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My Humanitarian Journey With Central Christian Church

Updated: Aug 20, 2019

Chan Gin Kai

Seen frequently on walls, floors, trees and anywhere else noticeable, desperate calls for help are a common sight on ground zero of disaster zones.
Seen on a school wall in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan (Picture Credit: Chan Gin Kai)

It started with a news report I saw on television, an African kid with stomach bloated from malnutrition, his limbs like leather wrapped around bones. I was a kid back then too, and this was my first exposure to the tragedies that afflict millions in other parts of the world.

I couldn’t sleep much the next few nights as I wrestled with many questions. Should I become a doctor so I can heal the sick? Or a millionaire with lots of money to help the poor? Or a politician with the power to change the world?

But when I became a teenager and started to understand the realities of the world, I saw how naïve I was as a kid. The role of a doctor is noble, but there’s only so much a doctor can do. A billionaire without the right strategy would run out of money before he can make a noticeable difference. And really, not many politicians have truly made the world better.

My dreams were dashed as I saw the selfishness that plagues the heart of humanity and realised that we are the cause of most of our problems. Natural disasters play a part, but we are the bigger disease. Like many angst-filled teenagers, I became disillusioned and disappointed with the world.

To Dream Again

When I studied the Bible in 1987, my worldview changed again. I learnt that what I couldn’t achieve alone, many bible-obeying Christians could. As a member of the Central Christian Church, a congregation that aspires to seriously practice biblical Christianity, I saw how hearts could be truly transformed. When we imitate the love of Christ and put away our selfishness, the many can do what the few cannot. I felt inspired to dream of a better world again.

But then came National Service, tertiary education, a job, and then a small business, and the dream got pushed aside. I actively participated in many philanthropic activities that the church and our charity partner HOPE worldwide (Singapore) organised, but knew in my heart I could do more. Yet excuses flooded my mind; “When I’ve got more time and money” was a constant refrain.

The Indian Ocean Tsunami

On 26 December 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami changed the lives of millions forever. An undersea earthquake off the west coast of northern Sumatra triggered a series of tsunamis more than 30 meters high. It killed more than 220,000 people in 14 countries from Indonesia to Africa.

Untrained but eager to help, I set up three relief-collection-centers with the help of some church brothers and sent tons of supplies to Indonesia. Learning from a Buddhist organization about an expedition to Sri Lanka to deliver medical and other relief items, I joined the group, along with Muslims, Hindus and freethinkers. Disparities were put aside when we found a common cause.

Going from camp to camp in a convoy of trucks, we distributed everything we had. Our tons of aid were like a drop in the vast ocean of needs. Waves of victims surged towards us, but we had to turn multitudes away empty handed. It tore a big hole in my heart and all delusions of heroism quickly disappeared.

It was the saddest of times for the countless victims, but the way everyone rallied together showed that humanity has a glimmer of hope.

The experience taught me something valuable... Many hands are needed to help alleviate the problems in the world, and there are many good people from different faiths who are willing. We just need to do it on a more regular basis.

And I’ve got to stop giving myself excuses.

Budding Efforts

The next few years were a learning curve as I worked closely with some church brothers and sisters on various projects in different countries. We rallied friends to join us and found many generous people who were eager to lend a hand.

After a trekking trip up Mount Rinjani in Lombok (Indonesia), we chanced upon a school where the students drank water from a hole in the ground, covered with groundsheet to collect water. The water was dirty and there wasn’t even sufficient for the students. We learnt how little it costs to help the hundreds of students in the school – only $4,000 to build a big concrete water tank with proper filtration. It has become a lasting investment that has provided daily drinking water for thousands of students in the decade since then.

We called ourselves Tourists With Hearts, enjoying our holidays as we looked for opportunities to serve at the same time. We started a variety of projects, providing uniforms for students in Cambodia, computers for a training center in Bali (Indonesia) and repaired houses in Sichuan (China) after the earthquake. We also helped in places we didn’t visit, setting up a library in an orphanage in Chennai (India).

Through all of these projects, I realise there is so much about the Central Christian Church I should be proud of. There is never a shortage of brothers and sisters with the passion to serve, eager to put their faith into action.

We found joy in serving, but to provide lasting impact, we needed to get more strategically organised.

Sustainable Strategies In Cambodia

While producing a movie about sex trafficking in Cambodia (I’m a filmmaker), I learnt how poverty is the main cause of human trafficking and so many other predicaments the poor face daily.

Working with Sihanouk Hospital Center of Hope (SHCH), we soon launched various projects, including food relief and building toilets for an entire village of displaced people. We also started university scholarships for some students from the Goldstone School of Hope Worldwide. It is one of the top high schools in the country and produces the most brilliant students, but many of the parents are unable to afford tertiary education for their children.

We met a displaced family in Oudong and learnt that they were forcibly moved out of Phnom Penh into a village. As a result, the father lost his job, the mother couldn’t go for her regular HIV treatments and the daughter couldn’t go to school. Perplexed as to how we could help a family with such dire needs, our local partner, SHCH, advised us to buy them a bicycle. I was surprised by how such a simple solution provided the father the ability to go to work, bring his wife to the hospital and send his daughter to school. Together with my brother CK Chan and a few church brothers, we started Wheels For Hope in 2012, our first initiative with a long-term strategy.

Through the help of many friends, Wheels For Hope has carried out eight campaigns and given out over 2,800 bicycles in Cambodia and Philippines. The beneficiaries are mostly students who have to walk a long distance to school and patients who need regular medical care. We are grateful to be featured on an episode of MediaCorp’s documentary series, “Going Miles, Spreading Smiles”, as that rallied many more supporters and donors to our cause. A friend who owns a café, 73@Hillcrest, actively shares about what we do too, and has introduced many supporters to us.

While hanging out with a church brother, Addis Tan one day, he told me about his desire to help the poor. He is trained as a chef and I suggested that he should use his talents to do that. We launched an initiative called Cook For Strangers. His mum, Sheila, who is also a sister from church, has since brought it to even greater heights. Blessed with excellent culinary skills and an even more amazing heart, Sheila has led multiple expeditions to Cambodia, cooking for the poor and imparting her cooking skills. Her selfless efforts have also been featured on an episode of “Going Miles, Spreading Smiles”.

Sustainable Strategies In Philippines

Typhoon Haiyan (known in Philippines as Yolanda) is one of the most powerful and deadliest cyclones in history. The super typhoon hit Philippines in 7 November 2013, killing more than 6,300 and affected more than 11 million people.

I joined a group of enthusiastic volunteers on an expedition to serve in some of the most severely afflicted areas. But though we gave our hearts fully to the cause, we soon suspected that the leader of the expedition had less than noble motives and our efforts were manipulated for political gain. It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen people abuse the name of charity for personal benefit, and it wouldn’t be the last time either. But it strengthened my belief in working with people with genuine hearts. I am encouraged that I can always count on our brothers and sisters from church and a growing community of passionate friends.

We have since worked with HOPE worldwide Philippines, to rebuild schools and houses destroyed by the typhoon. We also implemented livelihood projects – gave boats and nets to fishermen, set up sari sari shops (mini provision shops) for widows and provided livestock for families to rear. Each initiative was tested with a pilot project and examined for its effectiveness. Those that didn’t work well were discontinued and those that did were scaled up.

One of the initiatives that we’ve grown is Food Angels. Learning that the biggest reason for school dropouts in one of the poor communities in northern Cebu is hunger, we piloted a lunch program for undernourished students in one of the schools. It was a joy to see the very tangible differences that the food program made after a year – the attendance rate in school increased and the beneficiaries caught up in height and weight with their peers. We expanded the initiative to another school and a childcare center.

Other Initiatives

We also started an initiative called The Click, setting up five computer training centers which provide basic IT skills, enabling beneficiaries to pick up better paying jobs. We collected used laptops from friends and also purchased many units from a secondary school that was phasing out very good models for new ones with even higher specifications. These three to four-year-old computers that we “performance-hungry” Singaporeans consider too slow are highly treasured in Philippines. The laptops made a real difference in the poor communities they serve.

I remember Music For A Cause too, an idea we launched when my wife and I served as mentors in the campus ministry. Put together by brothers and sisters from our church's campus ministry, the annual concerts ran for a few years, and the proceeds supported a few projects around the region. It's inspiring we have a new generation of world changers who will fan into flames the little sparks we have created.

Through a variety of initiatives in different countries over the years, we learnt from the programs that worked and even more from those that didn’t. We were disappointed by the few who used altruism as a guise for selfish motives, but drew inspiration from the many who genuinely care for the less fortunate.

I had thought as a kid that if I could just help make five people’s lives better, then my life would be worth five life times, and that would have been incredible. But I am blessed to have lived thousands of life times because of the many who have served together with me. What I had thought insurmountable became a joy because of the partners beside me. I am grateful for the many passionate friends who believe in making the world better. And I am exceedingly proud of the brothers and sisters from the Central Christian Church who have make the following verse from the Bible come alive:

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)

Chan Gin Kai

Gin Kai is a film producer who believes in the power of media to inspire positive changes. He has spearheaded disaster relief and capacity building projects in impoverished communities across Asia. In church, he serves as a mentor to young professionals in the EDGE Ministry. He describes himself as "just a sinner who wants to get right with God".

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