Intellectual and learning disabilities do not stop over 400 special needs members from connecting with God every week at City Harvest’s Jesus For All Minds (JAMs) Church.
Like many of her peers back in the early years of City Harvest Church, Lily Yong was a passionate youth leading several cell groups. One day, she was asked to organize an outing for a group of children with special needs. The experience was not particularly pleasant for her, an expected response for anyone who has never worked with those with special needs.
In 1996, Yong was asked to help start a ministry serving this very demographic of individuals. Needless to say, she did not jump at the opportunity; instead, she struggled with feelings of inadequacy and unwillingness to take on the challenge laid out before her.
“For months I pleaded with God with tears to ‘spare’ me. I did not feel ‘gifted’ or ‘anointed’ in helping people with special needs, but the turning point came when I heard God tell me that His grace was sufficient for me,” Yong recalls. Trusting that God would multiply the little she had, she answered the call to launch the ministry with four members. Along the way she completed a diploma in disability studies.
“Childlike faith is all Jesus is looking for. In the Master’s hand, little becomes much,” she says. Today, she serves as the pastor of JAMs Church, bringing the love and power of Jesus Christ each week to over 400 members with intellectual disabilities.
LIVING TO THEIR FULL POTENTIAL
The JAMs Church conducts three weekly worship services, led by Yong and her team of full-time pastoral supervisors Santhi Singaram and Adiel Choy, along with 80 volunteers on rotation. Each service is a high-octane affair with interactive games and dance, vibrant praise and worship and sharing of the Word.
Members are taught about their identity in Christ, encouraged to dream big and go to the Lord for wisdom in their daily lives. They also develop social skills through a variety of platforms such as talent shows, competitions and social outings.
“Our job is just to bring God into their lives, so that He can do the work only He can do. The Bible says man sees the outward appearance, but God knows the deep things, and only God can touch a person’s heart and He is the one who grows the fruit and helps the members live out their potential,” says pastoral supervisor and full-time church worker Santhi Singaram, who has been with the ministry since day one.
Undoubtedly, with members facing disabilities from Down Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to cerebral palsy, it can be an overwhelming ministry to serve in.
“There are lots of perceptions about how things should be done, but when you serve in JAMs, there is a lot of molding [of your character] and God gives you the grace to love. His ways are higher, and many times, simpler. At the end of the day, it’s not really what you do, but what God does through you. And when you see a life transformed, what you’re really seeing is the evident hand of God in a person’s life,” explains the former primary school teacher.
Over time, members have gone from being just the recipient to being the blesser. Various ones serve in the ministry as security workers and bussing assistants; others have taken part in community outreach efforts by assembling gift hampers for the less fortunate. “They don’t despise what they cannot do, but they look at what they can do,” says Singaram.
Others have risen to the challenge of finding employment in the marketplace. One of them is Fern Wong Li Ting, 32, who produces artwork for print on greeting cards through the VSA (Very Special Arts) Singapore charity organization, which provides opportunities for people with disabilities through the arts. Wong has Down Syndrome.
And then there is Lim Chun Ru, 33, a Down Syndrome individual who works two jobs—as an assistant administrative officer in an office at Raffles Place, and a helper with the Infant Toddler Programme at the Down Syndrome Association (Singapore). This year, she will be receiving a five-year long service award for her administrative job. “One of the most amazing things I have witnessed is how God gives them the ability to dream big and to go after things they may not have fathomed that they could do,” says Singaram.
Asked what she loves about JAMs Church, Lim, whose dream is to be a church worker one day, replies without missing a beat, “I can encounter God. I love to praise and worship God, I love to hear God’s Word.” Having struggled with suicidal thoughts since the passing of two family members, she adds, “I find peace and love at JAMs Church.”
MEETING EACH ONE RIGHT WHERE THEY ARE
Love is a big part of the JAMs family. Visitors who attend a service typically find themselves the recipient of multiple forms of greetings that range from a friendly wave or a shy “hi” to a generous hug. “The members really give you all the love they can!” laughs volunteer keyboardist Olivia Lau, an administration manager.
“One thing that really inspires me is the friendship among the members … you cannot really understand it, but it really touches you when you see them looking out for one another, comforting those who are down, or even chiding one another when misbehave,” Lau adds.
For fellow volunteer Venny Yuliany, an interior designer, a casual exchange with one of the members turned into a valuable reminder. “I was helping to bus the members one day, and I had a chance to ask one of the students, ‘Why do you bring offering every week?’ To my surprise, he replied, ‘Oh, it is because I want to give to the Lord, and Teacher Santhi taught us that when we give, we must give with courage.’ That conversation reminded me that when we share the Word of God, it never comes back in vain, and Holy Spirit gives every student the understanding of the Word, meeting them right where they are.”
Indeed, it is a ministry where pre-conceived notions are shed and prejudices are discarded when it comes to the things of God—for example, the act of worship. “We always think worship has to look or sound a certain way, but it’s always between the individual and God, and definitely not for anyone to judge,” says Singaram. “A person may ask, ‘Are they really praying or worshipping? Are they really growing in the Lord?’ Yes. Why? Because God’s Spirit has communion with man’s spirit, and that’s how these members grow. Why should anyone cast doubt over what these members do or do not do? We don’t doubt the love of a little child, so why do we wonder about the faith of those with special needs?”
TOUCHING WHOLE FAMILIES
Beyond ministering to members themselves, the JAMs Church also provides manpower to look after children with special needs below age 12 while their parents attend the main English services. In addition, the JAMs Church provides a community for the families of those with special needs to share their discouragements and frustrations. Through excursions, luncheons, small prayer groups and online chat groups, family members find encouragement from those walking a similar journey.
JAMs workers and volunteers also conduct visitations to the homes of over 100 members on average every week. The trust and dialogue established with parents and caregivers over time has opened doors for salvation to be extended to members’ families—during its Easter service earlier this year, 116 decisions for Christ were recorded, which included first-time salvations by parents whose children had been attending JAMs Church for many years.
In 2012, the JAMs Church co-organized its first major conference in collaboration with the Church of Singapore to empower and equip special needs workers as well as parents and caregivers of those with special needs. The second chapter of the conference was held in 2014, focusing on the welfare of siblings of special needs children.
Yong herself has travelled overseas, sharing her experience with Christian workers in Indonesia interested in starting a similar ministry. Looking back on 20 years of ministry, her greatest satisfaction is none other than “to see all our JAMs angels happy and healthy.”
Log on to www.chc.org.sg for information on the JAMs Church service locations and timing.
A HEART FOR JAMs
IT consultant, Hardy Kowari, 33, shares his first-hand experience as a JAMs Church
volunteer since 2010.
You’ve volunteered with JAMS for six years. What motivates you to keep serving?
The opportunity to stand in the gap for the members. This is where God has placed me for this season in my life, and this is where I will serve. The first time I came to a JAMs service, I felt the love and presence of God and I felt a revelation of the love of God. The way God loves them is exactly the same as how God loves us. It is not more, it is not less, it is the same. It was from then on that I began to serve in JAMs.
What are some challenges you face as a ministry volunteer and how do you overcome them?
For much of the time, I was in the rest of God—that was a revelation to me. For my wife and me, we are always learning to rely more on God and not so much on our own strength. There were times when I would be tired, and struggled to balance ministry with family and career. There will be tough times, there will be happy times, and there will be times where you will be pruned. The Bible says that if you are fruitful, you will be pruned. We simply follow God—when He gives us the vision, He will give us the provision too. That said, we could always do with more people helping in the JAMs ministry!
It is here that I met the woman who would become my wife. Wherever God leads, just be faithful and present, and God will take care of your needs. At the end of the day, there must be a joy in serving God. The best thing you can do as a couple is to serve God. He truly blessed me with a good relationship with my wife—as we serve together, our bond has become even stronger.
What has been a memorable moment for you in the years you have served?
There was one student who was pretty rebellious. She has Down Syndrome, and has mild disabilities that cause her to be slower in learning. She also had a pretty rebellious boyfriend. I visited her home together with another helper. When I reached, her mother started sharing with us, pouring her heart out to us about the things that challenge a parent’s faith. I was at a loss for words because I was not yet a parent. The only thing I could do was to lay it at the feet of Jesus. So, I said to her, “Auntie, can I pray for you?” As I prayed, I feel the connection with God and she was visibly ministered to, and she was crying, being reminded that she could cast her cares upon God. Being a JAMs volunteer is all about loving God wholeheartedly and loving people fervently, connecting them to God.