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Everyone deserves a moment with God: Special needs and the Church

by | 27 July 2017, 12:07 PM

Several years ago, a life group in Hope Church Singapore found itself with four unique cell members – each of whom had special needs. With no experience in caring for people with special needs, a few leaders in Hope Church decided to meet and pray over this life group’s new situation.

They then set out to serve and disciple their Friends – this is how members with special needs are addressed – through informal meetings. 

Thus was birthed SHINE, a ministry that now conducts a church service for almost 20 people, which includes both Friends and their family members.

“God goes before us – we just follow,” says Edison, one of SHINE’s founders. It’s a bold and radically different sentiment from what he once thought in private: “Can’t ‘they’ just go somewhere else?”

Edison setting up tables and chairs for the service.

Edison is the first person I meet early the morning I visit the church. He’s a large, cheerful man in his 30s, preoccupied with moving dozens of chairs and tables around the auditorium we were in.

As he offers me a firm and sweaty handshake, I notice Yingqi and Tivona – SHINE’s co-leaders – also working hard alongside him.

I realise they aren’t even setting up for their Friends yet — service would not begin until much later. SHINE’s volunteers are setting up for a session they call Heart Prep — a short thematic study of the Bible and a time of prayer for the service ahead.

There’s an air of excitement and anticipation in the air.

After Heart Prep, we proceed to the ground floor, by the busy main road. Eventually an old battered bus pulls in, filled with Friends who disembark to ebullient high-fives by Aaron, an experienced volunteer who had been waiting with a well-worn wheelchair.

The wheelchair is for Ah Wen — one of the more challenging Friends who SHINE serves. Ah Wen is in his late 20s, severely autistic and non-verbal. Ah Wen isn’t physically disabled, but he needs to be strapped to his wheelchair because he hits people when he’s moody.

Ah Wen has to be strapped to his wheelchair to prevent himself from hitting others or himself.

He also has to wear a helmet because when he can’t reach other people, he hits himself on the head, either with his hands or whatever he’s holding. Ah Wen is a very large man – he’s taller than everybody in SHINE – and he’s very strong.

That morning, Ah Wen refuses to get out of the bus. His mother looks on for a minute, before trying to pull him onto the wheelchair. But when she attempts to do so, Ah Wen resists, tugging at her blouse with surprising force.

After they finally manage to move him off the bus, Ah Wen has to be held by male volunteers as they strap him into the wheelchair, tying his hands to its armrests as gently as they can. Such physical restraint is practised with love in SHINE, with the consent of Ah Wen’s mother. It’s for his safety — as well as the volunteers’.

Once he is fully secured, we head up to the service upstairs.

With Ah Wen safely taken care of by SHINE volunteers, his mother collapses into a chair, relieved to finally have some time to herself.

As we wheel Ah Wen to the lift, we pass by a group of youths who glance over furtively. They can tell that Ah Wen has special needs, and are visibly uncomfortable with his grunting and involuntary shaking. None of them will look him in the eye.

Ah Wen is the biggest and loudest person in the church’s hallway – yet he is invisible. That breaks my heart.

As we enter the doors, Ah Wen’s mother sighs, “这两天我真的受不了了.” The last two days have been unbearable.

I can’t even begin to imagine her daily routine with Ah Wen — even just getting from the bus to the lift was an ordeal. For such caregivers, coming to Hope’s SHINE ministry must be an indescribable relief, like stepping indoors during a storm.

With Ah Wen safely taken care of by SHINE volunteers, his mother collapses into a chair, relieved to finally have some time to herself. Every morning the struggle begins anew, but for these 3 hours in SHINE — it’s like there’s a divine ceasefire. 

I’d never seen it this way till now. A mere 3-hour “sacrifice” for some of us might well be the most treasured and anticipated block of time in the lives of these Friends and their loved ones.

Edison and Yingqi with Ah Wen.

Worship begins, and strangely enough I can no longer hear Ah Wen acting up. He isn’t grunting anymore, the way he had been on the ground floor. I glance over to see Yingqi and Edison kneeling by his wheelchair.

They stay with him the whole service, praying over him, just being with him. Not once do they leave his side.

Whenever Ah Wen grows restless and starts to shake, Yingqi holds his hand and reassures him gently. She is a petite young woman, and it’s a beautiful display of kindness and boldness.

Ah Wen stomps his feet, and Edison intuitively knows that he wants a leg massage. He crouches in front of his wheelchair to ease his discomfort.

Witnessing such acts of love, I realise I’m seeing the people I first met earlier in the morning in a new light. To my mind, they’ve transformed into superheroes of the faith, all in the span of a few hours.

If God won’t turn His face from any of us, why should we look away from others in His church? How could we?

After worship, I ask Tivona if there are cases of Friends they are unable to take on. “There are no rules and no exclusions,” she says, although SHINE volunteers must exercise wisdom in the way they minister to various individuals.

Despite the caveat, I see unconditional love in her answer. 

My mind is filled with thoughts as the service ends and I head home on the train.

When we walk into a room before our Father God as His children, does He love one more than the other? Does He look at an athlete admiringly but pretend a person like Ah Wen isn’t there? 

If the answer is no – and surely it’s a resounding no – then we, too, must love all our brothers and sisters equally.

If God won’t turn His face from any of us, why should we look away from others in His church? How could we? 

Edison and the SHINE ministry volunteers.

I think back to something Edison shared during our conversation. It was about a dream he had about Ah Wen.

“It was me and Ah Wen in heaven. And Ah Wen looked at me and said, ‘Edison, thank you. Thank you for all your help to me when we were on Earth.’

“And I just cried and cried. I woke up crying.”

I see now that the need is so great. The harvest really is plentiful (Luke 10:2).

Some of us still perceive our Friends as people with broken minds, broken bodies. But we are all broken vessels – and in the spiritual realm I don’t believe they’re any more broken than we are.

So it makes perfect sense that we worship one God, under one roof, as one Church.


SHINE is a Special Needs Ministry from Hope Church Singapore. It aims to embrace people with special needs in God’s love, empowering every individual to be whom God has created them to be. It runs services every fortnight, on Saturday mornings. For more information, contact shinehopesg@gmail.com.

/ gabriel@thir.st

Gabriel isn't a hipster, but he loves his beard and coffee. In his spare time, he'd rather be on a mountain.

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In the midst of your joy, do not forget your brothers and sisters in misery

by | 31 October 2018, 12:42 PM

“The Father’s heart is for His house to be full,” declared Cedric Chew at The Father’s Heart for the Homeless on October 30.

“The Singapore Church has been blessed abundantly by the Lord,” said Chew, who is the head of Gracehaven, a home for young people who require shelter or rehabilitation that is run by The Salvation Army of Singapore.

Speaking about the need for Singaporeans to remember the less fortunate, Chew quoted William Booth, who founded The Salvation Army in 1865: “In the midst of your joy, do not forget your brothers and sisters in misery.”

Drawing on the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25, Chew reminded the symposium’s attendees that God will recompense what we do (Matthew 25:34, 40) or don’t do (Matthew 25:45-46) for the needy in society.

According to Chew, believers should serve the needy as if they are serving Jesus Himself: “Don’t forget, the Lord is as heartbroken for the brokenness in our land as He is joyful for the abundance of blessings present in Singapore.”

Chew shared that the youth and children who come to Gracehaven have often suffered from a lack of parental supervision and unmet needs. “Yet the greatest emptiness is always in the heart,” he said.

Working by the Salvation Army’s motto, “Soup, Soap, Salvation”, the Gracehaven team see themselves as “brothers and sisters of hope”. According to Chew, the goal is to have any child or youth who enters their premises, experience the greatest love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

“Without love, a child lacks dignity, and every child matters,” said Chew.

In closing, Chew shared Gracehaven’s vision – to be a community of hope and create a continuum of care. “Ultimately, we hope to fulfill their potential of reunification with their families and society safely and strongly,” he said.

Chew also reminded attendees of the story of Gideon (Judges 7), who defeated the enemies of Israel with just 300 men: “We only need a community of hope willing to open their hands, their hearts and their lives to those who need it.”

“Those in need know that the world is not perfect because they have experienced its ugliness. We don’t need to make it perfect, we just need to let them experience the beauty and love that is still present here.”

/ samanthaloh@thir.st

Samantha is a creative who is inspired by the people and stories around her. She also loves striped tees and would love to pass her collection down to her future children. Currently level 1127 on Candy Crush.

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How to minister in the most dangerous places on Earth

by Jemima Ooi, Justice Rising | 31 October 2018, 9:49 AM

Three years ago, my team and I were 8 hours deep in the jungles working in a war-ravaged village when a rebel soldier came charging at us in a fit of rage. He was threatening to rape those who’d dared to enter the territory.

Filled with divine boldness, our Congolese pastor stepped in front of us and said, “I have a better idea, why don’t you kneel down and we will pray for you.”

Upon hearing this, the soldier fell to his knees. As he struggled to get up, we realised he was not kneeling by his own volition. It was as though someone we couldn’t see was holding him there. All the frightened villagers were amazed – I have no doubt this was an angelic intervention!

Seeing that he had been supernaturally apprehended, our group of missionaries surrounded him and began to pray. When we had finished, the man looked up completely dazed; something demonic had left his eyes.

With a trembling hand, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumbled Congolese note. He then gave it to my pastor and said, “Here, take this as my offering!”

Rising to his feet with great effort, this same soldier who’d moments ago been threatening to rape us, turned around to the gawking crowd and declared, “Listen to these people, for they are the true servants of God!”

I suppose we witnessed our own version of “Daniel in the lions’ den” right there!

People often comment that I must be very brave or courageous to do what I do. I don’t feel particularly brave to be honest. I don’t think anything within me is sufficient for the task at hand, but that’s where I understand that it’s in my weakness that He is strong (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Some ask how I was able to give up my life 7 years ago to live in such places. The only way I can think of explaining things is this: When you love someone, it suddenly doesn’t matter where you go or what you do, as long as you’re with that person. The thought of living outside His Presence is worse than death to me.

This “courageous faith” is a product of years of walking with God. Having Him so close in my everyday, learning to lean into His guidance and have running conversations with Him.

When I first began walking in intimacy with God, I had a revelation of how precious I was to Him. It was a revelation of His passionate and devoted love for me. I began to realise: If God loves me so much, surely He enjoys my company, surely He wants to hear about my day, surely He desires to speak with me constantly.

Perhaps I’m the one that needs to pause more to hear Him.

This revelation has led me on a journey of training my heart to perceive Him at every moment, to know what His heart is in any given matter.

I experience God’s unfailing love for me daily. When He tells me to go somewhere, I know He’s right by my side. I could be the greatest general with the most powerful army entering a war zone, but still that would pale in comparison to entering the war zone as His child.

When I walk into any place as a child of God, I understand that all of heaven bends for His little one. It’s not pride – in the natural I recognise my weakness, it is obvious to me – but there is an abiding Presence by my side, a deep knowing that I’m important in His eyes.

The God of the angel armies watches over me and He never sleeps nor slumbers.

Life on the field can get very uncertain; we sometimes go to sleep to the sounds of gunshots, minister in the most dangerous places – even the massacre regions of the Congo – and live amidst threats of rape and kidnappings.

In all of this, I can sincerely say, God has been my exceedingly great reward. He has never failed me. Learning how to be fully dependent on Him like a child, walking as one with Him has been my biggest takeaway.

Here are a few things I hold closely to heart whenever I’m tempted to be afraid:

1. Know that you are deeply loved and you’re not alone

When I was a child on my first day in school, I remember sitting nervously in a new place, with new people. I didn’t know what the future would hold, but when I glanced to the doorway, I saw my dad peering in at me. Noticing me looking to him, he gave me a wink, and suddenly I knew everything would be alright.

That’s life with God: We often can’t control what will come and things will always seem uncertain, but God is the God of the unknown.

He lives outside of time, nothing surprises Him, and He’s always with us. So whether I stand before crowds as a preacher or rebel armies as a missionary, I see God watching on with a smile and winking at me. Then I know everything’s going to be just fine.

2. Put your trust in Him and His abilities

I generally feel incapable of the things God asks me to do. I can have all the money and favour in the world but I’m still helpless to heal the heart of an orphaned child. I don’t have the money to build many schools; I don’t even have an income.

If I looked to myself, all I see is limitations. What stopped the people of Israel from entering the Promised Land? They looked inwards not upwards. In their own words, they were “like grasshoppers in our own sight” (Numbers 13:33).

God designed us to live with Him. When we are caught up into His will, we will always be living far beyond anything we can accomplish in our own strength. If I can accomplish something on my own, that’s not a dream from God. That’s not a big enough dream, it can’t fit the magnitude and magnificence that is Him.

There is a power within us. John 14:16 says that our Holy Spirit, the Helper will “abide with you forever”. With Him I can do all things (Philippians 4:13), and He will never leave me.

Within every life – yours, mine and every person you meet – there is a seed with the potential to change the world.

Someone once said that the richest places in the world are graveyards – where ideas, inventions, cures for diseases were never pursued and taken to the grave. The world’s system distracts and preoccupies us with worthless pursuits.

We are constantly pushed to live selfishly, pursuing a name for ourselves, material collections that have no eternal worth … Something, anything, to show for ourselves. But deep down inside, there’s a more powerful yearning, a desire to live beyond ourselves.

We were made from love Himself. To love. When we love others, we come alive.

Pursuing a higher road requires a perspective and understanding centred on eternity. The Bible says that God has set eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). I’ve learnt to weigh my pursuits in the light of eternity. I ask myself questions like: Do I want to give my life to this endeavour? Will it count for anything in eternity?

To me there are very few things that cross the line into eternity: (1) My relationship with God; (2) The souls of the people He’s given to me (Daniel 12:3). It’s the two overarching commandments Jesus spoke of (Matthew 22:36-40).

So before I give my life to anything, I do this quick litmus test: Does God desire this of me? Will this bless and please His heart? Does it save or heal souls? When I can answer “yes” to these questions, it’s something that’s worth my life.

When you love someone, it suddenly doesn’t matter where you go or what you do, as long as you’re with that person.

My walk with God has been nothing short of an adventure. I desire nothing but to be with Him, content in His company. He satisfies every part of me. We talk about everything from needing wisdom in a tricky situation, to needing help with constipation.

I love that I can see how He orders all my steps and is so intricately involved in the details of my life. I’m beginning to see, more and more, how all the days of my life was written in His book, before any of them came to be (Psalm 139:16).

His fingerprints are everywhere and I’m learning how to watch what the Father is doing and to follow after (John 5:19-20). It’s really an abundant life and a beautiful existence.


Besides her primary work in the Congo with Justice Rising, Jemima currently oversees two slum schools in India, is helping to develop a large refugee settlement in the central Kenyan desert while working with survivors from the genocide in Rwanda, and is supporting a Burundian refugee community. If you’d like to support the work, please visit Justice Rising’s donation page to make a contribution.

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The Church is God’s finest answer to the problem of homelessness

by | 30 October 2018, 11:18 PM

“The Father really wants His house to be full, you are not here by accident,” Abraham Yeo declared at The Father’s Heart for the Homeless, a Christian symposium on brokenness and homelessness, on October 30.

Speaking about ministry to the homeless, Yeo told the congregation: “The first missionary was Jesus. He became homeless so that all man may come home to become sons and daughters.”

The 36-year-old founded Homeless Hearts of Singapore in July 2014 to inspire fellow volunteers to start their own ground-up initiatives to serve and befriend the homeless in their own local neighbourhoods.

According to Yeo, the goal is for every homeless person, in every neighbourhood, in every age group and every background, to find full community support in societal reintegration.

The first missionary was Jesus. He became homeless so that all man may come home to become sons and daughters.

Based on a report by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, Yeo explained that between 2013-2015, there were more than 900 displaced individuals and families. Around 80 percent of this group had low incomes and weak social support. Many faced behavioural or addiction-related issues, divorce and debt.

Yeo shared that there are two main groups of homeless people. The first group consists of the visible homeless, like the elderly on the streets. But it is the latter group that is often most forgotten – the invisible homeless.

These can be youth or children. They can even be working professionals.

Abraham Yeo, founder of Homeless Hearts of Singapore.

“Just because you don’t see them, doesn’t mean they are not there. There are working adults who look fine, but they’re struggling and have been homeless due to broken relationships in families.

“People try to look at the root cause of homelessness. We come up with structures and programmes, but ultimately it boils down to brokenness,” Yeo continued. “People become homeless not because they run out of cash, but because they run out of relationships.”

He emphasised that community is the solution: “The church needs to reflect the church of Christ, a place and sanctuary of peace and redemption. We need to be a city of refuge.”

Yeo’s challenge was for the local church to inspire Singapore to become a city of refuge for the poor, needy, outcasts and homeless.

He shared how one of his volunteers befriended a homeless man by spending time with him over food and drinks. By investing time and effort in their friendship with the man, the volunteer was eventually able to invite the man to church.

That was the first time that man had ever been invited to church. He eventually received Christ.

People become homeless not because they run out of cash, but because they run out of relationships.

“We have to look out for not just homeless locals, but even the homeless foreigners. The church has to lead the way,” said Yeo, urging the symposium’s attendees to perceive those around them and extend help to the needy.

“Do we know who are the poor in our own churches? How willing are we to open up our homes to the people who need shelter? We need to create a culture that is safe for the homeless and the needy.

“The Father’s heart for the homeless is missional.”

In closing, Yeo shared about all the times he wanted to bless the homeless he met on the streets, but found himself stuck with a lack of resources.

Yet, every single time, God ended up providing for Yeo and the homeless without fail: “Our Father will provide the ways and the resources. We just have to be available and be there with them and for them.

“When we partner with the Father and go out to the frontline, He will provide.”


To find out how you can play a part in supporting Homeless Hearts of Singapore’s work, visit their website here.

/ christina@thir.st

Christina is a designer who memorises Pantone swatches. Her standard bubble tea order – oolong milk tea with 25% sugar, less bubbles and no ice. She also dreams of raising her own pet penguin one day.

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We flew into Palu one day after disaster struck

by Jolyn Tan | 29 October 2018, 4:13 PM

I went to Palu with my church, immediately after it was struck by an earthquake and tsunami on 28 September 2018.

We flew in the day after the disaster and took a 20-hour ride into Palu upon landing. We stayed for 10 days and helped the people by setting up a medical post and bringing some joy and relief to the kids there.

Until Palu, I had never come so close to smelling and seeing the dead – the death of thousands was happening right in front of me. The smell was unforgettable; the sight still remains in my mind.

I don’t know how I could have faced such a thing without God.

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48b)

Though we ourselves were fearful at Palu, the people there looked to us for hope and a glimpse of grace. Amidst the destruction it seemed that we faced with a constant question: Who had the final victory here – was it death or Christ?

What I knew was that we were the only ones who could represent Jesus at that time. We were the only Jesus they could see. Every word or interaction we had with the people there would show the Christ who lives in us.

In a time of great darkness, we became the light of the city. The light that brought down His glory, peace and hope to the people. “Break my heart for what break Yours” wasn’t just a verse in a song anymore, it became real to me.

The devastation caused by the earthquake, mudslide and tsunami had destroyed thousands of lives. Children were orphaned, women were widowed … Men were left with nothing.

With churning stomachs, we listened to the survivors’ stories.

We told ourselves, “One soul at a time, one life at a time”. Yet in the face of such devastation, we felt utterly powerless. We heard, we saw, we went, we answered … We felt the brunt of this disastrous quake and all the city’s hopelessness.

We prayed, covered, served and fought against the principalities and the spirit of death – we interceded.

I knew the damage was immense, and it would take years to rebuild. But for the people of Palu, I know their scars will be their story to tell. Whatever the devil means for evil, God will turn it around for good.

There is something beautiful in our scars. Instead of being physical imperfections, Jesus’s scars are breathtakingly beautiful. They represent His love for us and how He has saved us. Our scars should tell a similar story.

Sometimes our faith is shaken when our dreams are shattered.

We wonder where God is in the midst of our suffering. We cannot sense His presence. We feel alone and afraid. Our faith wavers. We question what we have long believed. We wonder what is real, especially when present circumstances don’t match up to our expectations.

Such wavering deeply troubles us. We have tasted God’s goodness, enjoyed close fellowship with Him and rested in His tender care. We have known both His power and His love.

Yet in the midst of profound struggle, we have no answers. Just questions.

John the Baptist understood this struggle as he waited in prison.

He, above all men, knew who Jesus was. And even in the womb he was filled with the Holy Spirit, joyous at the coming of the Saviour. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, before any of His miracles, John declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

He baptised Jesus and saw God’s Spirit descend on Him, testifying that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. And yet, at the height of Jesus’s ministry, John sent word to Him from prison, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:2-3).

At one point, John was sure that Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus further confirmed His divinity by performing miracles, yet John was now wondering what was true … Why?

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;” (Isaiah 42:3)

John knew from Scripture that He who gave the blind sight, made the lame walk, and preached good news to the poor could surely open “the prison to those who are bound” as prophesied in Isaiah 61:1.

But Jesus didn’t do that for John; John did not get busted out of jail like Peter and Silas.

So perhaps at this point, John doubted what he knew. If Jesus was indeed the Messiah, John probably expected to have a role in Jesus’ earthly kingdom.

He wouldn’t have expected to start with such a high calling – preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness – only for his life and ministry to end in a small prison cell.

Besides, John preached that the Messiah would come with an unquenchable fire. With judgment. With power. So he likely expected to see these things in his lifetime, and may have doubted when he didn’t.

But Jesus didn’t condemn John for his doubt.

He even said that no one greater than John had ever lived. He understood why John asked that question. And Jesus’ response to him reinforced what John already knew: Jesus is indeed the Messiah.

At the same time, Jesus knew that John’s public ministry was over. Just like the saints in Hebrews 11, John wouldn’t see all of God’s promises come to pass but could only greet them from afar. He would not serve with Jesus on earth or see the fulfilment of God’s Kingdom.

But one day he would. One day he would see his glorious part in God’s magnificent plan. He, the last of the old covenant prophets, would see how God used him to prepare the world to receive Jesus. And John would rejoice.

In this life, we may never see how God is using our trials. But one day we will be grateful for them.

But for now, John had to accept the Messiah’s plans for his life.

Plans that were different from what he envisioned. He had to dwell on what he knew to be true rather than fixate on his circumstances. He had to remember who God is and trust Him from within a dark prison.

And it’s the same with us: When our plans and dreams crumble, will we still trust in God’s infinite wisdom? When our cup of suffering seems too much to bear, we need to rest in His immeasurable love.

When life spins out of control, we need to remember God’s absolute sovereignty. We may not understand what is happening, but we cannot stop talking to Him or turn away in fear. We must simply go to Jesus and tell Him about our doubts, asking Him to help us see.

John’s doubts are very similar to ours. Especially in times of disaster, we are prone to wonder if God is who He says He is and if everything really is under His control.

But when we doubt, God calls us to trust what we know to be true. He brings us back to the bedrock principles we know from Scripture and experience – that God is completely sovereign, loving and wise. Not a single sparrow will fall to the ground outside of the Father’s care (Matthew 10:29).

In this life, we may never see how God is using our trials. But one day we will be grateful for them.

All we can do now is trust that He who made the lame walk and the blind see, who died on a cross so we could spend eternity with Him, is going to do the very best thing for us.

It all comes down to trust. Will we trust in mere circumstances that constantly change? Or will we trust in an eternal and unchanging God? On Christ the Solid Rock we stand. All other ground is sinking sand.

Palu, from the ashes, you will rise again.

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A cut above the rest: The 26-year-old barber for the underprivileged

by | 25 October 2018, 10:52 AM

“Don’t come in first, it’s a mess!” yells Chu Yin, as she rushes into her little studio to clean up.

A Bangladeshi man follows her in. Wordlessly, he picks up a broom and begins to sweep the floor. He seems to know where things should go, deftly picking up random tools and arranging them in the shop.

After the dust settles, Chu Yin ushers me into her cosy workspace – it’s a one-chair concept barbershop. She sits the man down in front of a huge mirror, as she gently fastens the cutting cape over him. “The usual?”

His name is Mahmud. He nods to his friend Chu Yin, who has been giving him free haircuts here at Telja Studios for half a year now.

From dream to reality, it took Chu Yin 2 years to set up Telja Studios. “Nobody glorifies the job of a barber,” she says, “But I feel like I will look back and regret not trying.

In December 2016, Chu Yin founded Telja Studios to positively impact people’s lives.

It started with picking up barbering as a hobby. “I used to have really short hair and so, I was able to appreciate a good short haircut,” she tells me. 

But she began to wonder how could she benefit the community through the skills she had acquired. Apprenticing under Lex Low – a Malaysian barber who gives free haircuts to refugees and the underprivileged – Chu Yin improved her skills and saw how barbering could help people.

“Basically Lex was doing everything I yearned to do. That gave me a lot of hope and encouragement.”

Despite family opposition and the risks behind starting a business, Chu Yin opened her barbershop as a tangible way to help others. While she is passionate about barbering, Chu Yin admits that the relational aspect of her job is what she enjoys most.

I’m not here to make a big impact at this point – but to transform the life of one person. When you’re transformed, you’ll live for something greater than yourself.

“To me, haircuts are almost secondary. If I’m just cutting hair without intentionally connecting to the person, it will get very boring after a while because how many variations can a guy’s hair have?”

“It’s the relationships that I value most.”

As a barber, Chu Yin has many opportunities to engage with her customers. And as Telja Studios is a one-chair barbershop concept, both parties can converse without worrying about being overheard.

“You don’t have a choice. You sit here, you’ve got to listen to me talk, or talk to me,” she laughs, “Over time you meet your barber more than you meet your friends. You have to come almost every month. With that, you get to know a person and you get to speak life over them.”

Chu Yin’s barbershop only has one chair intentionally: So she can build friendships with her customers personally. “It’s not just a personalised haircut – it’s a personal get-to-know-you session too,” she says.

It’s a business philosophy which is evident from her friendship with Mahmud. Their friendship started with a simple hello.

“I try to get to know people around here,” Chu Yin explains, “I literally say ‘Hi’, but that’s it. It was Mahmud who went beyond the ‘Hi’ and asked about the haircut.”

Because Mahmud only gets off work at 9pm, Chu Yin waited past her normal opening hours just to serve him. And at the end of the haircut, she didn’t take the money he offered because she just wanted to know Mahmud better.

That was how a friendship blossomed between the 26-year-old and 48-year-old. Today, they are even able to share their worries with each other.

Mahmud recounts one instance when he was deeply worried about a personal issue. He turned up at Telja Studios’ doorstep, distressed and dishevelled.

“She said: ‘Come in, and I shave for you.'”

It was an act of service which touched Mahmud greatly. Chu Yin also offered to keep his situation in her prayers, and texted him from time to time to make sure he was doing alright.

“Sister is very kind,” Mahmud tells me.

I see a genuine two-way friendship between Chu Yin and Mahmud: While he receives free haircuts, Mahmud occasionally brings sugarcane drinks to her studio.

Chu Yin nods, “That to me is a blessing. Because sometimes the distilled water tank outside is empty, and I can’t run down to get a drink even though it’s just one staircase away because I’m cutting hair back to back. He just magically appears at the right time.”

He laughs: “Sister shares many things with her customers. So sometimes I go down and buy sugarcane!”

Chu Yin gives Mahmud free haircuts regularly. Personal but professional, she styles Mahmud’s hair meticulously in a 45-minute cut-and-conversation.

Chu Yin tells me she has bigger plans: To mentor youths-at-risk and equip them with her skillset.

It’s why she started a barber academy at Telja Studios.

“Young people are very vain. They love to know how the hair works, how they can ask their barber to cut,” Chu Yin laughs.

Chu Yin has been volunteering at New Hope Community Services (NHCS), a charity centre for displaced families in Singapore. Beyond volunteering, she reaches out to the youths she meets at NHCS by offering them free haircuts.

“They will be like, ‘You’re a barber? Don’t bluff – show me!’ and I would be like, ‘Ya, I’ll show you. It’s so near anyway,” she says.

“Helping them find satisfaction through what they can do in the future is my way of reaching out. We believe in the potential of young people.”

It’s why she named her barbershop “Telja” – the Icelandic word for “belief”.

When asked why she doesn’t simply work with NGOs (non-governmental organisations), Chu Yin tells me that while NGOs meet the basic needs of underprivileged families – there’s still more to do. 

“It’s not just about giving them the job. It’s helping them pull out all their other roots first. This is why I want to take my time to get to know these people personally. I’m not here to make a big impact at this point – but to transform the life of one person.”

“When you’re transformed, you’ll live for something greater than yourself.”

“I’m not just a charity organisation,” Chu Yin explains, “Just like any other enterprise, I have to make money, lah. But this business will always have a heart for the community. If my business exists but people are not impacted – my KPIs are not met.”

That afternoon, I left Chu Yin’s little barbershop in wide-eyed wonder.

Here is a woman, not much older than I am, who refuses to conform to societal standards – forging a more meaningful path instead. And all it took was deep passion and purpose.

Chu Yin’s friendship with Mahmud made me see that you can bless anyone anytime and anywhere. It doesn’t need to be at a volunteering organisation – it could even be in my workspace or neighbourhood!

“I hope people will realise there’s more they can do with their time. Go and do that which will bless the community and find satisfaction through it,” she told me.

The world really becomes our mission field when our heart is touched for God’s people.

Let’s ask Him to help us care like He does. Then let’s start with what we have.


Telja Studios is a barbershop with a heart for communities. If you would like to be involved in what they do – consider joining the team.

You can also sponsor someone to take up barbering course under Chu Yin. He/she will eventually be given a job at Telja Studios. For more information, write to chuyin@teljastudios.com.

/ siqi@thir.st

Siqi often loses her footwear in the office. She is also known for her loud sneezes, huge appetite, and weird sound effects. Happens to be a writer too.

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