Alister Ong may be a wheelchair user but he lives a life of victory and hope, helping others, because of God. He tells City News why he has chosen to serve society despite his own challenges.
Alister Ong, 29, is known by friends and family for his joyful disposition. The City Harvest Church member is a Goh Chok Tong Enable Awards recipient and serves as the vice-chairperson of The Purple Parade. He is also a Youth Diversity and Inclusion Champion for persons with disabilities. Alister has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.
He was invited to give the keynote speech at the National Council of Social Services (NCSS) Summit 2022 on 13 July, where he shared his story of personal empowerment.
One of the stories he shared was about his mother giving him the permission to go out with his friends. She was initially hesitant to allow him to go to church as he would have to travel using public transport from their former home in Bukit Panjang to Singapore Expo at the other end of Singapore. At that time, Alister was in secondary school, but he had never gone out without his parents before. This was his first time going out on his own with his friends and that was a big step for both him and his parents.
Caregivers sometimes have to go through the journey of letting go and giving space to their loved ones to grow, Alister says. “It’s not just love and care they need to have, but also risk and trust at the same time.”
That experience marked the beginning of his independence. “The environment of love, care and acceptance that I received and experienced when I attended church with my friends was something new to me,” said Alister, adding that it was the reason he decided to continue attending church with his friends. He slowly stepped out of his comfort zone and picked up the skills he needed to travel around on his own.
Once he had a taste of independence, Alister began taking on new challenges. One of these was a mission trip to Probolinggo, Indonesia, in 2015. The church the mission team had gone to support was located on Mount Bromo. Alister’s teammates could not push his wheelchair up Mount Bromo so they decided to carry him up instead. Watching his friends struggle, he felt like a burden and told them not carry him anymore—he could wait for them where he was.
Yet, his friends never gave up on him and continued carrying him up the mountain. Eventually, they made it to the summit of the mountain. The view on the mountaintop was amazing, but even that could not outshine the feeling of accomplishment they all felt.
CULTIVATING THE PASSION TO SERVE
Alister’s passion to give back to the society stems from the experiences he had as a child. He was born with cerebral palsy, a condition caused by a lack of oxygen in the brain at birth which affects the growth and movements of his hands and legs. Before motorised wheelchairs were available, he needed the assistance of other people to push him around and carry him from place to place.
Growing up, Alister always had to depend on others in many areas of his life. A small task such as picking up something from the floor was not possible for him. In school, he needed his classmates to help him retrieve his books from his bag for lessons and put them back in after class. There were many physical and social activities that he could not participate in. During recess or physical education, he could only sit on the sides and watched his friends run around the field and the courts. Those were tough experiences for him.
“It was a very difficult and challenging time,” he admits. “Sometimes there were free periods, and everyone would gather in groups, but I couldn’t move around so I was left at my desk by myself. Other times, after assembly, everyone in school would be watching a movie in the hall while the teachers marked the examination papers and I would be left alone in class wondering what was happening, why was no one coming back to class yet? Those moments of being left alone really were hard, and I grew up with feelings of rejection.”
Because of these experiences, Alister suffered from low self-esteem and the sense of being rejected. “Am I so different from others that no one wants to accept me or be friends with me?” he would ask himself.
While Alister grew up in a Christian household, he explains that going to church with his family every Sunday was more of a religious activity—he did not really know God personally. It was only when his friends brought him to City Harvest Church during his secondary school days that he encountered and experienced God in a very different environment—one of love and acceptance.
“It was a type of love that accepts and is unconditional. In that environment, I realised that God loves and values us not based on what we can do or how popular we are, but He simply accepts us as we are,” he shares.
He remembered vividly how his cell group leader and connect group coordinators would actively reach out to him, inviting him for meals and fellowship. To him, this was a whole new experience after many years of being the outsider.
Church was also a safe environment for him to learn to be independent. It was no longer a religious activity but a decision he had to make for himself: would he go to church every Sunday, even if he had to endure two hours on public transport each way? “Every week I would ask myself after service: ‘Was this worth the travel time?’” he admits candidly.
A couple of months after he started attending CHC, people started coming up to Alister to tell him that he was an encouragement to them. “They told me that I go to church every week despite the physical challenges I face, yet they don’t feel like going even though they are without a disability,” he shares. “One of the things they would tell themselves is ‘If Alister can go to church, then I can go to church too’.”
On hindsight, Alister realises that he has always relied on God’s grace and strength. He may not have been aware of it all the time, but God’s strength has always been sustaining him. “This was why I thought I could go to church every weekend, just like everyone else,” he reflected.
He started to see that God has always been faithful in his life and he would not be where he is if not for God’s faithfulness in his life. This revelation changed Alister’s entire mindset, and for the first time in his life, he felt empowered.
Alister’s journey with God is a testament of God’s unconditional and transformative love. Once he found his identity in Christ, the way he viewed himself started to change too.
When he was growing up, he struggled to ask for help as he did not want to be a burden to others. Yet, at the same time, he always felt inadequate since he frequently needed help from others. Slowly, God revealed to him what being a child of God means: it means to be loved and accepted unconditionally by the Father. Alister came to understand that this was where his identity lay—in being a child of God and journeying with Him—and not in what value the world places on him.
The word of God played a big part in sustaining Alister’s faith. “In Jeremiah 29:11, God says He knows the plan He has for us, plans to prosper us and not to harm us, plans to give us hope and a future. Psalm 139:14 reads, ‘I am fearfully and wonderfully made’, and Jeremiah 1:5 says, ‘before I formed you in the womb I knew you’,” he quotes. “These are some of the verses that have encouraged me throughout the years.”
EXPERIENCES IN THE SOCIAL SECTOR
Understanding who he is in Christ empowered Alister to serve others. He ventured into the social sector during his university days where he volunteered in a community service club called Caretalyst at the Singapore Management University (SMU). The club was a programme headed by CityCare, a now-defunct humanitarian agency affiliated to CHC.
Later, Alister served as a volunteer at the National Youth Council (NYC) in the Young Changemakers programme which seeks to empower youth to make a difference by giving them grants to support their projects. Together with his teammates, Alister’s role was to review the presentations of the different initiatives submitted by youths.
Fast forward to today, Alister is now an active contributor to the social sector. He shares that one area of focus in the social sector today is empowerment. Service users are no longer simply receiving care and support, but they come together to co-produce, give and contribute back to the community through working closely with the different social service agencies. Each of them brings in their own unique experiences, which in turn creates the right services and support that they and others like them need.
Alister notes that this reflects a Bible truth: that everyone has an important role to play, whether big or small, in the body of Christ, and every part works together as one (1 Cor 12:12-27).
Recently, Alister joined a multi-national human resource firm as a manager advising companies to hire inclusively and provide jobs for persons with disabilities. He also serves in other social service organisations. Having always been in the social service sector, first as a service user and recipient of support, Alister has been given the opportunity to serve the community in the same way he was served.
SERVING GOD IN DIFFERENT MINISTRIES
In CHC, Alister also serves in different ministries. His very first ministry, which he still faithfully serves today, is the Visual Communications ministry. It started when he joined the School of Theology in 2013 and serving in a ministry was part of his curriculum. He had thought hard about which ministry he could be effective in given his disability, and VC came to mind. Serving in the ministry has taught him many useful technical skills. More importantly, it taught him that he had to flow with the Holy Spirit and the team in order to ensure a smooth-flowing service.
“Even though the VC ministry is the backend of service, I realised that it has an important role to play. The worship leaders and the congregation rely on the lyrics, especially if it is a new song. Even though it seems like we’re simply pressing some buttons, it is still a small but significant role we play,” he notes.
Another ministry Alister serves in is Missio Dei Harvest, the missions ministry in CHC. Similarly, he had gone on his very first mission trip in 2013 as part of the SOT curriculum. “I had doubts if I could actually make it, but I trusted that God would make a way,” he mused.
God indeed made it happen for Alister. When the local pastor of the church they were serving in met Alister, he was so blessed that he wanted him to share his testimony that evening. This caught Alister off guard, but he decided to trust God anyway. After his sharing, many people came forward and said they were blessed and encouraged by what he shared. That boosted Alister’s confidence.
There and then, Alister had a revelation that God had given him a voice to be an encouragement to others—to bring hope and light in the midst of their darkness. Through his own life, he could show them that there is hope in Christ and that God is love. He began going on more mission trips in 2015.
The most memorable trip for Alister was an open-air crusade in Kupang, Indonesia. He delivered a message at a Sunday morning session, after which he gave an altar call for healing. After the service, one of his teammates told him that a man whom they prayed for at the altar call was still in pain and requested that Alister pray. Alister had a lot of doubt in his mind but again, he decided to trust God. “All praises to God, the man was healed of his aches and pains after I prayed for him,” he recounted.
“As someone with a disability who is still believing for healing, I believe that God can use anyone of us to pray for others,” declares Alister. “We just have to be yielded vessels, not perfect vessels.”