Written By Pearle Chua, Singapore
I met John when I was working at a library in Singapore. He had a routine he performed every morning when the library opened. First, he would greet everyone loudly and shake hands with the library staff present. Next, he would head to the counter to scan his expired identity card as he half-mumbled and half-declared to everyone that he has paid his bills to the government. Then, he would show the library staff his documents and again declare that he has paid his bills, before finally heading to the multimedia station.
Everyone working in the library knew John, and he was known as our “regular patron.” It was obvious that John had a mental illness, but no one knew what type of mental illness it was. Sometimes, he would get into quarrels with the other patrons at the library. There was even one time when the library staff had to call the Institute of Mental Health hospital to settle his case. Whenever we spoke of John, it was always with raised eyebrows.
At first, I would just shake hands with John in the mornings and mind my own business. But then I recalled the second most important commandment in the Bible, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). I tried to practice this command in my daily life, at school, at work, and with family. But what if my neighbor was someone who lives on the margin of society?
As I thought about the commandment, I began to see John in a different light. I tried putting myself in his shoes, and thought that if I were John, I would have liked to be accepted by people around me. Finally, one day, I plucked up my courage to talk to him, as a way to show Christ’s love to him. I casually chatted with him as he shook my hand, and from then on, we would often talk in the mornings.
My colleagues were surprised by what I was doing. Some started to refer to him as my best friend. While I was not afraid of John, I was worried that he might disturb me at work. Would he demand to see me when he got into trouble at the library? However, I decided to release my fears to God, and sure enough, that did not happen. Instead, John got along better with others as I became his friend, and that gave me the assurance that God was at work supporting me as I reached out to John.
I showered John with my friendship, giving him presents for Christmas and birthdays, and eventually invited him to my wedding. That’s when the breakthrough came. Although John could not make it to the wedding, he asked me to bring him to church. I don’t recall telling him that I was a Christian, but maybe he guessed from the fact that I was going to have a church wedding.
Through our conversations, I learned that John and his family were from India, but he came by himself to Singapore on a scholarship when he was much younger, and has stayed here since. John is very smart and has a master’s degree.
However, John was diagnosed with schizophrenia two years ago, when he was 55. People suffering from schizophrenia often hear voices and imagine that they are being persecuted or controlled. This can damage their relationships with others, and in severe cases, can make one lose the ability to function in everyday life.
Though John now takes medicine to keep his schizophrenia under control, it has robbed him of the ability to work. His life was turned upside down, and he now lives in a one-room rental apartment in the poorer part of Singapore, relying on government subsidies.
The Turning Point
Going to church was a big step for John. Anxious to return to society, he spruced up his appearance by buying new clothes and getting a haircut. At church, he approached people to introduce himself. He smiled and shook hands.
Unfortunately, these efforts were not enough for John to become accepted. People noticed John’s social awkwardness immediately. John would be too anxious about introducing himself that he would insist on shaking hands with someone who was in conversation with another person. During the introduction, he held on to people’s hand longer than usual, which made some of the girls feel a little uncomfortable. He also did not hesitate to tell others that he has schizophrenia.
When he joined a cell group, John was so excited to attend that he arrived at the host’s house two hours earlier. Taking down his cell group members’ numbers, he often called them because he was lonely. Unfortunately, everyone would be busy at work.
To help John cope with his loneliness, I taught John how to use WhatsApp and Facebook. My intention was to get him to use WhatsApp to strike a conversation with his cell group members via text message instead of calling them. However, John did not use WhatsApp and Facebook the way I expected him to. Instead, he would enthusiastically send meaningless photos or posts to everyone he knew. He would also take photos of his cell members without them knowing and post them on Facebook or send them to others without their permission. This was too much for some people and they started blocking him.
The tipping point came when he used my Facebook account to start conversations with my friends, and even called them using the Messenger app, which caused some confusion for my friends. I quickly stopped John and did my best to explain how he should conduct himself according to social norms. While John was a little disappointed when I corrected him, he took it in good stride.
John was also getting on the nerves of the people in church. However, they tried their best to show love towards him. Eventually, some members of John’s cell group started reaching out to help him. Two men in church felt prompted by God to guide John. They stepped up as male role models for him. One of them would meet up with John for a meal every Friday to talk to him, find out more about him, and give him feedback on his behavior. John was receptive to their feedback and started attending church regularly.
Additionally, John’s cell group made the effort to include him in cell outings and lunches after church. Whenever they were not available or had no outings, I would invite John to join my cell group or join my husband and I for outings.
Without us noticing, John learned to get along better with others. At the library, John no longer scans his identity card at the counter or show his documents. He is friendly to everyone, and sometimes helps out at the library. No one avoids him anymore, and some even comment on how John has changed. When John went back for a visit to India, his family was surprised and shocked to see how much he has improved.
At church, John no longer holds on to a person’s hand for too long during an introduction and the women at church now feel at ease with him. He is also able to maintain some conversation with others, something that he struggled to do at the start. John has now become a part of the church congregation, such that whenever he is not at church, people would ask about him.
By God’s grace, after attending church for a year, John confessed his sins and accepted Christ as his savior. God’s amazing grace also softened his family’s insistence that John should stay a Hindu, and now they accept that he is a Christian.
My friendship with John has shown me how powerful God’s love is, and how His love, through us, can change lives for the better.