Standing outside an old building in the heart of Geylang, we wondered if we had come to the wrong place.
But the address was right, and we saw YWAM’s signage by the lifts. So in we went, where we met YWAM Singapore’s National Director, Joseph Chean.
“We’ve been here in Geylang since 1995, but for a period of 15 years we didn’t want to touch Geylang,” he told us. “As a missions agency, we conveniently said to ourselves, ‘Let’s focus on overseas work, leave Geylang to the churches. After all, Geylang has the most number of churches in all of Singapore. You can find 4 to 5 churches in one building.’”
In his words, the prospect of touching and impacting lives in Geylang was a long-term commitment, like working with glue: “You would not be able to wash your hands off it, and we knew that.
“But it all started when God confronted us with a question, ‘What would Jesus do if He has a house in Geylang?’” Chean said.
Chean looked to me for an answer. “Invite all of them in,” I replied without hesitation. As if he was expecting my answer, Chean quickly pointed out that that’s what everyone does in Geylang: “People are always invited into houses where prostitution happens. So what would Jesus do differently?”
AN INVISIBLE WORLD
“We didn’t really have answers for that question but the whole YWAM community went out to the streets and began to pray,” Chean said. And as they went about praying, YWAM found there existed a community of homeless prostitutes with children in Geylang.
“We know that Geylang has a lot of street walkers from different nations. We also know that there are Singaporeans working here in Geylang. What we did not know was that there are homeless street ladies with multiple children, and their children don’t go to school. The children grow up in Geylang, the children play in Geylang – some of the ladies are second and third-generation streetwalkers.
“Imagine that: Your mother and your grandmother were all prostitutes. When we saw that, we were shocked,” Chean shared.
The oldest profession in the world is still flourishing in the lorongs of Geylang. The reality of what goes on in this red-light district breaks from the images we typically have when we think of Singapore. And the way past this veneer is to go close.
“This mother of four would roam the street, pass her baby to the eldest child, while she does the work,” said Chean. Her children had either dropped out of school or never even been to kindergarten – local Singaporeans.
“Hearing their story, it’s very painful. She says that once you are on this street, you always feel very dirty, no matter how much you bathe yourself, you can never clean yourself.
“So we decided to reach out to her. We brought her in and we put her children through home school,” he said.
“It is not the poor that needs the Church, it is the Church that needs the poor.”
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Chean estimated that 40 to 60 people interacted with the family and helped bring the children up to speed academically, who are now back in the school system. He shared that no one person can accomplish the full scale of what it takes to restore a family – it takes a village to bring transformation.
“What really, really impressed me the most was when our full-time staff took in some of these kids to live with them. When you open up your homes and bring these people into your house, and they become part of you – that’s where the whole Christian thing begins to change.
“You’re no longer doing religion now, you’re really doing family, You’re actually doing what the Bible talks about: When someone has no home, you bring them to your house, When someone has no food, you give them something to eat.”
Chean said that if you do this, it means you haven’t just received them into your house – but also your heart. He continued proudly: “And no one in YWAM receives a salary, so why would they do that? They must be nuts, right? Unless there is something else they’ve seen that is far bigger than getting a salary.”
They did see something bigger. Chean shared that this was the realisation they could stop prostitution in this generation for the children – that the children could break out of this cycle.
“Being here, it helps you to change how you see the Bible. So I like it that we are here. In fact, I often say, it’s not Geylang that needs YWAM, it’s YWAM that needs Geylang,” Chean tells us.
“It’s not the poor that needs the Church, it’s the Church that needs the poor. The poor needs to save the Singapore Church from being the Church that we are today. Because we’re so sophisticated, we’re so inward looking,” Chean said.
Chean worries about what the Singapore Church will look like in 50 years if we continue to only look into our Bibles while neglecting the people around us who we are commanded to love – neglecting the societies we were told to transform.
“The danger of our Church today is that we resolve to mercy ministries as an activity. When it’s done, it’s a tick in the box – ‘I’ve done my part'”.
But the need doesn’t go away just because there isn’t an event or an activity. When YWAM began to see God’s heart for Geylang, that spurred them into action – they could no longer do nothing.
So what would Jesus want us to do for the people in Geylang today?
I think it’s likely He’d show us if we’re willing to find out.
YWAM Singapore’s Mercy Ministries began in early 2012, reaching out to street ladies, the homeless, the at-risk youth in prisons and more. Mercy Ministries also provides disaster relief to the region and serves remote river communities through a medical boat – delivering God’s love through medical care. To get involved, contact [email protected].
- When was the last time you did something good for the marginalised?
- What are your passions and skillsets?
- What are some practical ways you can use these to help the less fortunate?