safe in my father’s arms
I’m Letticia Chan, already 63 years old and a mother of two sons. I’m with the Cathedral’s Prison Ministry, which helps to re-integrate ex-prisoners back into the society. What led me to take up this challenging and often frustrating and heart-breaking work?
It all started in 2001. At that time, I was a chef running my own catering firm. Before that I was a chef at Goodwood Park Hotel. I was a nominal Christian then. For over fifty years since my baptism as a baby, I had dutifully done all the Christian ritual of attending church and living on the right side of the law. But I was too busy with my work to do anymore for God. God kept calling me to come back to Him and I kept Him waiting. I had no time for God until the time I lost my freedom.
I remember that it was Ash Wednesday, 2001. I was arrested for illegal employment of a foreign worker. A minor offence no doubt, but still a criminal one. My world came crashing down. As I sat in the lock-up, I felt angry, alone and abandoned by God. Then out of the blue, this image of Jesus in Gethsemane flashed through my mind. I saw a desolate figure abandoned by His disciples. It was then that I fully understood how lonely Jesus was when He went to the cross. Only then, I truly knew what Jesus had done for me.
After I was released on bail, I left no stone unturned to stay out of prison. I sold my business to fight the case in court. I went from church to church for prayers. I even went to get help from other religions like Sai Baba. I was desperate. I was a drowning woman clutching at straw. Then one day as I was driving, with the loom of impending prison sentence hanging over my head, I heard a voice saying, “Why don’t you come home? Just come home.” Before I realized it, I was driving into the Cathedral grounds. I went into the Nave and there and then I sat down and cried. And I prayed. I had finally come home.
God didn’t just let me go to prison the way I was at that time; a spiritual baby, angry and afraid. He arranged events such that I had time to prepare for the toughest time in my life. First, the lawyer handling my case pulled out at the eleventh hour. I asked my nephew, a wonderful Christian lawyer, whether he could take my case. He prayed about it and God gave him a message: Walk on water. He understood that he had to take my case by faith. He accepted the case but seeing that I was not ready for life in prison, he delayed the case for a year. But he knew that the conviction was inevitable. The delay gave me time to draw closer to God. I began to read the Bible, this time with the scales on my eyes removed. God became my new source of strength. I didn’t realize then that I was being strengthened and equipped for my imprisonment.
I was duly convicted and was given a one-year sentence in Changi Prison. Strangely, going in changed my perception of the case. Previously, I had believed that it wasn’t my fault. I felt I had to take the rap just because I was the director. Somehow in prison, I stopped thinking that way. I admitted it was my fault because I was careless. By simply accepting that it was my responsibility set me free from the bitterness that I felt. More importantly, it gave me peace. But I was still angry with God. I demanded that He took care of me since He had put me there in prison. I remembered asking Him why He had put me there. His answer was: My thoughts are not your thoughts.
In prison, I was stripped off everything – identity, family, freedom, material comforts, everything! I was all alone and desperately lonely. All I had was God and I clung to Him for my life. There’s always a sense of danger lurking around. By His grace I coped fairly well. I spent my time reading the Bible and the books my family had sent me. I waited eagerly for visiting time. I took the chance to share the Bible with the cellmates. In my first week in prison, a fellow inmate said to me, “You Christian, right? Teach me.” So I began to teach her about God through the Bible. And in return she taught me how to survive in prison. She was a godsend.
Two months after I had gone in, I was told that I’d be working as a chef for the wardens. It was a blessing as it meant that I’d be able to occupy my time meaningfully. As I was the wardens’ chef, they treated me very well. Even in prison God was there to make sure my way was smooth. My faith and my confidence in God grew very strong. On one occasion I was asked to cook without oil. It was the kitchen gang’s way of ‘sabotaging’ me, the new kid on the block. Miraculously, I found a packet of chicken skin in the freezer. The inmates were praising God as they feasted on fried chicken skin after I had extracted the oil He had provided!
I was spared many of the indignities most prisoners are subjected to. I was never frisked. But I had to watch my back. Luckily, I didn’t have problems with my cellmates as I got along with them. The most difficult part of doing time was the loneliness. I missed my family, especially my two sons. I felt very sad that my imprisonment had hurt them badly. That was my greatest regret, the most difficult to bear. In those times of grief God was always there for me and I found comfort in Him. As I grew closer to Him, He gave me peace. He also transformed me. I became more understanding, more tolerant and more compassionate.
By God’s grace, my sentence was reduced to six months with two months out on home tagging. Not only that, when I was released many people offered me jobs. But in the end I chose to join the Cathedral to serve as a volunteer in the Prison Ministry. I’m now working fulltime in the church. I feel a burden for the prisoners because of the time I had spent in prison. I had lived with them, slept with them and ate with them. I could empathize with them deeply. God had sent me to prison to show me the needs of the prisoners: They are all crying for help. And I praise God for using me to point these prisoners to Jesus who has come to set captives free! Amen.
(Letticia’s story was told to and written by Sim Teow Li.)
First published in The Courier, December 2009.