Drugs, jail, gangs and prison are not words that you would typically expect to hear from an ordained pastor, much less used to describe his life’s story. Yet, they easily pepper the speech of Pastor Don Wong, who is disarmingly frank about his chequered past.
At 14, he dropped out of school and joined a gang, and by the age of 16, he was getting arrested for rioting. Heavily hooked on drugs like marijuana and heroin, he was nabbed during the anti-drug drive Operation Ferret in 1977 and sent to a rehabilitation centre. There, he sought to change upon leaving rehab, but so deeply rooted was his addiction that this resolve quickly evaporated.
“I was released at 1pm, and by 3pm, I was back on drugs again,” said Pastor Wong with a wry smile. So began a repeated cycle of repentance and relapse. Three months before he was due to get married, he was caught again, and while his father bailed him out for the wedding, he used it as an opportunity to peddle drugs.
“While I was in there, I knew the date that I would be bailed out to get married. So I contacted my friends and asked them to bring drugs to my wedding so I could smuggle them back into prison.”
On his sixth prison term, Pastor Wong received a divorce letter from his wife and he eventually lost access to his son. After nine stints in jail, he had lost not only freedom and youth, but also his loved ones.
Lying in bed one night, he had contemplated suicide when the words of a pastor at the prison chapel came to him. Through that moment, he found the Christian faith, and it catalysed the journey of change that had so often eluded him. A nine-month stay at a halfway house, where a mentor brought him upon his release, also aided his recovery.
The narrative of Pastor Wong’s 20-year battle with drugs is familiar to many who struggle with drug addiction. Getting clean is as much an internal battle of will as it is external, and most addicts find it hard to evade that precarious slope leading to a relapse.
“People say a drug addict will always be a drug addict, you’ll never change. And true enough, we buy into it. For myself, I have been in and out of prison nine times. I wanted to change, but I just couldn’t do it. So my family gave up hope on me, and many of us give up on ourselves too.”
Determined to help others, Pastor Wong’s journey has seen him go from serving as a counsellor within his church to founding The New Charis Mission, a halfway house for recovering addicts and ex-offenders, in 2006. Not content with just rehabilitating those who come to their doors, Pastor Wong’s team of 14 staff also grooms the men, whom he refers to as ‘brothers’, to pick up viable skills and give back to the community. Many of his staff are ex-offenders themselves who had come through the halfway house and successfully rebuilt their lives.
Every Wednesday, the brothers visit the elderly poor living at a block of one-room flats in Ang Mo Kio, bringing them food and spending time with them. Through a social enterprise programme that provides disposal and relocating services, they are trained in removal and renovation works – skills that came in handy for a community initiative to help refurbish these flats.
As many of these elderlies live alone, their homes were often in varying states of disarray. At the first home they worked on in 2011, the men cleared 50 bags of rubbish accumulated by the elderly resident.
To date, the staff and residents of TNCM have refurbished more than 100 homes, and a similar initiative was rolled out in Chai Chee in early 2016. Looking to build a deeper connection with the elderly in Ang Mo Kio, Pastor Wong’s team also brings them out on excursions during the festive seasons. At Christmas, they bring them to Orchard Road to admire the Christmas lightings.
“To our surprise, many elderly haven’t been to Orchard Road. Many are on wheelchairs and it can be inconvenient to bring them around. But over the one to two hours, you see their smiles as you bring them around Orchard Road, enjoying the artificial snow. The joy that they have makes you feel that all the effort is worth it.”
Kinship has not only blossomed between his brothers and the elderly residents, but also for Pastor Wong, as he built a family with his second wife.
But perhaps it was in 2007 that it all came full circle, when his staff passed along a call from someone who shared the same name as his first-born son. Used to receiving calls from ex-offenders asking for help, he initially thought this call was no different, but a nagging feeling of hope engulfed him.
As it turned out, his son had read about him in the newspapers and tracked him down. In an emotional meeting, Pastor Wong’s son said he was so proud of him that he had told all his colleagues that Pastor Wong was his father.
“You hear a lot of people say you’ve done a good job, but when you hear that from your own son, it really hits you deep within.”
The New Charis Mission is a non-profit halfway house that runs rehabilitation programmes for ex-offenders and recovering drug addicts. Its staff conducts counselling for prison inmates and delivers assembly talks to educate youths on topics related to bullying, gangsterism and drug addiction.
As part of its social enterprise work, staff and residents of The New Charis Mission also offer relocation, disposal and maintenance services. For more information, please visit their website.
Another changemaker like Pastor Wong is Dr. Lim Chin Siah has gone beyond the call of his duty to save lives in war torn zones. Read more on his story here.