Experiencing community as a stranger in Singapore

Born and raised in the farmlands of central California, I had never imagined living in Southeast Asia, let alone the urban jungles of Singapore. My first visit to Singapore was in 1991, shortly after being married. Not having ventured outside the downtown area, I got the impression that Singapore was a city of accountants!

As a Methodist pastor, I have always taken seriously John Wesley’s understanding that “the world is my parish”. In fact, in California, I had started a Spanish-language ministry in an English-only church. Yet I felt like a stranger when I returned to Singapore for ministry 10 years after my first visit, right after Christmas 2001.

My new ministry was still being defined and I felt inadequate in language preparation. My wife, the Rev Dr Yu Chin Cheak, was about to plunge into a lecturing career at Trinity Theological College (TTC) after just finishing her PhD, and my six-year-old son was both excited and anxious after switching from a cosy American classroom to the culture of kiasu, exam-oriented Singapore schooling – where an entrance exam was required even for Primary 1.

In all the strangeness, we found receptive friends who welcomed us and helped us to settle in – from getting phones, opening bank accounts to grocery shopping. And I also discovered that most of my co-workers spoke better English than myself.

The tension of living as a stranger and also being welcomed into community has characterised my life in Singapore. Of course, that is the normal experience of missionaries throughout history, and it is also the ideal attitude of Christians in this world: strangers on a journey, yet welcomed into the community of faith, in anticipation of that great banquet in which we will all feast with our Lord Jesus Christ.

I worked in the Bishop’s Office for seven and a half years, coordinating events from the annual Aldersgate Convention to pastors’ retreats to various lay gatherings with the Bishop, while also writing about those and other events in Methodist Message.

Stepping into the developing communications area, I helped to populate the new website with needed information and even helped to produce several publications and promotional pieces, including a 100-page book and a 20-minute video about The Methodist Church in Singapore.

During that time I also coordinated monthly General Conference (GC) staff chapel services, and organised worship for the quadrennial GC sessions. In addition, I served in a chaplaincy role with the Methodist students at TTC, guiding them for five years of retreats and other activities to discern their ministry calling.

Working at the HQ with office hours and most weekends free was somewhat novel after eight years as a local pastor in Southern California. But I began to miss the weekly worship planning and preaching, and the interaction with people on the ground. In 2010, after a sabbatical and study leave, I sought to be back in a local congregation and was assigned to work with the Chinese Annual Conference – not because of any abilities in the Chinese language or dialects! I was posted to Paya Lebar Chinese Methodist Church to give leadership in the area of worship, especially with the English Liturgical Service.

Again I felt a little strange, because I was the only ang moh, but I was again accepted and surrounded by a caring community. Being a pastor in Singapore is not easy, because church members are often very stressed from economics, job pressures, and family pressures, calling for special pastoral care and wisdom.

In all of these activities, I was never alone. I could not have done anything on my own. I have always been gratefully part of a team, a community of staff, clergy and volunteers collaborating for the sake of the Gospel.

When God gives us a task to do, we can be assured that others will be there to help us to accomplish it. Often there will be people with gifts and skills to complement our own inadequacies. Those people will be fellow travellers on the journey, brothers and sisters sharing and magnifying God’s grace. God isn’t looking for lone rangers, but servants who know their need of the Holy Spirit and the community of faith.

How good and pleasant it is when we find ourselves part of a faithful community in service to the Lord (Psalm 133).


In all the strangeness, we found receptive friends who welcomed us and helped us to settle in – from getting phones, opening bank accounts to grocery shopping. And I also discovered that most of my co-workers spoke better English than myself.


Photo courtesy of the Rev George Martzen

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The Rev George Martzen is a United Methodist clergy and missionary under the General Board of Global Ministries. Currently assigned to the Chinese Annual Conference in Singapore, he is a pastoral staff of Paya Lebar Chinese Methodist Church. He and his wife will be returning to the USA in May 2016 for pastoral ministry