The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many things, including how City Harvest’s School of Theology conducts its lessons. City News spoke with some student in this year’s cohort on attending SOT digitally, and how they are dealing with these unusual circumstances.
In any other year, a normal day in the life of a student enrolled in the City Harvest Church School of Theology (SOT) would go like this: wake up early in the morning, head down to the Jurong West premises for classes from 8:45am to 1pm, enjoy fellowship with classmates after class, head back home to complete assignments.
The experience for the batch of 2020 is different, thanks to COVID-19. Things began well enough in February this year, but as the weeks progressed and the situation worsened, SOT shifted its curriculum online, in line with the government’s measures to contain the spread of the virus. Zoom has become the new norm for the cohort.
Some SOT 2020 students share with City News their expectations and how they have been encouraged during this season.
“NOTHING IS GOING TO SEPARATE US FROM THE LOVE OF GOD”
Hailing from Kerala, India, married couple Joash Danne Noronha, 27, and Qoheletha “Coco” Allelu Sebastian, 25, took a huge step of faith coming to SOT, leaving behind their 16-month-old son and their ministry. They are pastors of their church’s English service.
“We’re both pastors’ kids, but I never got the same exposure Danne got in the ministry at a young age,” says Coco. “I’ve always wanted to go to Bible school to learn more. We were looking forward to being trained and observing how CHC does ministry because we wanted to learn how to run a church.” Her husband Danne adds, “This was my biggest dream: getting trained and being exposed to learning the Word of God. I came with this sort of passion and excitement”.
They recall the fateful day that, after one of their classes at the Jurong West campus, the principal of SOT, Pastor Bobby Chaw announced that classes were going online.
“Our hopes really crashed,” Danne recounts. “I was thinking, ‘No… this is not happening.’ I put my head in my hands and tears filled my eyes.” Coco and their team tried to cheer Danne up and encourage him that God was still in control. “(Chua) Xiu Wen, an SOT interpreter, encouraged us and reminded us that, ‘Nothing is going to separate us from the love of God.'”
Over the last two months, Danne and Coco have come to see SOT 2020 as a special sort of “training” they must go through during this time. Staying in the student dormitory has allowed them to get to know people of different cultures, and taught them how to interact with their fellow classmates. This season has also allowed the couple to experience God’s provision and grace.
“We are exposed to different cultures and we’re learning so much about their character,” says Coco. “It has been a little lonely (since the Circuit Breaker started) but it’s so amazing to see God taking care of us in a totally foreign land. People you’ve never known your whole life would bless you.” One instance was their SOT team leaders sending food to them via delivery service to encourage and cheer them on.
“IT’S NOT THE ENVIRONMENT THAT DETERMINES THE ENCOUNTER”
For business-owner Jhawn Toh, 31, going to SOT was a promise he made to God, when he finally managed to get his first business off the ground. Having participated in multiple mission trips before, he saw that he needed to be equipped with the skills and Bible knowledge to minister to people effectively.
“I expected SOT 2020 to be like all the other years,” he admits. “Developing close friendships, encounter after encounter during praise and worship. But this year, it’s a different environment. We’re not in class but at home. The lack of human interaction takes a big chunk out of the experience.”
It was difficult at first, but one particular morning, the online worship session touched Jhawn’s heart deeply. “Amos shared that in worship, everything is done behind closed doors. Now, we don’t wake up every morning to a full band for worship, but we’re still able to (meet with God),” he recalls. “It’s not the environment that determines the encounter. That was a fresh revelation for me, and it helped me adjust my expectations.”
Not being able to meet physically, Jhawn’s team would meet over Zoom every Saturday, for a time of praise and worship, with members taking turns to share devotions to encourage each other. “We also try to worship in Japanese, for the sake of our Japanese teammates. We also tell one another about the things we can be thankful for. This regular Zoom meet-up is a good time of fellowship and it plays a big part when the foreign students participate too.”
PRAYING THROUGH THE CRISIS
After leaving a full-time job at a logistics company she was just six months into, Shizuka Megan Matsuda, 27, came to SOT to soak in the Word of God. “I heard stories from my friends who have been to SOT. Their stories of crazy experiences and encounters made me very excited to experience that for myself,” she shared, “At first, everyone was a little down in the dumps (after the lessons went online), but I guess we have to go through this together as a body of Christ.”
Before classes went online, Shizuka felt a prompting from the Lord to be bold and stepped out in faith to pray for a student with a broken arm. That particular student’s arm was healed after she and another student prayed. “I was quite amazed by how God really moved through us to bless His people,” she says.
Other than daily online classes, students are also required to attend weekly prayer tutorials with CHC’s pastoral staff, taking turns to pray together and pray for each other. “During one of the prayer tutorials, (I saw that) the majority of their requests was for the current situation to subside. This experience gels us together, even though we’re not physically around each other,” says Shizuka.
FINDING THE PURPOSE IN EVERY CRISIS
Winnie Ngiam, 22, is a member of Faith Harvest Church in Klang, Malaysia. “I was quite lost after a failed business venture and came to SOT to find God’s calling for me. I signed up a month after registration closed, and was accepted. I gave up everything (even a full-time job) to come, and the decision was so rushed I didn’t have time to stop and worry about anything else. At first, my pastor didn’t want me to come because of the COVID-19 situation, but praise God, I still managed to.”
Now that lessons and tutorials are all online, Winnie actually finds this way of learning beneficial. “Questions about the lecture can be asked straight away during the tutorial sessions, and we actually get to interact more with the pastors this way. During physical classes, there would be a long line to speak with the teaching pastor, so it would be difficult to ask any questions we may have.”
During this period, Winnie has also learned to pray more and trust in God with all she has, especially when she is in a foreign land. “There must be a purpose to everything and there is a reason why we are going through this,” she says. “I’m trying to pray according to the Tabernacle now (going from the outer court to the Holy of Holies, where God’s presence resides), which signifies our Christian life. Most times, we are just standing at the outer court, but after learning more about Jesus, we know we need to cleanse ourselves to be near to God and experience Him. This is the journey of the Christian life.”
3S MINISTRY: SOT SUPPORT SERVICE BRINGS CHEER
A group of alumni, mostly from SOT 2019, formed a team on Feb 1 this year to support SOT alumni through mission work in the Philippines, Indonesia, China, Myanmar, Vietnam and Malaysia. As God would have it, this ministry was birthed for such a time as this: 3S has been constantly helping the international students enrolled in SOT this year, and bringing cheer through gifts of food and other essentials.
“It started in early February with us helping to pick the overseas students up from the airport and check them into the hostel,” explains Lynn Chua, one of the founding members of 3S and also the first runner-up for the 2019 Minister of the Year Award. “At that time, we would help with things like temperature checks, bringing them to the clinic if they had a fever, and because medical fees are very expensive for foreigners, we sometimes covered their consultation fees.”
Settling the students in came with supplies of items like blankets, hangers, drinking cups, and the ministry would also cook dessert for the foreign students.
When the prep course began in mid-February, 3S was among the volunteers who helped out with the daily clocking in, and on top of that, they bought and distributed hard copy Bibles to the students.
When the Circuit Breaker began, and the students had to remain in their dormitories constantly, having lessons online, 3S found new ways to serve them: groceries, breakfast and bread are sent to the students twice a week. “We also dispense bookmarks with encouraging verses along with the bread,” says Lynn, who runs a logistics business licensed to handle delivery. Homemade bookmarks with Bible verses are an SOT tradition. The team also engages the students and prays for them, sometimes providing counselling and financial support.
This week, as the students undergo exams, 3S is sending them home-cooked meals and dessert “because we want to cheer them up in the midst of exam fever!”
Lynn says, “We truly want to let these international students feel welcome, with Jesus’ love! We pray this love of Christ is what they will bring back to share with their loved ones.”