How inclusive is your church? Rev Dr William Wan on reaching out beyond church walls
Well known as the man advocating kindness in Singapore, Reverend Dr William Wan, 72, plays multiple roles apart from being the General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement. He is a Justice of the Peace, pastor, lawyer and counsellor.
More than 40 years ago, Dr Wan also co-founded Rehabilitation Life Limited, now known as Prison Fellowship Singapore (PFS), which he chairs.
We speak to Dr Wan on the importance and challenges of reaching out to inmates and their often-neglected families, and the role that the church should play.
Most people understand the need for prison ministry – to reach out to inmates so that their lives can turn around. But why set up Seventy Times Seven (70×7)?
Dr Wan: All was well with PFS’ faith-based ministry to prison inmates, but there was a gap between the spiritual food that the inmates received and the socio-economic needs that his/ her family had outside of prison, and post-incarceration.
On a day-to-day basis, the families of the incarcerated have basic needs to be met as well. We needed an initiative to fund non-religious work to help with the living expenses and practical needs of inmates’ families – hence, Life Anew (which was later renamed 70×7), was set up.
Are there fruits of your labour or encounters that left a deep impression on you?
Dr Wan: The transforming power of Christ, how people get converted and how lives are changed always remind me about the importance of prison ministry. Stories of lives transformed—such as those of former offenders Neville Tan and Benny Se Teo—are a constant reminder of God’s ability and grace.
Has PFS changed over the years? If yes, how so?
Dr Wan: When Rehabilitation Life Limited first started in 1974, it was run entirely by volunteers. We could only help one ex-offender at a time. In fact, for close to a decade, the ministry was running solely on volunteers, with Rev Henry Khoo being a key driver of the work.
Then I was living overseas for a good 25 years, and the ministry became more established while I was away.
In 1984, when Rehabilitation Life Limited rebranded as Prison Fellowship Singapore, as a charter member of Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship International, we gained greater international support and became more effective. Now we have our own in-house staff, supported by a large pool of dedicated volunteers. The work has become more organised and strategic, to help over 1000 inmates and 100 of their families.
What is Prison Fellowship’s role in the wider ecosystem of churches and Christian bodies?
Dr Wan: Historically, the church has always been at the forefront of prison ministry. John Wesley started reaching out to prisoners during his college days. He believed that ministry in prison is one of the few things explicitly commanded by Jesus. The Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches have a long history of prison ministry – it has always been a mission of the church from the very early days. But instead of many different churches heading into the prison on their own, PFS acts as a non-denominational enabler, to effectively mobilise different church teams to minister and follow up with the inmates, pre-, during and post-incarceration. Many trophies of grace – beneficiaries of the ministry of PFS also started halfway houses ministry which became an integral part of the ecosystem.
What is the most pressing need of inmates and ex-offenders?
Dr Wan: Acceptance and inclusion in our churches.
When you are incarcerated for long time, it affects you emotionally and psychologically. You’ve been treated like a criminal for a long time. There’s a stigma attached to it, and you lose your sense of self confidence.
It takes time to recover, and you need help from people who believe in you to support you. The pressing need is to re-establish one’s self-worth and be reintegrated into mainstream society.
And churches can help, starting with an individual.
Churches can walk the journey with ex-offenders, help them to know a few others in a small group, integrate into the main church body, and eventually, mainstream society.
It is not helpful for ex-offenders to only mingle within their own, because there is the need to lose the identity of being an ex-offender. The ex-offender needs to be just known as a child of God.
They can stay in protected group for a while, like in a support group, but must eventually be willing to step out into the mainstream church and live without feeling like they must carry the label of being an ex-offender.
How can churches play a bigger role in re-integrating ex-offenders?
Dr Wan: Churches must take some risks. There is no running away from that.
If the ex-offender is truly integrated, would I, as a church-goer, allow my daughter to hang out with an ex-offender? Would I allow my daughter to marry an ex-offender? These are reality questions that we must each answer in context. There is a fine balance of not being reckless and irresponsible and trusting in God’s grace of transformation.
There is a difference between integration and inclusion. If you are just including them in your church service, that is not integration. If you only allow them to visit your church but not be a part of the church’s activities and community, that is not integration.
But of course, the church needs to also be assured that the ex-offender has been tested and transformed, and has proven trustworthy. It is the same in church as at the workplace. You train, you observe, you monitor.
A few will fall back to their old ways, for sure. But there must be a better structure to train and nurture them so they don’t fall back so easily.
Over time, they should be trusted completely.
There are two pastors in my church, who are ex-offenders and former beneficiaries of PFS. One of them, Pastor Daniel Lee, was nurtured by a small group, supported by the church through bible college, and eventually established as a pastor. It was not the easiest journey, but it can be done.
Many ex-offenders are also founders of halfway houses, like Simon Neo and Don Wong, who were ministered to while incarcerated and now give back to society by offering a safe space for former drug abusers.
PFS celebrates its 66th anniversary of prison ministry in Singapore this year. What is your vision for PFS for the journey ahead?
Dr Wan: PFS must remain faithful to its original mission—to bring the gospel to inmates who are seeking hope and a way out of their crime by having faith in Christ. We must never lose that. Or we become another secular social service organisation. We are a Christian organisation—we seek the transformation of prisoners through the gospel.
My vision is for churches to join us to make this transformation possible, by accepting converted ex-offenders into their community, grow them spiritually and walk the journey with them. We also need their financial support. Because we are a religious organization that seeks to transform by encouraging inmates to embrace the faith, we do not receive funding from government for this aspect of our work. We also do not have income from any social enterprise as we are focused on the ministry of transformation. Therefore, we need the financial support of the churches more than ever.
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