The idea of doing missions is often associated with overseas trips. But for Siew*, her mission field lies in the very streets of Singapore’s red-light district.
For the last six years, Siew has been going on regular walks in the underbelly of the island city-state.
Together with her team from Operation Mobilisation (OM) Singapore, each visit sees them chatting with pimps as well as ladies who work in the brothels and on the streets.
They also hand out gift bags that include items like snacks, cosmetics, a note of encouragement and Christian messages translated in the various languages spoken by the workers.
Serving with OM Singapore’s local ministry since it started in 2015, Siew shared how it all began way back in 1996 when she was serving on board the Doulos, OM’s retired ship.
“A team had gone out to the red-light district in Subic Bay, and I talked with a lady there. We didn’t really have a long conversation, but I bought her a drink and listened to her story,” she recalled.
“After that, some of the sisters on the team shared how the Lord was placing this particular group of people on their heart. While I didn’t sense anything at that time, I hoped for the Lord to continue to reveal something, whether this might be a ministry I could do in the future.”
So when Siew heard that OM Singapore was starting a red-light district ministry in 2015, she remembered that experience in 1996.
Feeling like God might have been preparing her for something more, Siew decided to have an open mind and heart, joining the OM team for their first walk.
All it took was one encounter during that trip that left such a deep impression.
“I could not forget her face”
Siew recalled meeting a girl who reminded her of her own daughter, who was 18 at that time.
“It was very obvious that she had not been in this area for long; maybe it was even her first time. She was dressed in just a T-shirt and jeans with no makeup – quite a plain-looking girl,” she said.
“What caught me then was when she looked into my eyes and I looked into her eyes, I saw a kind of fear in her, as if she didn’t know what she was expected to do.”
Striking up a conversation, Siew got to know her name, but the girl had trouble saying anything else.
“Her friend next to her, who seemed to have been working longer, answered my questions for her instead,” recounted Siew, adding that her friend had pointed out that the girl was very new to the trade.
“That night after meeting her, I could not forget her face because when I looked at her, all I saw was a young girl who was the same age as my daughter.
My daughter was at home, protected and comfortable, but this girl wasn’t. Maybe it wasn’t her own choice, and I wondered whether her mother knew that she was here in Singapore.
“It was from a mother’s heart that I felt for her very deeply, and that encounter stuck with me.”
Filled with compassion, that first walk turned into many subsequent ones for Siew, who decided to join OM Singapore’s cross-cultural mission work that was just beginning to unfold.
“Our purpose was to show God’s love through the gifts we give and through the conversations with them,” she shared.
“As we talked, if we were able to offer them a prayer or blessing and they were glad for us to pray for them, then we would also do it.”
Siew also came to realise that more significant than the gifts they offered to these girls, she and her team were able to meet their need for genuine friendship.
“I realised that they want people who can talk to them, or rather people who don’t mind listening to them,” she observed.
“When we talk to them, they begin to feel that they can still make some friends, and the purpose of their evening is not just to serve customers.”
But Siew was also quick to caution that this friendship was one that could only be formed over time when trust is built after a few meetings.
Friendships, family and faith
Reflecting on a few such meaningful friendships she has made, Siew shared about a lady from East Asia whom she continues to talk to today.
She said: “Girls were often not allowed to step out of the brothels, but after we befriended the caretaker of this particular brothel, he trusted us and allowed us to personally hand the gifts to this lady.
“Since then, she was always the one who came to the door to receive the gifts we prepared, so we were able to grow closer. Eventually, every time we came to the brothel, she would call me da jie or jie jie (elder sister in Chinese).”
Confiding in Siew, this lady, in her 20s, shared that she had come from a poor village in East Asia. As the sole breadwinner for her younger siblings and parents, she wasn’t able to earn enough for her family’s needs when working in her homeland.
Although she left Singapore within the same year they met, they continued to keep in touch.
Describing their conversations as how a mother would relate to a daughter, Siew said: “I once asked her, if she goes back to her country, what would she like to do? She told me she will never be the same girl that she used to be after her time in Singapore.
“But I told her, ‘You will always be a girl who is loved by God.’ She told me that she felt loved by what I said.
“I thank God for that,” said Siew, acknowledging the work of the Holy Spirit.
Sharing about another friend she enjoyed spending time with, Siew spoke about a lady who had a traumatic past.
She said: “She once told me that she did not see herself as anyone important or of value. Her parents separated when she was young, and her mum died tragically after that.
“When she found friends in the red-light trade who accepted her, she joined them. She was also motivated by the quick money she could make since she had little formal education, and she couldn’t find a job that paid her well enough.”
Siew added that she and other volunteers would also find opportunities to meet this friend outside of the red-light district.
“We went out together; we shopped and ate. It was a fun day. She was really happy that day because no one talked about her job.”
What does a picture of success look like?
After six years of being part of this ministry, Siew has picked up many lessons. One of the things she has learnt is this: It’s not about making big promises. Rather, sometimes it’s about doing small things in love.
“I may not be able to give solutions,” she explained. “But if my presence can minister to them, then that is something I can do.”
Siew said: “These ladies often have many baggage, and I often feel I’m not fully equipped to help them. Beyond just listening to their stories, am I ready to come alongside and go through their low points and struggles with them?
“We can come across ladies who are addicted to drugs or gambling. Some of them come from backgrounds where they were abused by their fathers. How far are we willing and ready to walk with them?”
True enough, many of the stories shared didn’t necessarily have a “happily ever after” ending. But as Siew herself acknowledged, another lesson that she has taken to heart is the definition of success.
“I used to think that every year, I can bring one person to the Lord, and I can bring one person out of the trade. But in reality, that hasn’t happened,” she remarked.
“By my second year of serving in the ministry, I started to question myself: ‘God, I’m not seeing the result. I didn’t see anyone come to know the Lord. Am I being successful?'”
Revealing that she has had to deal with self-doubt, Siew confessed that she began to compare her experiences with those from other teams who seemed to have more meaningful and deeper conversations.
“Other teams would share how they were able to talk about God and pray for the ladies,” she said. “But our walks were filled with casual talk like, ‘How are you today? How’s the weather?'”
Eventually, she came to realise that success in ministry couldn’t just be measured in those terms.
“To me, success is also when I’m able to forge a relationship with a person, and maybe one day they will recognise that this God in my life has given me meaning, purpose and hope,” she explained.
“I may not see the day they proclaim and say the Sinner’s Prayer, but I will be happy if she or he tells me that Siew showed me what the Christian life is.
“It is the Holy Spirit who will touch their lives and bring them to faith. I’m just an instrument.”
Recounting one particular story that led her to see success differently, Siew talked about a memorable encounter she had during the Mid-Autumn Festival in 2019.
Carrying paper lanterns while walking in the red-light area, she and her team were distributing mooncakes to the ladies in the brothels.
As Siew was speaking to one brothel’s caretaker, the candle in her lantern went out.
She recollected: “I was casually just saying ‘oops it went off’ and laughing about it, but then the caretaker unexpectedly told me: ‘You have the light in your life.’
“Immediately, I was surprised and took the chance to affirm him that I do have the light in my life, before asking him if he would like to have the light of God in his life too. He just laughed it off and didn’t agree, but he didn’t say ‘no’ either!”
To Siew, this caretaker’s comment was especially encouraging because she had been wondering about the impact she had left on him after being friends for three years.
One quote that has stuck with Siew for years is a line by Mother Teresa: “God has not called me to be successful; He has called me to be faithful.”
“God will be the one who brings success, but being faithful is what I can do for my part. I don’t struggle with having to see results anymore because I’m just happy doing what I’m doing for the Lord,” she declared.
As far as missions go, Siew says we don’t have to look far.
She said: “I hope more young people will see missions as also reaching out to the people around you, which can be somewhere as close as the door next to you.
“I want to encourage young people to be aware of the people in their communities and their brokenness. We ourselves were also broken, but we have been embraced by God.”
*The full name has been withheld for confidentiality purposes. Many of the incidents described happened before COVID-19 restrictions were imposed by the state.