City News congratulates Canon James Wong and Sister Esther on their 50th wedding anniversary, and gets the couple to share their inspiring love story.
The year was 1958, the occasion the first Overseas Christian Fellowship convention in Adelaide, Australia. James Wong, then a youth leader had just made the acquaintance of a young woman who had cooked dinner for the team leaders. “I found her attractive, appealing … she was a good cook,” was James’ first impression of her. On the last night of the convention, their team presented a skit, and both of them found themselves acting as husband and wife.
The young woman was Esther, whom he would meet again three years later as they boarded the same train to Penang, Malaysia to attend an Anglican youth camp. James moved from his original seat to sit next to her, and they chatted throughout the ride. The time they shared on the trip was what “clinched the deal” for both of them.
For James, there was the commonality of mutual friends and overseas academic background (which was, at the time, rare), emotional and intellectual compatibility as well as spiritual harmony. On her part, Esther remembers, “He was very compassionate for the Lord, fervency, zealous. He was a straight talker—no hidden agenda—he just wanted to serve the Lord with everything he had.”
Things moved fast after they got back from the camp. James was due to enroll into Trinity College for ordination training to become a full-time minister. Marriage would not have been possible during the several years of training. And so it was after a short, four-month courtship that they tied the knot in December 1963.
“I told her I cannot give her everything materially but I will definitely support her spiritually,” says James. Esther chuckles, recalling the proposal as “almost like a business deal—no romance.”
And thus began a journey that has lasted 50 years, between the serious, aggressive, go-getter James and the personable, compassionate and relational Esther. The secret to their marriage? “We don’t focus on minor things but the major one—the direction we are heading as a family,” says Esther.
The wife’s role is not to dictate the direction a family should go, but to pray for her husband, she explains. She is to take on a supporting role as the neck, while the man is the head (“Two-headedness is only good for the circus,” she adds.)
If a woman finds it hard to take the submissive role, it will be very hard for the man to exert his headship. “Headship does not mean superiority. It means servanthood; it means that you take responsibility,” James explains.
Because of this mutual understanding of their God-given roles in the families, the Wongs began to see the Lord blend their strengths and gifts for ministry even as they grew gradually and steadily in their relationship as husband and wife.
In the early days of their marriage, James worked as an assistant at a small church, and Esther was a schoolteacher. They were soon blessed with two sons, Jonathan and Timothy. When James went to pursue his graduate studies at a theological college in California for a year and a half, he was accompanied by his entire family.
“We do not believe in separation of families, even for short-term work transfers,” says Esther. “A lot of people now work in China, in other countries, and their family members are left behind. This causes families to be fragmented because they allow things to pull them apart. The implication is not good—what lesson are you teaching the kids? That it’s all right to be separated? Family first, everything else second.”
In 1973, James felt the stirrings of a holy dissatisfaction within him. “I had such a hunger for God, and I was dissatisfied with my ministry. I desired to be filled with the Spirit but I didn’t know who to turn to. One night, the Lord baptized me in the Spirit and I began to pray and worship God in a new language,” he remembers.
That experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit unlocked a whole avenue of ministry for the Wongs, as God opened doors for church planting and evangelism works and speakers flew in from all over the world to sow into this new work of the Holy Spirit.
“I saw the change in him—there was greater joy, greater praise and worship,” says Esther. At that time, they were pastoring a group of young people at their church, the Church of the Good Shepherd at Marine Parade Center. Working with Bishop Chiu Ban It, the Wongs witnessed the ushering in of the charismatic renewal in Singapore and South-east Asia in 1975.
Things swung into full gear in 1977, as James birthed eight new churches in various housing estates around Singapore. That was also the year in which a young man named Kong Hee came to their church, located at Marine Parade Center at the time. Back then, Kong was a mere schoolboy riding his bicycle around the Katong neighborhood.
With a ministry picking up steam and two boys aged 3 and 6 in tow, the family took a leap of faith. Trusting in God’s provision, Esther left her teaching job in 1981 in order to take care of their children and help her husband in the ministry. As a woman of prayer, she dedicated herself to much intercession, counseling and leading Bible study, all of which she still does till today. Also a highly credible speaker, she spearheaded the launch of the first ever National Christian Women’s Conference in Singapore last year.
These days, the Wongs enjoy reading (biographies are their favorites, along with Time and Forbes magazines), going out with friends for dinners and movies, and spending time with their two sons both in their 40s—Jonathan is an ordained minister at an Anglican church, and Timothy is a financial analyst—and their six grandchildren.
“After 50 years of marriage, I still find out new things about her that I’ve never seen before,” says James. As for Esther, “[James] has not deviated from what I’ve known him to be from the start—still very consistent in his walk with the Lord, very frank with his words.”
Last December, the Wongs renewed their wedding vows at the Church of Ascension, the very place they were married in 50 years ago.
“It’s a testimony of God’s faithfulness,” says Esther.