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Interview with Sylvia Chong

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Sylvia Chong, one of our missionaries who has recently retired from Cru Singapore where she has served for 40 years, shares candidly the joys and struggles of serving in the missions field and how God has been faithful. 

Hi Sylvia, can you tell us a little about your work with Cru prior to your retirement in July this year?

I joined Singapore Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC), now known as Cru Singapore, in 1981. Cru is an international, interdenominational Christian evangelism and discipleship organisation founded in 1951 by Dr Bill & Vonette Bright. For the first 30 years with Cru, I have served in various roles spanning students ministry, media ministry, corporate communications, national and regional office in Korea, cross-cultural training (with ~3 years stationed in Australia), English and hospitality ministry (for EAST). For the last decade, I mainly looked after human resource, staff development and welfare of the Singapore office, and was also involved in Cru’s The Significant Woman project and most recently in Zoom English Corner (for Thailand, Mongolia and East Asia students).

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(Left) The Significant Woman project training; (right) a Zoom session of Mongolia English Corner 2021. 

In the 40 years of serving at Cru Singapore what were some lessons that you learnt?

1. To understand and be clear of the missions agency’s vision, methods and materials before joining them as a full time worker. I came to know Christ when one of the earliest CCC staff did a Community Religious Survey with me and shared the gospel using the tract, “Have You Heard of the Four Spiritual Laws?” I was a Law freshman at the then University of Singapore. I went through CCC’s follow-up sessions, discipleship materials and trainings. I was taught how to lead Bible study groups and caught the vision of the Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20). I wholeheartedly agree with the work of CCC in reaching the campuses for Christ. In the first few months of joining full-time work, I was challenged by a Christian leader to leave the ministry, and to join a Bible school. This leader disagreed with the way CCC was doing their work, but because I was clear about the issues he objected to, I stayed the course.

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Sylvia, most right, leading a Bible study group on Kent Ridge campus—NUS Ministry, 1982/83.

2. To be sure of God’s provisions. CCC is a faith missions agency. Every full-time worker is expected to raise all funds for her monthly expenses: salary, CPF, ministry expenses, conference fees, mission trips and medical needs. When I joined in 1981, I only needed to raise $400/month for my salary. I did not think about how long I would be serving except that it would be “all the days of my youth and that when I could not serve any more, to do something else”. Now I am 68 years old. Raising financial support is not a missionary’s favourite task. Many prefer not to think about it or prefer someone else to do it for us. As a single lady with no spouse to turn to for financial support, I have to raise my own funding, with some giving to my work on monthly, one time or once in a while basis. The lesson I learnt is that God is the final provider, but I still need to do my part to raise it.

3. Importance of team care and self-care. Missions work is team work, not only in the field, but also the support of many office staff who are doing finance, insurance, payroll, IT support, office operations and corporate communications, especially when you are serving overseas. I do not see myself as more important when I am doing evangelism and discipleship as compared to being an office staff. I learn to express appreciation and care to these staff team members. Similarly, I seek to be a good staff team member by following corporate policies. My boss is not my immediate supervisor, but Christ. Even within the organisation, I still need to plan for my personal staff development and look out for courses to grow my skills. I need to know my spiritual gifts and strengths, my limitations and how to expand my ministry skills. 

What are some joys of serving with Cru?  

1. I like the opportunities and varieties of being in an international ministry like Cru. As we have ministries in 190 countries, I get to meet many other full-time staff during regional or international staff and prayer conferences. Some like the Josh McDowell Ministry or Jesus Film Teams came to Singapore to support and grow the local ministry in Singapore, especially during the early 1970’s and 1980s. Because we share the same vision, mission, materials and strategies—we learn from one another as we discuss issues in ministry.

2. I also get the opportunity to work internationally. My ~3 years in Sydney, Australia, working with Australians and Americans in a multi-cultural setting was wonderful. I discovered my own coping skills and comfort zones and I enjoyed the four seasons of Australia. My 3 months of ministry in Seoul, Korea (1988) was an adventure in itself. I looked Korean and people assumed that I am Korean. I had problem with ordering food and travelling on public buses. Even with taxis my pronunciation of places did not bring me home but to another location. Even then, that was fine, because it was a new shopping centre! My most exciting time in Korea was attending their week long CCC annual student conference. There were usually 6-7 thousand Korean students, and over 40 workshops. At the end of this week of training there were 3 days of evangelism to different parts of Seoul. 

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Sylvia in Australia: (L-R) with Bob Prouty, Director of Australian Cross-cultural Training School (ACTS); indoor class session of ACTS; outdoor sessions of ACTS. 

3. I enjoy being able to work with our CCC ministries in Philippines, India, Germany and Japan to help reach the world for Christ, through mission trips and cross-cultural trainings. It is a joy that I can contribute to reaching the world for Christ by training Cru staff who serve in different parts of the world. 

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(L-R) Cross-cultural training in Kerala, India; reaching Japan for Christ; sharing personal testimony in a Japanese church via a translator.

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(L-R) Travelling in a jeepney to rural outreach in the Philippines; sharing the gospel to a Filipina villager; awarded Master of Divinity—International School of Theology, Asia. 

...and what do you struggle with?  

1. Language limitations. I am basically mono-lingual—English. When I see some of the Cru staff and families serve long term in overseas locations, I wish I could be like them. Some went to Japan or Mongolia for three years, and picked up the language. But I know myself better, I would be miserable if I have to work and serve long term in any country where I have to pick up a foreign language. 

2. Fundraising issues. There was a time when I was six months in the deficit as donations fell short, and that meant my salary was reduced to $200/month. I felt disheartened with myself! Over the years, now and then deficits still happened. After a while, I accepted it as part of the “fate” of a support-raising worker in a faith ministry. Of course, before I joined, I was aware of this but experiencing the reality of much reduced salary, and no CPF still hurts. 

3. Self-doubts. After so many years in ministry, I ask myself, how come I am not a spiritual giant like this famous Christian personality? Or why I don’t I see thousands coming to Christ like Billy Graham? Or why am I not filled with more love, joy and forgiveness? Yes, I do have self-doubts. 

4. Denying yourself. My calling verse to full-time ministry was Matthew 16:24 (NASB),

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.”

When I accepted this call I made the commitment to put the work of the Kingdom before my own will and preferences. So in my decision to serve over two years with Australia CCC and help set up the Australian Cross-cultural Training School, there was a price to pay. I had a dog called Benji. This Lhasa Apso was healthy though already blind and deaf due to old age (14 years old). The Australian quarantine facility charges and fees were beyond my budget, and so I could not bring the dog to Australia but left it in a Singapore facility, paying $250 monthly to maintain him till I returned. I was not sure whether he would survive the two years but I had to “harden” my heart and let go. Two months later, I received a call that Benji died. I told the dog care facility personnel to wrap Benji with my red T-shirt as they cremate him, as though I was carrying him to the end. Yes, in obeying God’s call some painful decisions had to be made. 

What are some things that you have learnt/experienced about God over the years?

1. God has a sense of humour. 

Right at the start of my commitment to serve God in 1981, I was asking Him about my monthly financial support, naturally. He showed me The Temple Tax passage from Matthew 17:24-27. From this God was saying that He would miraculously provide for me.

This was clearly evident one Friday afternoon in my first year on staff when I heard a knock at the door. It was the postman, delivering a letter and asking me to sign for it. After he left, I opened the letter—it was a summon to pay $800 in income tax. I was shocked, I had totally forgotten about paying IRAS. Not only that, my funds for several months had not been sufficient for a full salary of $399/month, how was I going to pay? I was feeling embarrassed. I imagined myself queueing up in court to pay the late fine, and my former classmates, now lawyers, asking me why was I being fined? This thought drove me to look for my training director to ask for a loan to pay my tax. He told me to wait for the weekend to be over so he could check on my funds with Finance. The week after he said my full support came in. I was relieved. God reminded me about the payment of The Temple Tax and the payment of my own income tax, and that He had provided in time! 

2. God grants me my heart’s desire even if the HDB does not.

The GBC care group was meeting regularly in the living room space of my 3-room flat but it was pretty cramped. I was thinking, “I wish I had a bigger space. A 4-room flat would be great”. This was wishful thinking because in 1993, the HDB policy was that singles were only allowed to buy 3-room HDB flats in non-central areas. Nevertheless, God knew my desire. A few years later, two Clementi HDB blocks fell under the en-bloc scheme. My block was selected. I was offered a 4-room flat, since the new replacement flats being built only had 4- and 5-room flats. Proverbs 13:12 says, "a longing fulfilled is a tree of life." 

3. God takes care of my personal needs even if I am not aware of these needs.

I was not aware that the balloting of flat units was coming up. During the balloting for the HDB unit, I was away on a cross-cultural training trip in Manila. My brother faxed to me a black and white copy of the block layout. I was at a loss on how to understand the layout plan. One of the staff undergoing the Manila training had an engineering background. He put together the plan and explained to me which of the 4 units had the best evening or morning sun orientation and advised me on the best unit to pick. God had already put the right advisor in place. 

4. God understands my idiosyncrasies.

I attended a course called, “Colour Me, Beautiful” by image consultant, Jill Lowe.  There I learned that my season was, Autumn, and the best clothing colours to suit my skin tone was rich warm colours of greens and browns of the autumn foliage. This idea in me progressed to having my flat painted in colours of greens, beige and browns.

When I was getting the 4-room flat, I knew that the kitchen and bathroom walls and floor tiles would already be settled by HDB. My prayer was, “Oh, don’t let the kitchen wall or floor tiles’ colours be pink or blue. God, I know I should not be so concerned with such ‘worldly’ things, and that if they were really pink or blue, I won’t spend any more money to change them. Nevertheless, let them be beige or brown.” Bless the Lord, O my soul—the walls and floor colors were beige and brown.

sylvia-chong-6Another situation: After Benji died, someone gifted me $1000 to buy a new puppy. I was in Sydney, Australia, then. Again, I said to myself, I don’t want a black dog or a white dog. I want a brown female puppy. God granted me my idiosyncrasy. When this golden Lhasa Apso, Freckles, was 13 years old, she had breast cancer. The vet said she had one more year at the most. I said to God, “don’t let her die when I am not in Singapore. I want to be around. I want some closure with her, not like the time when Benji died, alone in a dog facility.” That year in 2017, while I was away on a three weeks holiday in Spain and Portugal, I had a dream. I was standing before an incinerator holding a flat metal tray. When I woke, I said to myself, “in the dream I was cremating my dog”. After I returned to Singapore, I picked up Freckles from the dog sitter’s place. A few weeks later, on 16 October 2017, Freckles died in her sleep, while in my bedroom. I had my closure. 

What are some of your retirement plans?

Many friends are curious to know what are my retirement plans. They think I will be bored soon with nothing to do. They suggest I be a volunteer or practise active aging and maintain my social network. They want to know whether I plan for another pet dog or cat. I appreciate all their ideas.

The main reason I retire was due to my poor health. For some years, I have been having chronic fatigue due to my more than 20+ years of diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol and some heart blockage. This daily tiredness made me realise that energy in itself is a gift that I have taken for granted in the days of my youth. For the next 12 months, I plan to examine my lifestyle and diet and persevere at improving my state of vitality. I also plan to come up with a regime of stretches and low impact exercises to improve my blood circulation and nerves. Because of my fatigue, I struggle with upkeeping and decluttering my flat, so I will be spending more time to maintain my flat. I have many books, bought and not read, I hope to now find time for an unhurried quiet read. I also plan to rediscover Singapore by going to places I have never been before: The Singapore Flyer, Pulau Ubin, Chek Jawa Wetlands and taking relaxing rides on the ten most scenic bus routes in Singapore. I just got the Logos Bible Software and I want to explore and maximise this Bible tool. I will be doing online Bible courses and looking for Renovare webinars and resources on helping myself to become more like Jesus.

How can the church pray for you? 

1. To love and seek after God the rest of my life (Prov 8:17).

2. To continue to experience God’s presence and protection (Ps 37:25).

Looking back, I want to express my grateful thanks to GBC and the GBC Missions Committee for their prayers, financial support and concerns all these years. Special mention goes to then Chairman Tan Kim Cheng and member Georgina Chen.

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Sylvia being recognised for her faithful and fruitful service at Cru's Long Service Appreciation Event.