From the onset, the leadership of Emmanuel Evangelical Free Church (EEFC) has decided that the focus of the congregation should be on the Word of God, particularly on the aspect of repentance. “This is probably why we do not attract wealthy businessmen,” joked Anthony Soon.
Maintaining that they do not despise numbers, Soon stressed that the church simply does not focus on swelling its number. “On the contrary, our focus is on people. We try to give resources to people in ministry, rather than to buildings.”
This perspective is rooted in the origins of the church, planted in the Klang Valley in the mid-‘60s by missionary couple Mr and Mrs Kenneth Price from the Overseas Missionary Fellowship. Following the racial riots of May 13, 1969, the country was thrust into a new reality of religious restriction. The Prices were forced to leave Malaysia, and the church – a tenderfoot in uncharted waters – continued to worship and study the Bible in small groups.
It wasn’t long before the small congregation was to meet another challenge. In the ‘70s, the brunt of the New Economic Policy cut a swathe through meritocracy and left non-Malay communities on the fringe. This sparked off a mass migration of Chinese and Indian families, mostly to Australia. The leaders of EEFC saw an imminent leadership crisis and wrote to invite orthodontist Dr David Gunaratnam, or David G as he is affectionately known, to lead the church.
To this day, the elders attest that much of the character and landscape of EEFC, particularly in the area of praying together regularly, has been shaped by God through David G. The elders maintain that this approach has bonded them to make decisions consensually. “That helped us a lot when crises hit the church over the years,” said elder Dr T. Maniam, adding that many in the church have been there for each other for over 30 years. “We have laughed and cried together.”
Strengthening the five core values of the church – preaching the Word, maintaining devotional life, caring for the poor and needy, evangelism and building the next generation – remains the vital component in the life of EEFC.
Importance is placed on care groups, where adults and students give care and support to one another. Prayer is emphasised in the groups while meetings and other programmes are intentionally reduced.
An obvious feature of EEFC is the significance placed on the support of missions and pastoral ministry by the deployment of individuals as long-term missionaries and full-time workers, the ongoing awareness initiatives, and educational efforts geared towards evangelisation.
“We support missionaries with the view of long-term pastoral care,” said Maniam, “and we try to be as comprehensive as possible.” He cited an example where the church drew up a retirement plan and paid for the downpayments for three missionaries to own their own house. “We believe we exist for the benefit of non-members,” he added. Of particular focus has been the outreach through community services – which include children with disabilities, English clubs in low-income areas, parent-participating playgroups, medical talks, ping-pong evenings, drug rehabilitation efforts and assistance for migrants.
The elders say the church’s modus operandi has been constant through the years, which basically boils down to coming alongside to encourage and put others first, as well as maintaining a hands-on approach in the community they serve.
Looking ahead, the leadership realise that EEFC’s future lies in the hands of its young ones. Education plays a major role here,
and the importance of the Theological Education by Extension is stressed. “An observation is that our young people are ‘different’ and more grounded in the Word,” said Maniam. Deliberate training of the younger generation to think and act biblically has been the priority of the church.
Existing as God’s society in a pluralistic setting does pose its own risks and challenges, and the elders at EEFC are aware of it. “We want to prepare the church to face persecution, to be committed to God’s cause and calling in this land, and to be faithful to God whatever the circumstances.”
Special and Loved
The Early Intervention Programme is a much-needed ministry that has impacted desperate families of children with learning disabilities nationwide.
“You have to carry him upright,” Wong Poh Wan gently instructed the mother of a baby with bright, curious eyes who flashed a wide smile each time his older sister ran past.
The mother promptly adjusted her child’s posture, and the happy baby snugged comfortably in his new position, all ready to smile at his sister again as she darted across the far end of the room.
Small gestures such as this, unnoticed or perhaps taken for granted by many parents, empower parents to be confident with children of special needs and disabilities. This is what SPICES (Support for Parents, Infants and Children through Early Services) hopes to achieve.
The brainchild of Mabel Tan, a member of Emmanuel EFC (EEFC), SPICES was mooted as a community outreach to assist in an area of great lack – services for young children with learning disabilities and developmental delays.
It wasn’t long before the ministry of early intervention was identified, and a committee was set up to start the work. EEFC called in Wong, who was already pioneering early intervention programmes (EIP) through Malaysian Care, to set up the centre. Mabel however, never saw the fruit of her labour as she passed away two weeks before the launch of SPICES in 1997. The legacy of her vision and persistence continue to this day in the form of communities impacted by the direct services and training offered by the SPICES team.
From a fledgling community effort, the experience and skills of the SPICES staff now provide help and support for other similar centres in Malaysia. And with the setting up of its new resource centre, the SPICES personnel are now on good stead to expand their range of service to the community. Beginning with one staff and 11 children, SPICES – now a registered NGO – has grown to seven staff and 45 children in their flagship Wangsa Maju centre in Kuala Lumpur, next door to EEFC.
“We began with EIP and have moved on to the School Age Programme (SAP). Who knows, new programmes and training and resource development may be the new things to come. Our children are growing up and their needs change, so a lot more work needs to be done,” said Wong, adding that the training aspect has become increasingly important in their work.
The staff of Spices are diverse in age and interests, but almost all expressed a sense of calling and love for children as motivating factors.
Wong herself is no stranger to walking alongside the marginalised of the community. She had understudied Robert Deller, a clinical psychologist seconded to Malaysian Care by Tearfund in the United Kingdom to pioneer early intervention programmes in Malaysia. For the 20 years that she worked with Malaysian Care, a non-governmental organisation, Wong had set up over 20 centres in the country.
From time-to-time, Wong has been consulted by interested groups that wanted to start their own learning centres. In 2006, a pilot project to introduce the SAP was conducted with a school in Ipoh, Perak. The results were encouraging as, not only the children progressed, but the teachers’ attitude became more positive towards their students.
Emphasis On Training
In recent years, the mushrooming of many centres catering to special needs children has led Wong to recognise the need for quality programmes and adequately-trained staff in the centres. Her on-going consultation work for these centres often includes the SPICES staff for the benefit of their much-needed exposure.
“We started off by providing services to the community, but now we are placing more emphasis on development of other services, staff training and resource development,” she said, adding that dealing with learning disabilities is now an area of highly-skilled work requiring in-house and on-the-job training for staff, as well as specialised workshops to maintain the quality of services provided.
Wong reckoned that special needs education will gain more ground with more qualified people taking over the mantle from their predecessors, “and NGOs will still lead the way” due to the flexibility of their set-up, as compared with the more rigid government education system. “I would like to see the government supporting the NGOs in order to do a better job,” she said, adding, “we are always struggling with finances.”
Wong is pleased with the greater awareness society has shown towards children with learning disabilities. “Nowadays, more parents take their children out to public places,” she said, “and the public is more likely to meet a child with Down’s syndrome or autism on the street.” Perhaps the public could show more support and acceptance to these parents, reckoned Wong. The church can show the way in this, she suggested, by being compassionate to the parents who are struggling to keep their children quiet during a sermon. “Offering genuine friendships to these parents and their children can go a long way in meaningful support,” she believed.
The pillar behind the SPICES team is the church, Wong stressed. “I do not see it as any one individual’s work, but the work in SPICES is what God has done through the support of the church. My church is one that sees the importance in building people up, and all this work is able to be accomplished due to their support.”
WHAT MOTIVATES THE PEOPLE BEHIND SPICES…
Wong Hui Min
I see this as a great place to impact lives. Since returning from the US last year after completing my MA in Special Education, I have been teaching and doing some administrative work in SPICES.
Woo Yoke Lin
I was a kindergarten teacher and involved in educational consultancy, but still felt ill-equipped to teach children with disabilities. It took me a year of prayerful contemplation before I agreed to join SPICES. I like the challenge of teaching and helping someone achieve something they could not have done before. This job has been satisfying and I am in God’s will.
I joined SPICES. 12 years ago when I left my accounts job to do something different. It was a new ministry then, and I have never regretted my decision.
I’m very sure of my calling in this field as I experience joy and people around me are quite supportive. I studied Psychology and I’ll be serving here as long as there are people who need the services. My aim is to debunk the popular myth that this kind of work is tiring, dirty and unrewarding.
The highlight for me was to unlearn all my parenting skills, and re-learn new ones! I get great satisfaction seeing a child learn new skills and take steps forward. It’s also wonderful to see how parents appreciate and love their child in new ways as they gain better understanding of their child’s condition.
Wong Poh Wan
I once watched the mother of a month-old baby boy got angry and kicked the basket with her baby inside. She was frustrated at his learning disability. Years later, the same mother was beaming with pride as her son could read and write, despite what everyone said to the contrary. We have offered a lot of hope and a brighter future for families and children.