The Dialect Church is a thriving congregation with longtime, committed laborers literally standing “between the living and the dead” as they reach out to the senior community.
On a Saturday afternoon many years ago, a City Harvest Dialect Church volunteer was doing his weekly visitation to the home of an 80-something year old church member. The elderly man lived with his son, who was in his 40s. To his shock, he discovered their lifeless bodies in the house.
“After a police investigation, we found out that the son had had a bad fall at home and had passed away due to loss of blood. The father passed away three days later due to hunger as he had been bed-ridden and dependent on the son to buy his meals,” recalls social worker John Koh, 42. “This incident made me realize that the elderly are at a stage in life where we do not know what will happen to them tomorrow. There is an urgency to reach out to them and help them get to know the love of God when there is still time.”
Koh is one of 112 volunteers serving in CHC’s Dialect Church, which predominantly reaches out to dialect-speaking seniors; the average age of a Dialect Church member is 75, with the oldest ones in their late 90s. Tan Teow was 99 when she received Christ and was baptized at her death bed.
“Everyone needs to hear the good news about salvation through Jesus Christ, who brings hope, healing and reconciliation to all who trust in Him. As Christians—especially those in the Dialect Church—we are God’s laborers who literally who stand between the living and the dead as we reach out to the elderly,” says pastor-in-charge, Maria Tok.
The Dialect Church started out in 1996 as part of the Church Without Walls movement, with pioneering ministry members reaching out to residents staying in one-room rented HDB flats in the Holland estate. These residents comprised mostly the elderly destitute. Today, 17 buses are chartered weekly to bring up to 320 members from over 30 estates across Singapore to CHC’s Jurong West worship premise.
In July 2016, the Dialect Church launched an additional morning service at Suntec Singapore, held at 10am for two alternate Sundays each month; its usual service at Jurong West on Sundays at 5pm remains unchanged. “The Dialect Church has been doing a great job reaching out to the lower-income group of people and elderly who usually live alone, and we will still continue to reach out to them,” says Tok, “but to have a platform for our own English service members to be able to attend service together with their parents or grandparents under one roof at Suntec has always been in my heart.”
Some challenges specific to this ministry include a wide social demography; sermon presentations have to be prepared in Hokkien and Cantonese, and various forms of communication are employed to reach both the educated and less literate. Key Biblical principles such as atonement and water baptism are conveyed via pictorial material.
During the week, both the full-time church pastoral staff and a team of volunteers visit the homes of the members to minister to them on a one-on-one basis. “Many of them are rather stubborn, closed up and sometimes, very hostile to us. They don’t open up easily to strangers … we spend time to visit them week upon week, showing them that we really do care,” says another longtime volunteer, Rachel Chai, who works as a registered nurse. As 1 Corinthians 13 states, love bears, believes, hopes and endures all things; and over time, she finds her friends opening up to her about their lives, heartaches and all.
Over the years, Dialect Church volunteers have learned to help elderly persons undergoing depression, schizophrenia and dementia, as well as the occasional addiction to vices. “Many a times, we are not trained to handle a situation; on top of that, each person is unique, so we pray our best, serve with the love of God and obey the leading of Holy Spirit,” says Tok. The result: transformative change in the lives of the members, one by one.
For 74-year-old Koh Hong Yiang, who had been attending the Dialect Church since 1999, alcohol was his companion. A painter and sculptor, he was often found sitting alone drinking beer at the void deck of his flat, believing that it would fuel his creative juices for his art. The drinking, coupled with a fiery temperament, caused great strain in his relationship with his family members.
In 2008, he was admitted to hospital for a major liver operation. During his hospital stay, he experienced God’s love at a new level as church volunteers continued to visit him. He not only rededicated his life to God, but cut down on his drinking and became more mild-mannered. These positive changes brought about reconciliation in the family.
In 2010, he was water baptized, and found himself fully delivered from his drinking habit. To his amazement, he realized that he became even more creative in his artwork without alcohol. Volunteers testify that he has become happier and more approachable, but most importantly, he loves God more, and is now helping to encourage and take care of younger and weaker members.
The testimonies are plentiful—Liew Ah Moi, 58, was suicidal and suffered from chronic depression due to domestic abuse. She had also been cheated of her savings by a friend. A Dialect Church volunteer reached out to her and helped her walk out of depression and hopelessness. The late Gan Tiong Wan, who passed away at age 74 in 2011, reconciled with his family after he overcame his gambling addiction. Wheelchair-bound Tan Hwee Hai, who struggled to support a sick wife and an intellectually disabled son, wallowed in bitterness and hopelessness until a Dialect Church volunteer and his team reached out to him with both spiritual and practical support. He passed away two years ago, but now his wife attends church regularly.
Yearly, members are also treated to big events such as Dialect Church’s very first Christmas musical drama in 2015, God Hears. In 2013, in a special meeting with Malaysian evangelist, Reverend John Ng, many members witnessed firsthand the power of the Holy Spirit as healing miracles broke forth.
For the first time in 20 years, accident survivor Au Ang Fong, 84, found himself able to walk without his walking stick; he gave it away after the service. One of the most dramatic healings happened to a newcomer, 64-year-old Tan Sai Moy, who was invited to the service by her daughter, CHC member Angeline See. Tan had been walking with a limp ever since she was afflicted with arthritis a year earlier; she could neither squat nor bend. As the preacher continued praying for healing, she tried walking, and discovered that she was able to squat and walk straight without pain and support. That day, she accepted Jesus into her heart, as did her husband.
The Dialect Church’s Easter Drama this year, The Fullness Of Life saw a turnout of over 500 people. The almost hour-long drama involved 54 volunteers from nine countries, and paved the way for the preaching of the Word which resulted in 48 salvation decisions.
PLANTED IN THE HOUSE OF GOD
As the members find restoration in both their spiritual and personal lives, they have increasingly stepped up to sow back into the ministry. Some of them have preached on stage, acted in dramas, helped with the weekly bus services or conducted cell group meetings.
Seeing members transformed, growing and flourishing in the house of God has been a blessing to the volunteers—more than half of them have been serving in the ministry for over 10 years; Koh himself has been serving in the ministry since 1997.
“I have had the opportunity to assist some of the members in practical issues such as financial assistance, healthcare matters and even just reading their mail to them. It was this exposure and experience that helped me discover God’s calling for me,” adds Koh, who is currently working as a social worker in a nursing home. In December 2015, he completed his masters in social work, and hopes to be more equipped to serve those he works with.
Outside the four walls of the church, the ministry has actively partnered with local senior activity centers, old folks homes and family service centers to provide Christian geriatric counseling to its members, in addition to organizing events for special occasions such as Easter and Christmas.
Tok also notes, “In the past, our main congregation used to be elderly residents staying alone or with a roommate in a one-room rented flat, but in recent years, we have more elderly members who live with their families joining us. By reaching out to them, we touch the whole family.”
She quotes the example of a ministry volunteer, 19-year-old Ludivine Lee whose great-grandmother attended Dialect Church more than seven years ago. Even at the tender age of 12, she was impacted by the love shown toward her great-grandmother, prompting her to join the ministry when she grew up.
Contrary to general presumption, one does not need to be conversant in Chinese dialect to join this ministry. Many of the ministry volunteers today, in fact, are English-speaking, qualified only by a heart to serve. When Tok herself joined the Dialect Church 18 years ago, she could only speak very basic Hokkien; she did not even know how to say “cross” in Hokkien. “Today, I am proud to say that I am a Hokkien pastor, and perhaps one of the youngest in Singapore!” she says with a laugh. No doubt, it has been a learning experience—learning from the elderly members themselves, through Google, and seizing the opportunity to practice conversing in dialect with friends, she adds.
“When we are willing, God prepares a way for us—He will give us the language, both the earthly language and love language when we begin to serve Him, when we walk with our elderly brothers and sisters in Christ until the day God calls them home,” says Tok.