Ivan David Ng: Displaying Love and Art Amid Hostility

It was his first time on a plane. Flying 15,000 kilometers from his home in Singapore to the mid-Atlantic region in the United States, where he would spend the next four years, Ivan David Ng was excited about his newfound freedom and eager to embrace new experiences. But the young artist would soon find out that being a Christian in a foreign land—what more, in a fine arts university—would be one of the most challenging experiences in his life.

Today, Ivan is back in Singapore, as an up-and-coming artist who has exhibited his works both in the US and Singapore. He recently graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he was the commencement speaker for his cohort.

Throughout the two-hour long interview with YMI, the 26-year-old exudes joy and confidence when sharing about his art and faith. But things were not always this way, he tells us. In his freshman year, he was confronted with culture shock, personal challenges, and opposition to his faith.

In his first week of school, a faculty member openly ridiculed him for being a Christian. His philosophy professor had asked everyone to introduce themselves and to share what helped them make sense of the world. When it came to Ivan’s turn, he explained that it was his faith, having become a Christian at the age of 17. His professor promptly responded that she thought religion was “very insensitive, illogical and intolerant”.

This hostile reaction was a rude awakening. But Ivan soon found it becoming a weekly occurrence. Any mention of his faith, Jesus, and going to church on Sundays was met with patronizing smiles, awkward silences, and the occasional eye roll. “I felt like I was thrown into a furnace, it was extremely difficult for me,” he adds.

Throughout his time in university, his close friends teased him frequently about his faith and the choices he made for his belief—especially when it came to his sexual conduct. One of the more memorable comments he received was, “Did you put on a chastity belt and throw the key away?”

He says, “When I first got there, I felt like Elijah . . . am I the only Christian here?” When Ivan tried to seek out other Christians in the college, he stumbled upon a small Christian fellowship on campus. They started to meet regularly.

“It was a time of ministering to one another, loving other people together, and supporting one another in prayer,” he adds. “Once there was strength in numbers, I didn’t feel alone anymore and we started serving the people in campus together. We became Jesus’ covert hands and feet in a place where people didn’t want anything to do with Him. The support of these Christian friends was how I stayed Christian.”

 

Expressing love in a hostile environment

The hostile secular environment and several failed attempts to reach out to friends using traditional methods, however, made him rethink his approach to evangelism. “It’s not so much about standing up for what you believe, but more of just loving people that God has placed around you,” he says. “If I can love them so much and want their salvation so much, what more God? I’ve learned to be prepared for long-term gospel work and enjoy them genuinely as friends—that’s evangelism in that context,” he explains.

The key, he says, was to be emotionally invested in his non-Christian friends and learn to enjoy their friendship and company. He says, “Often, as Christians seeking to reach our friends, we feel the responsibility to give to our friends emotionally, spiritually and even materially. But how often do we allow these non-Christian friends to give to us? In a real friendship, this goes both ways. Otherwise, these friends we are trying to reach out to become ‘projects’—and they feel it.”

“These friends supported me when family members passed away while I was far away from home . . . if they sometimes want to tease me for my faith, so be it! I know they love me,” Ivan says with wide grin. For him, the right to speak about the truth found in Jesus had to be earned through a long, faithful friendship, where love and mutual enjoyment has been consistently demonstrated.

Over time, some of these relationships bore fruit. When a friend who often laughed at Ivan for his faith faced a major personal problem in his life, he turned to Ivan and asked for prayer and counsel. The incident encouraged Ivan immensely.

 

Experiencing God through Art

Besides the shift in his perspective on evangelism, Ivan experienced another change. Though he was a painting major, Ivan discovered that he was more inclined towards material-based and tactile processes. Slowly, his work took on more three-dimensional forms. “I liked to do things with my hands. Sculpting gave me more satisfaction as compared to painting,” he shares.

To Ivan, his art and his faith are intertwined. He says, “My art is essentially about my faith . . . If I were to talk about themes surrounding my art, it stems from a search and longing for God.” He draws inspiration from landscapes, and enjoys working with natural materials such as stone, handmade paper and clay. Referring to them as “toys that God leaves behind for me to discover”, he says, “In putting these materials through processes that transform them, I feel that it is God leading me on a journey of discovery and wonder.”

His passion and joy in creating his art is evident as he excitedly explains and shows off pictures of his art pieces, one of which is a sculpture titled Are You In Love. Pointing to the grey stone, he says, “I cut open a quartzite stone I picked up from a construction site, only to discover that the stone was shiny and glittery on the inside, although its surface was dull.”

Titled : Are You In Love

To Ivan, using the materials that God created and designed in his art is a form of worship. “As I create, I am merely reflecting my Creator. As I work with these beautiful materials that He has in the first place created, I acknowledge God as Creator and I recognize myself as collaborating with Him,” he says.

That said, he urges young Christian artists not to feel the pressure to always make their art a tool for presenting the Gospel. “I don’t intentionally weave the cross into my work, although the work by nature bears witness to God in creation. Sometimes when artists use art as a direct, literal Gospel tool, it ends up being cheesy because people already know where it leads. They don’t feel invited into a deeper conversation; instead, some may feel that the work is lecturing them. It closes up conversations instead of opening them up,” he explains.

He hopes young Christian artists can learn to enjoy making their art and “find God’s fingerprints in their making of art”. “God is always involved—it’s whether you’re conscious of it or not,” he says.

For Ivan himself, art is a springboard for relationships and for long-term Gospel work. He says, “Enjoy the people your pursuit of art takes you to and see those relationships as Gospel opportunities. Perhaps that’s the way we can be witnesses for Jesus as artists.”

 

Ming Yue: Behind the Goofy YouTuber

On screen, Ho Ming Yue—or, as his fans call him simply, MingY—is loud and goofy. With his signature smile and thumbs-up gesture, he is known as the clown of The Ming Thing (TMT), the popular Malaysian YouTube channel featuring short films and comedy sketches.

Since it was started in 2012, TMT has amassed more than 400,000 subscribers, with the top video drawing more than three million views.

As he sits down in TMT’s office in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia, for our Skype interview, Ming Yue displays a very different side to the on-screen character playing silly roles in the comedy skits. Decked out in a somber dark blue sweater and sporting a fresh haircut, he is a lot more serious than I had expected, giving much thought before answering each of my questions. Halfway through the interview, the 25-year-old declares: “I’m actually an introvert, a very big introvert.”

 

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His Faith Journey

Ming Yue? The clown of TMT is an introvert?

It’s true, he says. Ming Yue started out a “loud and sociable” person, but his personality changed significantly after spending two years studying in England. He did not have any friends when he initially arrived in 2010, and to make matters worse, his relationship with his then-girlfriend ended. Overwhelmed by his circumstances, there were times when he didn’t even want to leave his room.

“I didn’t want to go to class, I didn’t want to see people, I just wanted to be alone,” he says. He also spent most of his time sleeping. “I thought that if I slept more, time would pass faster and I would be able to fly home to KL faster.”

He adds: “My first year was the worst. It’s so hard when you’re alone and you have nobody. I honestly felt it was just me against the world.”

While he was brought up in a Christian family by parents who were—and still are—church elders, Ming Yue had for many years gone through the motions of attending church without intentionally thinking about the significance of his faith. Only once, while he was still in primary school, had he cried during a service. At the time, he didn’t know why he cried; only later did he realize that it was his first encounter with God, and that “there is something out there watching over me”. Convicted of his faith, he had started serving actively in church, but since then, his faith journey had not been smooth, he admits.

Now, in England, he found himself questioning God. “Why did You put me here?” he recalls asking one day.

On New Year’s Eve, he saw fireworks outside his window. For some reason—he can’t explain why—they prompted him to surrender his situation to God. “I just felt I couldn’t handle this situation alone anymore and I knew I needed help,” he says.

Immediately, he felt a sense of peace. From that point, Ming Yue decided to take active steps to prevent himself from falling back into a depressed state. This involved simple steps like surrendering hurtful thoughts, memories and words spoken against him to God, and stepping out of his room to make new friends at a local Christian fellowship.

Still, his journey as a Christian did not turn into a bed of roses after that. One year after returning to Malaysia in 2012, he left his church and started living a life independent of God.

It took his younger sister to jolt him back to his senses. When she randomly remarked that he wasn’t as loving and kind as he used to be, he realized that he had stopped showing these attributes—which were the fruit of the Spirit—because he wasn’t walking closely with God. Seeing how his life was turning out without God, he asked a Christian friend to bring him to her church. There, he found mentors and people to walk alongside him. “There were people to do life with, to share struggles and to mutually encourage. It was a blessing for me,” he says. He is still attending and serving at this church today.

His sister affirmed him after noticing that he had become a lot more patient and gracious. Ming Yue attributes that to the support of the community he received in his church.

 

His YouTube Journey

It was also after coming back from England, that Ming Yue decided to join Ming Han in making YouTube videos. By that time, his brother had already produced a few videos by himself. Having always done things together, it seemed natural to join him, he says. With two other friends—Bryan Lim and Raffi Th’ng—they formed The Ming Thing in 2012. “It was like our mini-playground to do what we love—write content and make videos.”

 

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TMT aims to maintain a mix between providing entertainment and offering a commentary on society. Its films, which cover themes such as love, courage and the influence of social media, are inspired by real-life events. “All we do is to listen and notice things and people,” he says. “Our films reflect the way we perceive life.” But they do sometimes come up with nonsensical videos that have no meaning or message, he adds with a cheeky laugh.

For bigger projects like web series or short films, however, the team is more intentional about driving home a message. He cites the example of a short film on TMT, Movie Love/Real Love. “The truth of the matter is that the world has such a funny and distorted view of love,” he says. “They only see the one that is put on display in the movies, without realizing that love in real life is vastly different.”

Keeping things real is what Ming Yue also tries to convey and achieve on his social media platforms. While his Instagram account (@mingasaur) includes well-taken, curated photos, it also showcases some random ones, like him putting on a silly face and posing with a cup of coffee—a post that some might deem “not-Instagram-worthy”.

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“There are definitely parts of my life that are polished and curated, but there is this whole element of being a normal person,” he says. “What you see is who I am.”

This is important because there is pressure to look good on social media. Asked how he deals with that, Ming Yue replies candidly, “To begin with, I’m not a very beautiful person, so I can’t post gorgeous pictures of myself. So I’ve learned to not let that bother me.”

Instead, he treats Instagram as a platform for storytelling. “With my long captions, my Instagram account is essentially my mini blog,” he says with a laugh. “I’m a lot more interested in the stories behind the pictures and how the person feels.”

 

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He is also open about his Christian faith. Many posts show him playing the guitar in church or reflecting on sermons. Though such posts usually receive fewer “likes” and comments, Ming Yue isn’t affected. “Honestly, I don’t mind that I’m not getting a lot of likes or engagements,” he says. “It doesn’t bother me because I’m essentially just sharing my life with others.”

But if he has an important message for his fans, Ming Yue will time his posting a bit more carefully. “It’s not about the likes, but I want more people to see this. If I feel the message is valuable, I will post it at a time of high traffic.”

Besides being authentic and intentional, the Ming brothers also try not to do things just to seek the approval of others. This means turning down requests from alcohol or tobacco companies, even though they pay well. “Maybe I just don’t know how to go about making the advertisements in a way that I am comfortable with, a way that will not contradict my values that I was brought up with,” explains Ming Yue.

In the end, TMT goes back to their primary focus: to create content. He says: “We are given the opportunity to see our imagination become a reality onscreen and I think that’s a privilege and a blessing we need to honor.”

As for the YMI question of why he does what he does, Ming Yue says: “We have a genuine passion and love for creating. And God has given us this awesome opportunity and platform to play around and tell stories that we see on a day-to-day basis.”

 

Janelle: Facing Pain with a Pen

Written By Jasmine Koh, Singapore

Maybe it’s the warm and ready smile that is always on Janelle’s* face. Or perhaps, it’s her kind personality that makes everyone warm up to her. It’s hard to imagine that behind the smile and gentle demeanor lies a debilitating illness.

There are no days without pain for the 23-year-old, who has been battling an auto-immune skin disease since the age of six. It began with a fever that lasted a few weeks, and slowly, itchy red and white patches appeared on her skin. A visit to the dermatologist revealed her condition. The news came as a shock to her family. Even at that tender age, Janelle was aware that pain and sleepless nights would accompany her for the rest of her life.

Ever since, the accountancy graduate’s life has revolved around steroid creams, tar products, phototherapy, and other medication.

Things hit rock bottom in October 2014. After a routine jog, she experienced sore and prolonged muscle aches in her calves for several days. A trip to the doctor confirmed her worst fears; in addition to her existing health issues, she had developed a form of arthritis in her legs, a condition that gradually destroys the joints. On average, Janelle consumes more than 180 pills of painkillers and immunosuppressant a month; when an infection strikes, she has to take even more.

Janelle recalled breaking down in disbelief at the news. The weight of it all was just too much to bear, even as the doctor advised her that her lifestyle would now revolve around the condition.

As time went by, the pain grew. There came a point where Janelle knew that she could not rely on her human emotions any longer. She had a choice: drown in self-pity or cling to God.

 

Picking up the pen

After a two-month wait for the right painkillers, Janelle’s condition improved. Her faith also began to mature as she overcame her worst fears in surrender to the Lord and discovered a new outlet: hand and brush lettering. This involves drawing letters using multiple strokes and writing the letters out in single strokes, like in calligraphy, respectively. Janelle began lettering worship lyrics and Bible verses.

The supernatural joy she received far surpassed the increasing pain of the treatment, which involved medication and regular injections.

In mid-2015, she set up The Hope Letter, a hand-lettering account on Instagram. Currently, her page has some 3,000 followers and features hand-lettered Bible verses and quotes.

Credit: @thehopeletter

“I do what I do because of God’s grace in my life which fuels me,” she says.

Janelle first realized that cards could be a means to share her faith while she was studying in secondary school. She spoke of the peace and hope she received in God’s word through cards and encouragement letters to her friends. Their affirmation spurred her to continue designing cards for school-based fund-raising projects in university.

But over time, she realized that this could be a space for her to “spread hope to others” and inspire those with similar struggles. Without explicitly stating her own condition, Janelle would share encouraging Bible verses and quotes on the topic of suffering. “Most of my favorite and well-received pieces come from the darkest of times,” she says.

It was thanks to Instagram that she got to know Heather Baker, an American woman in her 40s with stage 4 cancer, who chanced upon her posts. Intrigued by what she saw, Heather dropped Janelle a direct message on Instagram in July 2016, asking if Janelle was fighting an illness herself or merely encouraging others plagued with illnesses.

When Janelle revealed her condition, Heather volunteered to pray for her. The two built a firm friendship and started to exchange words of affirmation, thanksgiving, struggles and prayer items. And it was through this friendship that Janelle was affirmed of God’s presence.

Credit: @thehopeletter

A constant struggle

Even as Janelle expressed her faith through hand-lettering, she was starting to develop ulcers on the tongue, tonsils, and throat. Consequently, the nausea, lack of appetite and a queasy stomach made her easily lethargic.

In 2016, the inflammation spread her ribs, neck, and spine. An ultrasound scan on her knees confirmed the need to switch her treatment routine. This meant higher dosages of medicine and treatment, including self-administered injections. The doctor also alerted her to the higher possibility of damaged joints.

Her first injection was unbearable. “I struggled a lot. It was a whole new level of pain.”

One morning in September 2016, Janelle experienced a sudden loss of vision. Though she was conscious, everything appeared pitch black. She and her parents suspected it was more than just fainting spells when the spinning in her head persisted even after ample hydration and rest. She was sent to the Accident and Emergency department (A&E), where the initial diagnosis was vertigo.

A week after her discharge, her rheumatologist called. It might be more serious than just a headache, she said. They suspected that it was demyelination in the brain, a breakdown of the nervous system that impairs cognition, movement and sensation. A MRI scan was to be scheduled as soon as possible.

As she was wheeled into the scanning room four days later, she recalled a passage in Psalms that God had spoken in her quiet time, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (Psalm 23:4)

Credit: @thehopeletter

What Janelle didn’t know at the time was that Heather had messaged a reflection on a book titled “A Shepherd Looks at Psalms 23”, hoping that Janelle would be comforted, too. The timestamp on her phone revealed that the message was sent just before her MRI scan. Janelle was amazed by how God had affirmed His faithfulness to her through Heather.

More good news was to follow. In late October, the results of the MRI scan ascertained that the condition of her brain was stable. However, the rheumatologist concluded that due to the side effects on the brain, it was too risky to continue with treatment.

 

Living day by day

Today, Janelle consumes 450mg of painkillers and has two injections every month. But while the cycle of diagnosis, inflammation, damage, treatment, and infection has become a norm in her life, so has her attitude of clinging to God. Janelle believes that she can magnify God through her inadequacies. “I understood from young that each day is precious. . . so I want to live a life that glorifies my Creator,” she says.

On her darkest days, she fights multiple enemies—herself, her emotions and her health.

But these challenges have only served to grow her confidence and trust in God. “If not for God, I would have quit school. He sustains me physically, emotionally and spiritually,” she remarks.

“If anything, this whole journey has taught me to rely on God.”

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Photo by Blake Wisz

One of the ways she is reminded to fix her eyes on God is through the support of a close-knit group of friends. In 2016, she would send messages to six or seven friends regularly to update them about her health and seek prayer requests.

Janelle is currently taking a gap year to recuperate and seek the Lord’s will. She attends a Bible school and continues her lettering as a testimony to the faithfulness of God in her life. In her free time, she also visits craft shops for her art supplies and meets with younger sisters in Christ for cell group.

“I can’t predict my condition, so I always, always turn my eyes to Jesus,” she says. “I am believing and claiming that Jesus will heal me. But more importantly, the ultimate victory was won when He died on the cross already. . . for me.”

 

*Interviewee requested not to reveal her full name

Credit: @thehopeletter

Amy Peterson: The Banished Missionary

Ministering in a country where Christians are a minority can sound daunting even for an experienced missionary. However, for Amy Peterson—a 22-year-old fresh graduate at the time—the thought itself was exciting. “Going to a place unreached with the Gospel was exactly what I wanted to do,” she says. The young hopeful did not expect that one day, she would be banished from the country she ministered in, unable to return.

Now 35, Amy is a writer, assistant director of honors programming at Taylor University in Indiana, USA, and mother of two children. She documented her experiences as a missionary in her first book, Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World, which was published in February. “As I reflected on my experiences, I wanted to make sure that I had learned all God wanted me to learn from them,” she says. “I wanted to make sure I was listening to my life.”

Amy, who was raised in a Christian family, was drawn to the life of a missionary after reading biographies of famous missionaries like Amy Carmichael and Gladys Aylward as a child. “I wanted to serve God in the greatest way possible, and so I felt drawn to overseas missions,” she tells YMI in an e-mail interview.

She took the unconventional route after graduating from University to explore what being a cross-cultural missionary was like. Although Amy’s parents were nervous about her 10-month stint, they were supportive. Amy, on the other hand, “had no doubts” about her decision.

To prepare for her trip—which was organized by a Christian organization she was attached to—Amy attended two classes on intercultural studies from Wheaton College in Illinois and received another three weeks of specialized training from the organization.

Amy Peterson (3)The training was especially crucial for Amy as she was not allowed to directly evangelize in the country. Due to the Southeast Asian country’s political situation and cultural dynamics, she was only able to enter the country as an English teacher. Amy says: “I was simply living my life as a Christian in a foreign country.”

Amy’s efforts paid off when one of her students, *Veronica, started to visit her apartment with questions about Christianity. “I think she guessed I might be a Christian because I was American,” Amy says. The 19-year-old had become interested in Christianity because one of her favorite American pop stars was a Christian.

Veronica’s quest for more answers kept her visiting Amy. In the end, they started reading the Bible together and studying the book of Luke every Sunday night. They also watched Jesus, a 1979 film adapted from the Gospel of Luke, together with two of Veronica’s friends. Veronica later borrowed it over the Lunar New Year break so that she could watch it again with her family members.

After several months of Bible study with Amy, Veronica started to understand how Jesus sacrificed Himself on the cross for sinners. She subsequently prayed to receive Christ.

Amy recalls receiving a letter from Veronica, in which she wrote: “The Bible let me understand that the Father comes to us not because we are good enough, but because we are forgiven.” Reading the letter, Amy was astounded that Veronica could already recognize this truth, which Amy took years to grasp.

Over time, Amy witnessed how Veronica would eagerly share about her newfound faith with those around her, including her family members, classmates, and even friends studying at different colleges around the country. She even finished reading the whole of the New Testament by herself and did Bible study with her friends. By the end of the school year, four other friends of Veronica had come to know the Lord.

At one particular dinner with Amy’s Christian friend and Veronica, Amy recalls how Veronica boldly declared: “If I have to choose between my country and God, I choose God.” She also went on to talk about the power of the Word of God fearlessly, saying: “I have a more powerful weapon than my government does. I’m not afraid.”

Unfortunately, after Amy returned to the United States for her summer break, the local police found the students having Bible study. They were repeatedly interrogated and threatened by the authorities, had their Bibles confiscated, and forbidden to talk about Jesus.

Cracking under pressure, one of the students revealed that they had received their Bibles from Amy. The police ordered the university to sack Amy. She was also not allowed to enter the country again. “I had no idea that I would never come back,” she says. “The experience shook my faith.” Although Amy kept in touch with Veronica for three years after she left, she soon realized that the police were still monitoring and checking on Veronica. Hence, for Veronica’s safety, Amy decided to stop contacting her. (Because Amy’s students are still being monitored by the police, Amy can’t reveal which country she went to for their safety.)

The series of events made Amy feel guilty. “There were so many things I didn’t know, so many things I took for granted, so many ways I wasn’t cautious,” she wrote in her book. Some of the things Amy wished she had not done include allowing Veronica to keep the Jesus film over the mid-semester break, conducting a Bible study session with her students in public, and not warning Veronica to be careful.

It took a year of struggling with the guilt before she was finally able to forgive herself. “I made mistakes. But obsessing over my mistakes elevates them as more powerful than the sovereignty of God.” When asked if she regrets going to there, she answers with a firm “Never”.

To the current writer and teacher in Indiana, her mission with God has not ended. Her role as a mother and a teacher gives her the opportunity to share about God with her children and help her students navigate their relationships and life circumstances. Amy says, “I think all of us are called to be on mission with God, putting love where love is not. I seek to use my words in ways that help make the deep, deep love of God clear to those around me. I believe that we can do small things with great love.”

Ultimately, Amy hopes to encourage fellow Christians to keep serving God. “I believe firmly that God is working in exciting and meaningful ways through people in all vocations, not just through missionaries,” she says. “God is at work everywhere, if we have eyes to see it . . . and God calls all of us to be on mission, wherever we are.”

Amy Peterson

Read more about Amy’s story in Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World. Published in February this year by Discovery House, it is available at www.dhp.org for $13.99.

*Not her real name