do it: “There are many people who call them brothers. But when a crisis hits, you really know who your brothers are.”
Together with volunteers, Reverend Samuel would eventually deliver over a million meals to the brothers.
The Lord is putting new dreams on Reverend Samuel’s heart, one of which is to equip guest workers and send them back to their home country to work.
This dream was inspired by a brother Reverend Samuel knew, who had been working in Singapore for some 20 years to provide for his family.
Tragically, the brother passed on one day and Reverend Samuel was tasked to relay the information to the family.
He would never forget the son’s reply. “He was silent for a while,” recounted Reverend Samuel. “Then he said, ‘Pastor, how should I feel? How should I react? I’ve only seen my father about five to seven times in my lifetime.’”
Reverend Samuel broke down when he heard that.
“I had failed as a pastor,” he reflected. “I had never driven the brother to reconsider his work which was done here at the expense of his family.”
Since then, Reverend Samuel began to look into the systemic issues that force guest workers to stay in Singapore for extended periods of time.
Reverend Samuel also excitedly shared with me one of his ideas to equip guest workers — liaising with educational institutions in Singapore to provide free courses for them.
“The best years of their life, when they are the strongest and the most motivated, they can come here to work. But they can also learn,” said Reverend Samuel.
“And eventually with these skills, they can go back and build their nation, their families.”
It is one approach that Reverend Samuel believes will help to eradicate poverty and build generations.
Encouraging believers to play their part in loving and hosting our guest workers, Reverend Samuel mused: “We go out to the nations for missions, but here are brothers from the nations on our shores!”
Especially in the COVID-19 era, now is a crucial time to rise and show the light of Christ.
“We can’t fly to the countries but we can drive to the dorms,” he encouraged with a smile.
“Here is a mission field, waiting for your arrival.”
AGWO is holding a Christmas Celebration for guest workers from now till 26 December and is looking for volunteers and donors to support their event. Contact [email protected] for more information.
Alternatively, visit Hope Initiative Alliance to find out more about how you can support guest workers in Singapore.
- Which part of Reverend Samuel’s story inspired you the most? Why?
- Who are some guest workers you cross paths with in daily life?
- Consider your skills and gifts. How can you be a blessing to a guest worker today?