Jolyn Tan works for Metro World Child, a ministry in New York City that reaches at-risk children, early this year. She tells City News how she found her place in this world when she turned to God.
The girl sitting across from the table smiles. She looks comfortable with herself and is ready to share her story with me. It seems incongruent that just a few years ago, Jolyn Tan struggled with depression and found it hard to talk to others.
Jolyn joined the staff of Metro World Child early this year, and is now based in Brooklyn, New York. The ministry, founded by pastor Bill Wilson in 1980, reaches out to at-risk children in inner-city neighbourhoods across New York, as well as urban centers and rural communities around the world.
She was back in Singapore for a two-month break when City News caught up with her. During her time here, she found time to join the first medical aid team City Harvest Church sent to Palu, Indonesia in the wake of the Sep 28 tsunami. The 24-year-old has found her calling making time for those in need.
“When I was young, my parents didn’t have time for me,” she says. “Now that I’ve grown up, I find myself drawn to kids whose parents have no time for them. I want to be there for them.”
Metro staff come from all around the world and Jolyn is the only one from Singapore. Each week, together with her team leader and two other Metro Staff, she visits the homes of inner city children, conducts programs and buses children and their parents to church each week. Jolyn calls them “my kids”.
“We do home visits on Thursdays,” Jolyn shares. “After lunch on Thursday, for the next eight to nine hours, we visit over 400 children in the area we’re assigned to. We do visitations alone, so it can be quite dangerous. Sometimes I can hear loud music coming out of the apartment and I don’t know if the people inside are drunk or on drugs. Still, I have to knock on the door because the kid lives there. I’ve had people high on drugs running after me and I just had to run away. There are safe houses around the area that we know to run to if we meet with situations like these. They are homes of parents that we know.”
During these visits, the team invites the children to the sidewalk where they are conducting an outreach session the next day. “We have this truck which we drive to our target area. We open up the in-built stage and run a program that lasts 45 minutes to an hour. After that, we will spend time talking and playing with the kids.”
The program includes praise and worship, Bible stories and games. “What the program involves depends a lot on the leader of the team. My leader Peter Brown loves worshiping God so he’ll say, ‘Let’s sit down and teach the kids how to worship God.’”
Metro sends out 16 of these trucks to the ghettos across New York each day, with each truck doing three to four site visits daily. The children they reach out to are often abandoned, neglected or abused. The goal of the Metro staff is to build relationships with them, and demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ.
One particular site walk sticks in Jolyn’s memory. “After the last site walk of the semester, my leader was on stage telling the kids a story. He was pretending to be on a beach in Jamaica, so my friend and I decided to burst water balloons over him,” she recalled laughing. “He later got his revenge on us by getting the kids to get us with 80 water balloons. We retaliated by pouring a whole lot of water on the kids.”
After the water parade, the team sat the kids down and taught them that when bad things happen to them, they can go to Jesus. “We had a chance to share our life stories with the kids and to teach them to worship God. We took the guitar and sang simple songs like ‘Jesus Be The Center of It All’. It was nice to see the kids tearing and encountering Jesus. Even the parents who brought the kids were crying. We got to worship God with them, speak into their lives and pray for them—all in the open space. It’s not something you see in Singapore. Some of the parents also opened up their lives and shared about their own traumatic childhoods with us. At that moment, I wondered who am I that God would use me to minister to these people. I feel so honored to be used by God in this way,” she shares.
The life story that Jolyn told the children was one of redemption. “I told the children that I grew up in an abusive environment and I always felt that I was never anything that anyone wanted me to be. I never fit in anywhere. I always wondered why was I never invited to parties, but when I turned to God, He showed me His plans. I was happy because God showed me a whole new life.”
It had taken Jolyn a while to reach that point of happiness. Her journey in Metro so far, though short, has been eventful.
“The work is not hard, but I still struggled with depression when I first arrived,” she shares. “I broke down a lot, I started cutting myself and wanted to kill myself. I don’t know why. I felt I wasn’t called for this kind of stage ministry even though I like doing missions. In the past, I couldn’t speak very well in the past and people would laugh at me when I tried.
“There were times when I felt like I didn’t want to do it anymore. But then I told myself, if I don’t go and visit my kids, no one will. All I really wanted to do when I went to New York was to reach out to the kids. I think that was my turning point. No one was going so I had to go.”
The pastors and leaders at the campus prayed for Jolyn and walked alongside her till she came out of depression.
“There were nights where my nightmares were so bad I couldn’t sleep—my roommates had to call the pastors to come down to pray for me. Thank God for my very nice roommates who would pray for me every day!” she says.
THE CALLING THAT CHANGED HER LIFE
Jolyn suffered from depression from a young age. Growing up, Jolyn was told that as a girl, she was born to serve others and to eventually find a guy to marry. “When I grow a little older, the schools taught us that we need to have good careers and earn lots of money—to be ambitious, “ she remembers.
“That was never part of me,” she adds. “I was never ambitious and I never wanted anything more than what I already had. I felt that that wasn’t a good thing about our society; my parents always feel that I can earn more, that I can do more.”
She could not find acceptance anywhere and sank into depression.
A friend invited her to church when she was 16 and that changed her path. She heard Pastor Bill Wilson preach for the first time when he visited Singapore. “I was about to commit suicide when a friend invited me to church,” she admits. “I didn’t’ believe in God, but I thought that since I wanted to die, there was no harm in going to church just once.”
Listening to Pastor Bill, Jolyn realized that there was more to life. “I wanted to go to New York (and serve with Pastor Bill) one day.”
But life was not easy for Jolyn and her struggle with depression continued. She did not continue her studies after her O Levels because she could not talk to people around her.
When she was 20, she spoke to an uncle who was dying of cancer. He had been in prison for drug abuse all his life and met God in prison. When he was diagnosed with cancer, a pastor from CHC, Kenneth Sim and his wife, Vivien, came to baptize him in the hospital.
“They started reaching out to me and things changed,” says Jolin. “I only knew my uncle for the three months leading up to his death but during those three months, he always talked to me about Jesus, and I picked up the guitar to worship God with him. Before he died, he told me to hang on to Jesus no matter what happens.”
After her uncle passed on, Pastor Kenneth and Vivien became Jolyn’s spiritual parents. Under their care, she began to understand the love of God. She joined CHC’s children ministry, Harvest Kidz and her love for children grew.
“[On a recent humanitarian trip] my team members even joked that all I cared about was the kids and not about them,” she recalls with a laugh.
She went back to school and attained a diploma in early childhood. In the same year, she enrolled in CHC’s School of Theology.
“I started going for mission trips during SOT. God spoke to me saying that I have to be all things to all man and He told me that He was going to remind me of the things I dreamed of as a kid,” she shares.
True enough, God started healing her heart during inner healing sessions at SOT and reminded her of the dream to go to New York City to serve in Pastor Bill’s ministry.
“I re-read Pastor Bill’s book and I felt that the time was coming. The year after I graduated from SOT, I went to the Philippines, Setiawan, and basically, anywhere God called me to.”
Jolyn would buy an air ticket, fly out on her own, meet people over at whichever city, and do what she can to help. “Some of these people I met were friends from SOT, and others were connections I made over time,” she explains.
One memorable trip Jolyn made was with Glordia Goh, a CHC Harvest Kids pastor who is now doing mission work in Indonesia.
“We went out to reach out to the kids in the village—they don’t have proper housing. My heart really broke for them and God reminded me of the verse, ‘Teach me to number my days’ (Psalm 90:12) for the Lord is coming. He also gave me two Bible stories and they kept running through my mind. The first was on Abraham who gave up everything to follow God and the other was the rich young ruler (who couldn’t give up his wealth to follow God). God told me to choose one. I went to talk to Vivien and she said, ‘I think it’s time I let you go’. So after that, I decided to go (to New York).”
THE JOURNEY TO METRO
Jolyn applied to join Metro World Children and was accepted after four weeks. She served as an intern for the first four months, learning the ropes of the ministry and became a Metro staffer.
“In the first year, we don’t get paid so I live by God’s grace,” she says with a laugh. “Lodging is provided and my leaders cook every meal, so I don’t have to worry about food. My team leader drives us to the visitation areas and picks us up afterward so there’s really nothing much to spend on.”
Jolyn has plans to stay a few more years and learn all she can at Metro World Child in America before venturing to its global offices in Africa or the Philippines. Will she ever leave Metro? “No, unless God calls me somewhere else,” she says.
Being part of Metro marks Jolyn’s transformation from her old self to a new creation in Christ. “You need a lot of self love; you need to be authentic to yourself,” she says about what she has learned through ministry. “If you can’t be authentic to what God made you to be, there’s no way you can reach out to others. People don’t want to see a fake you when they are already so broken themselves. You can’t wear a mask and pretend to be someone you are not, they will never open to you. These people just want to see that someone, who is not afraid to be themselves, really care.
“I think when we are ourselves, we carry God’s love and presence more than when we try to be someone else. So in this season i learned a lot about loving myself and being who God made me to be.”