Saved by grace

A family holiday to Vietnam in 2007.

When most people of his age were enjoying life and looking to make their mark in the world, Richard Tan was looking to die.

Richard, now 65 and a facilities officer at Faith Methodist Church, saw suicide as the only way out of his losing battle against drug addiction—a hole out of which he could not dig himself.

Richard was born the only son in a family of six children. When Richard was two, his family took a hit when their father passed away but what made the household go south was his mother’s death just 10 years later. Raised, along with his younger sisters, by his elder sister, Richard started working as vehicle workshop mechanic when he was 13.

He soon fell into bad company, who introduced him to the world of substance abuse. It was an easy transition for Richard as he had already been drinking and smoking before getting his first taste of drugs such as marijuana, ganja and MX pills at 20.

Once he was so drugged out that he fell asleep on a railway track and would have died had someone not pulled him out in time. Unfazed by his near-death experience, Richard progressed to stronger drugs such as heroin to feed his increasingly insatiable addiction.

Things spun out of control in a matter of a year when Richard turned to crime to get his heroin fix. In 1976, the police arrested him for car theft, and also discovered he was a drug addict.

Thus began a dizzying six-year ride in and out of prison and drug rehabilitation centres. Prison became like a second home.

While in Changi Prison, Richard attended the regular chapel services, not because he felt any special calling but rather as a way to get out of his stifling cell, a popular tactic among inmates. However, Richard found himself accepting Christ through the prison ministry of Christians.

However, coming to Christ did little to change Richard. Mused Richard: “Looking back, there were a lot of times I forgot about God, but thank God, He didn’t forget about me.” This was to become a running theme in Richard’s road to redemption even if he could not see it then.

During a short bout of freedom after getting out in 1978, he went on the run from officers tracking him down for regular urine tests for which he willfully failed to turn up. He hid himself in the heartlands, working as a kopi kia (drink server) in a coffeeshop. What ultimately betrayed his efforts to remain hidden was when he succumbed to temptation and stole from his workplace.

Richard would go on to serve time once again. For three months after his release in 1982, Richard remained drug-free, only to fall back into his old ways shortly after. It all came to head in November of the same year, when repulsed by his destructive lifestyle, Richard contemplated taking his own life.

It was at this juncture that God stepped in and turned his life around.

“I had a drug addict friend, whose aunt was from Wesley Methodist Church. She got him to go to The Hiding Place, a rehabilitative home. This friend begged me to accompany him there. I had no idea that The Hiding Place was a Christian home,” recounted Richard. Having nothing to lose, he went, thinking he could stay for a month or two to try once more to kick his addiction.

“In the end, my friend ran away. I tried too but was caught. I was locked up to prevent my escape,” chuckled Richard. “They told me ‘you cannot go; if you go, you will go back to drugs.’” This would be the start of three very tough months for Richard as he grappled with his addiction, calling out to God continuously.

“I would hide behind the pulpit in the chapel and cry in the early hours to the point when people would ask why there were wailing sounds from behind the pulpit (which might have freaked out a few)!” Hearing his plaintive cries for help, God impressed upon Richard Psalm 119:114: “You are my hiding place and my shield. I hope in Your word”.

Emboldened, Richard responded, “God, if You can change me I will serve You.” The Lord led Richard slowly out of his predicament by placing him in a Christian community who helped reshape him. In 1994, God placed him at Faith Methodist Church, where he has served for the past 26 years. In 1997, God blessed him with a wife and later two sons who are now in their early twenties.

Today, Richard shuttles between church and halfway houses such as Shalom Centre and The Turning Point, sharing his story with men and women mired in drug addictions to give them the same hope that God placed in his heart in seasons past. While his average weekly schedule may seem punishing, Richard is ever light-footed and energised in his work for God.

“I thank God for receiving so many chances, having so many people who entered my life, and leading me to Faith Methodist Church, where they accepted an ex-drug addict like me and gave me a chance to serve the Lord for more than two decades,” said Richard. “The Lord is my strong tower, I run into Him and I am safe. Because of the grace of God, I am who I am today.”

In 1982, when Richard was still
mired in drugs
Richard during his days working
with troubled youths with Teen
Challenge in 1984.

Jason Woo is Methodist Message’s Editorial Executive. When not working on the latest articles, he enjoys long jogs and cuddling up with his cats along with a good book. / Photos courtesy of Richard Tan.