“When I was sentenced to my third term of imprisonment, the longest so far, I realised that time was slipping by and I might not see my parents alive again when I got released.”
This revelation in 2010 jolted Charlie Chua, now 45, from his destructive downward spiral of a life torn apart by substance abuse and petty crimes since he was a teenager. Even though he silently resolved to renounce his old life, he had no idea how he could turn things around.
A troubled childhood and three jail terms
Charlie, the younger of two sons, grew up in a warm household but has a father, who has a gambling addiction and was absent during his rebellious years, leaving his homemaker mother to make ends meet.
Owing to his deteriorating school performance, partly due to his rebellious character, things went sideways for Charlie when he was demoted from the Express stream to Normal just as he was entering Secondary Three. On top of that, the school he was attending was closed. It was a tough struggle for Charlie to adjust to a new school and classmates, ending in his expulsion five months later.
Although Charlie found a place in another school, he was pretty much done with studying and got himself into bad company. He soon began traversing illegal snooker rooms and being involved in illegal gambling.
After completing his N-Level examinations in 1992, Charlie moved out to live on his own. By then, he was knee-deep in drug addiction, which got him on the wrong side of the law six years later. This led to his first jail term.
The first incarceration did little to change the trajectory of Charlie’s life. After release, he went straight back to his old life, only this time Charlie went all out with clubbing nightly and attending drug parties overseas frequently.
By the early 2000s, Charlie was deeply mired in substance abuse and addiction to synthetic drugs. Once more the law caught up with him and Charlie was put behind bars for 18 months.
This time, Charlie had the chance to undergo Christian counselling. Much of it fell on deaf ears, though, as Charlie would treat Bible reading as a cure for insomnia. Looking back, however, Charlie could see that seeds were planted in his heart.
Perhaps it was the counselling he received that made Charlie want to lead a normal life after getting out in 2005. He found gainful employment repairing mobile phones. But after just four years, Charlie was lured back to his old ways. At the same time, he had to grapple with a divorce.
Charlie was arrested, this time for drug trafficking, and in 2010, thrown behind bars for the third time. The combined weight of his regret, guilt of letting his now aged parents down and fear of not seeing them alive again while serving his seven-year sentence sent Charlie into depression. He felt a deep sense of helplessness and hopelessness.
It was then that Charlie had a life-changing encounter with God.
Meeting Christ behind bars
In prison, the practice was to rotate inmates regularly through different cells with three to four individuals. One day, Charlie was assigned to a cell with three others. One of his cellmates read his Bible all the time and shared his insights with Charlie. They even discussed parts of God’s Word that they found hard to comprehend. Charlie wondered how this cellmate could keep his faith in such a difficult situation, especially when he himself had turned his back on Christianity during his second prison stay.
As part of prison ministry, the inmates would attend worship services. Charlie shared an account of the service when he encountered God: “While I was praising and worshipping Him through singing, God filled my heart with joy that I cannot describe, not to mention the reverence of everyone falling on our knees to worship Him.” To Charlie’s amazement, he saw one of his other cellmates, a spiritual medium sporting numerous body piercings, falling to his knees.
Convinced of Christ’s message of salvation and with a study Bible his elder brother sent him, Charlie’s desire to seek God and study His Word was ignited. To pick up Christian counselling skills, Charlie managed to secure a place in the Christian Intensive Religious Counselling Program, during which he gave his life to Jesus when then-CEO of Prison Fellowship International, Rev Timothy Khoo, laid hands on him.
A new life, a new purpose
Now, six years after he got out in July 2015, Charlie credits God fully for walking with him through his toughest challenges, including the stigma of prison, and delivering him from sins of the flesh. He has now found his place in the body of Christ and worships and serves in Antioch Chapel as a translator during services. Looking back, Charlie has learned humility and always to cast his cares on Jesus.
“There was a time when I was jogging and there was so much on my mind that I felt extremely overwhelmed from my job to my ongoing studies with ACTS Seminary,” said Charlie. “I then heard God telling me to not focus on myself and the situation I am in but instead to focus on Him and move forward. God revealed and showered His love into my heart and that made me break down in tears.”
Even his decision to leave his job as a construction site coordinator to become a private hire driver seemed to be a door opened by God as Charlie was able to buy an old car from a relative, and thus not have to pay for a rented car. This would become a significant cost-saver as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. With so many livelihoods affected, paying car rental would have made his career switch untenable.
Charlie is currently juggling a part-time course with ACTS Seminary with his driving gig. He hopes to graduate in two years and be involved in full-time ministry if it is the path that God has for him.
Charlie said: “There are so many encounters of His gracious acts in prison [and after] that I could not possibly list them all. But when I look back at these encounters, I am thankful and amazed at how He drew me closer to Him. My journey with God is so fruitful that I know deep down within me, I can never be the same old me again.”
More information about Prison Fellowship Singapore can be found in the November 2021 issue of Methodist Message, or at https://pfs.org.sg.
Jason Woo is Communications Executive at MCS Comms. / Photos courtesy of Charlie Chua