At just 36 years old in 2016, Willy Ong became the Executive Director of OM in Singapore. As Willy himself will share, this journey simply started with a search for the meaning of life.
“I grew up in a traditional, non-Christian family steeped in ancestral worship,” said Willy of his roots. With a youthful rebellious streak, he eventually became a free thinker.
Recalling with a laugh, Willy’s first encounter with Christianity in university was not a great one. His friends had presented a brand of “militant Christianity”, which he found off-putting. “But I was actually very open,” reflected the father of two.
After graduating, Willy joined Mercy Relief, a humanitarian NGO based in Singapore. Serving in the wake of the devastating 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that killed some 300,000 people across several countries, the Mercy Relief Singapore office was the unlikely place where Willy met Sharon, the woman he would marry.
Sharon, an engineer, was volunteering for a few months with Mercy Relief as she was drawn to community development work. Willy found her a “very strange girl” given that her interests were in toilets and wastewater. But after a whirlwind period of crisis management, the two became fast friends.
Candidly, Willy shared that it was Sharon who had first brought him to church.
Sharon’s dad, a missions worker, had offered to walk Willy through the book of Mark in the Bible on a weekly basis. A deeper search eventually brought Willy to face the truth, “I couldn’t run away from the fact that Jesus is my Lord and Saviour.”
From that point on, Willy gave his life to God and began attending church with Sharon. That was also when the couple started to involve themselves more deeply in ministry.
As the Lord led
After Willy and Sharon were married, they made the bold decision to quit work and go on honeymoon for six months. They travelled extensively, even visiting dangerous places to see what missions there would look like for them.
“That level of risk appetite went down sharply after becoming parents,” joked Sharon.
In 2012, with a two-year-old in tow, the couple began to seek God’s will for them. Though they had no clue what was next, they were filled with a sense of excitement for the future and began praying to God for a sign.
The very next day, one of OM's ships, Logos Hope, docked in town. One of their friends, Jill, offered to organise a private tour of the ship as she was serving as a crew member.
“So, with Jill’s testimony, after the ship tour, … I asked Sharon, what do you think of serving on the ship for two years, like what Jill is doing? And her answer was ‘okay’. Just like that.”
As a Third Culture Kid, who had grown up in a place far away from her homeland, Sharon was globalised and more than willing to head out into missions. Two years on, the Ongs finally embarked on their epic voyage. By then, along with their second child, it was a family of four that stepped aboard Logos Hope.
Willy took up various roles in directing public-facing ministries of the ship and also running the relief aid and development ministry. Sharon mostly took care of their children and participated in the life and ministry of the ship.
There was sometimes a source of tension for the couple — they often had to slow down for their children, who needed to be fed, changed and napped.
“But there are also things you can do,” Sharon pointed out. “Like just playing by the quay, blowing bubbles for my kids and the crowds that visit the ship!”
When Logos Hope calls at ports, people wait sometimes for hours to board the ship. And so, there would be quite a lot of crowd management needed. Sharon remembers helping keep people entertained using puppets or by making balloon animals, in addition to giving out Christian tracts.
A glimpse at what God is doing around the world
Life on a ship that docks at ports around the world also presents a unique advantage not many know.
“You get a unique overview of what God is doing in the world,” revealed Sharon. “It’s really life-changing to see how God is working in each individual port in a unique way. And how He has a plan for different people.
“It’s a very important thing to live my life in light of that, especially with COVID-19, because your world becomes very small. But the very big world is still running by God’s plan, so it’s very wonderful to see how God’s hand is working.”
For Sharon, her time on Logos Hope was also the first time she had the chance to reach out to sex workers in the Philippines. She recounted befriending a girl and eventually talking about Jesus’ love for her.
“Her mama-san, or supervisor, just looked at me and said, ‘There is no love for these girls.’ And it broke my heart,” she shared.
Through conversations like these, Sharon learnt that many others need and want to receive the good news of Jesus. That initial encounter has since grown into a mission for outreach to sex workers in Singapore, which Sharon has continued doing today.
Some of Willy’s fondest memories come from the Sunday service worship nights aboard the ship. That was a clear reflection of Revelation 7:9 for him — a great multitude that no one could number from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne of God in worship.
“You look left, you look right, you see people from different nationalities, skin colour, languages,” he said with a grin. “And sometimes, we have certain worship songs that just cut across languages.”
“But to me, it’s also across generations — families, young people, older people are coming together as an image of heaven!”
And yet, for such a diverse crew, the Ongs were the only Asian family with children on the ship for most of the time. The couple said that singles would share with them how nice it was to have families on board. As they interacted with crew members, especially over seasons like Chinese New Year, they provided a tangible sense of community to those who were homesick and lonely.
An education unlike any other
“It’s a beautiful thing when God calls a family into the field and works through them to do His work,” said Sharon.
The couple set out with simple desires for their children; that they would make good choices, and that they would know and pursue God. In that vein, Sharon revealed that their daughter has already been deeply impacted by spending her formative years aboard the ship.
“Her Primary 1 teacher came to me — one year after the ship — and she said something like, “I’ve never met anyone like your daughter before; she is extremely mature.”
Just do it
As their chapter aboard Logos Hope drew to a close, Willy was approached for the leadership role with OM in Singapore because of his project management work and ability to navigate cross-cultural sensibilities. But Willy’s first reaction was to say “no.”
“Ask someone else to do it lah!” was his cry. He was then rebuked by the Lord and also his mentor, who offered words of wisdom: “If this is a role that is meant for you, even if you run away, like Jonah, it will come back to you again.”
Willy concluded the better way, then, was to have an open mind to just see what the role was about and to pray about it.
“As you serve, it’s a better time for God to speak and show you more things than if you’re sitting still and waiting for something to happen.”
“Do first, think later,” Willy summed it all up with a grin.