Heidy Quah: From Selling Cookies to Starting an NGO . . . at 18

Written By Priscilla Goy, Singapore

The turning points in our lives often come when we least expect them. For Heidy Quah, 24, it was after secondary school in 2012, when she was only 18 years old, and had time to spare before going to college and wanted to do something productive.

After searching for volunteering opportunities, Heidy and her best friend Andrea Prisha decided to teach English for four months at a Burmese refugee school in Sungei Besi, a town in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. At the time, Heidy’s main interests were in arts and crafts, baking and hanging out with friends. She was going to pursue a degree in accounting and finance, and planned to work for one of the “Big Four” accounting firms.

Heidy Quah with RFTR co-founder Andrea Prisha

But it was at the school that the children “taught me how to love as Jesus loves us,” says Heidy.

“I was just a teacher, but they scrambled to give me their best. They drank tap water, but they made sure to buy me bottled water. Once, an eight-year-old girl with bracelets picked the most beautiful one and gave it to me. It may not seem much, but she was giving her best to me.”

This was in stark contrast to some companies who donated items to the school. “They were giving their trash—clothes with period stains, coffee stains, all sorts of stains; expired milk powder; old undergarments. Perhaps to them, giving something is better than giving nothing,” she says.

“We throw around the word ‘love’ quite loosely when we say words like ‘I love you’, but to what extent do we go for a person? The children loved in such a big way, they loved so differently.”

Towards the end of her four-month stint, the school’s headmaster told her and Andrea that the school would be closed as their funding from the United Nations Refugee Agency would not be renewed. Heidy says: “I was going to pursue higher education, but here were children who were going to be robbed of their only access to education.”

So the duo raised funds for the school, turning to social media and going door to door to sell cookies. Within a week, they had raised enough money to keep the school open for six months. They then set up Refuge for the Refugees (RFTR).

In September, RFTR marked its sixth anniversary. It now supports 35 schools—10 in Malaysia and 25 in Myanmar—which care for 2,000 children in total. RTFR connects the schools with aid and resources such as volunteer teachers, syllabus help and fund-raising.

 

Overcoming Loneliness and Self-Doubt

Last year, Heidy was named the sole Malaysian winner of the prestigious Queen’s Young Leaders Award for her work with refugees. She was among 60 winners, selected from thousands of applicants across the Commonwealth, to be recognized for “taking the lead in their communities and using their skills to transform lives.” Heidy received the award from none other than Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.

And in June this year, she joined politics, becoming a member of the Democratic Action Party (DAP). The conversations she had with other winners of the Queen’s Young Leaders Award sparked her interest in politics, as many of them wanted to be in a position to make changes in their communities.

But Heidy’s journey in helping refugees began as a lonely one, with much self-doubt, no thanks to older adults who asked when she would get a “real job”. Setting up a new organization and having it formally registered was something that Heidy and Andrea had never done before, and they could not rely on their peers to learn how to navigate through the amount of paperwork required.

They also had to overcome language barriers and learn the Chin dialect and Burmese language in order to communicate with the children. “I used to stay up almost the entire night preparing lesson materials in two languages, just to communicate with the kids. But I am thankful that they speak really fluent English now and the years of hard work paid off,” Heidy says.

 Andrea and Heidy were often reminded of their lack of experience. Heidy says: “I’ll try to convince people that I knew what I was doing, but I would go home and struggle with self-doubt. Are we seriously doing this? Why are we doing this?”

In those moments, she would hold on to God’s call upon her life. “It’s important to know my identity and worth—is it found in the comments of man or what God has called me to do?

“I’ve been very aware that our work with refugees is a calling. We’ve seen God’s hand so clearly, that we know it’s God’s grace. When we have child-like faith and take that step of obedience, He’ll never leave you stranded. As long as it’s His will, He’ll continue to cover the bills.”

Sure enough, God sent various people to support them through different hurdles, and opened many doors for them. The process of registering RFTR, for instance, went smoothly despite it being set up by young co-founders who were clueless on how to register an NGO.

 

Overcoming the Fear of Missing Out

 After registering RFTR as an organization, running RFTR was still a huge challenge for Heidy, especially in their first year of operations. Heidy says: “There was a huge disconnect between my peers and me. It was frustrating on so many levels. Their conversations were revolving around J-Pop, K-Pop.”

“The RFTR work is difficult sometimes. There are days when I feel like I’m missing out on things that other young people do—they have more free time and can juggle a much smaller load of stress—and it can get lonely. I follow their InstaStories and sometimes think that I’ve got zero life and have not had a break in the longest time.

“But I chose this life, which has its perks and its sacrifices. I also love spending time with the kids, being on the ground with the community. So, in a sense, I have not missed out much either.”

RFTR work is less lonely now, with her team of volunteers. She has also had many supportive friends who volunteered with RFTR.

The moments of struggling with FOMO (fear of missing out) and other challenges in running RFTR are real, she admits. “But every time I spend time with God, He realigns my perspective and reminds me that He’ll bring me through.”

 

Heidy Quah (extreme left) with members of the RFTR core team and refugee children

 

Living Out Her Dreams

Thinking back on her journey so far, Heidy says she had recurring dreams of herself on stage for a year, before she accepted Christ into her life when she was 11 years old.

“I didn’t know then that people gave talks on stage. I thought I was going to be a performer, like a singer or dancer. I spent the next six to seven years wondering what the dream was about,” she says. She also used to speak so little that her parents thought she needed speech therapy.

Heidy now understands what those dreams meant. She has been granted not only opportunities to give talks on human trafficking, refugees and youth empowerment, but also opportunities to preach and share the love of Christ.

And God has continued guiding her as she leads RFTF. She says: “He gives me new vision for the work, shows me what needs to be done, who I need to speak to, in the everyday of spending time with Him.”

The visions get bigger and bigger, she says. “Each time I feel that we can’t go any further, because we’re already covering so much, He tells me to be humble and obedient, that it’s His plans and not mine.”

Over the years, she has also felt God leading her to venture into politics, in order to work with authorities to change laws and policies.

 

From NGO Founder to Politician

The life of DAP politician Hannah Yeoh is a great inspiration to Heidy. In 2013, Hannah became Malaysia’s first female and youngest speaker in a state parliament at the age of 34. In the general election in May 2018, she won the Segambut parliamentary seat and is now the country’s Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development.

 

Heidy Quah with Hannah Yeoh

 

Heidy says: “There isn’t one thing that Hannah did that stands out for me; they are all amazing feats. But the very fact that she’s always been grounded in her faith and clear in her calling inspires me.

“Hannah went into politics without knowing what politics was about. She portrayed obedience to chase after God.”

But Heidy also had her doubts about politics: she only agreed to join the DAP after being approached twice.

“The first time, I had confirmations but they didn’t come with peace. There was a lot of support from friends, but I felt God was saying ‘not yet’,” she says. She spent a year thinking about her decision before agreeing to join politics after she felt peace. She hopes to “elevate the voice of refugees”, influence policies that would protect refugees and migrant workers, and address issues of human trafficking, child abuse and child marriage.

Asked about her advice for young people, she says it boils down to following God’s call. “Find your identity in Christ and understand where your worth lies. Know your why. Many of us get so caught up chasing what the world wants, instead of asking God what He wants us to do,” she says.

“Catch on the urgency to do more for Christ. Don’t wait until Sunday; there’s so much more we can do. You’re never too young to make a difference.”

Ken and Addy: Sharing Home with Complete Strangers

Photography By Ian Tan

The four-storied terrace house (left) that is currently the home of The Last Resort.

 

Standing outside the four-storied terrace house, it’s easy to get lost in awe. In land-scarce Singapore, it’s huge. It towers over you, its modern concrete exterior—a combination of clean, sleek lines with glass railings and a high varnished wood gate—showing you what luxury looks like.

Stepping inside, you’re greeted by a huge living area with marbled floors and an overly enthusiastic black toy poodle practicing sprints around an imaginary circuit under and between the furniture. On the dining table is an impressive array of local foods: curries, pratas (flat bread), pancakes, and curry puffs.

 

Berrie, the black toy poodle, sprinting around the house.

 

Upstairs, the bedrooms are cozily furnished—each with a bed or two, desks, toys, books, and the odd musical instrument. They evoke a feeling that’s best described as homely, as the cat taking a nap on one of the desks can attest to.

Back downstairs, 47-year-old Kenneth Thong is hard at work preparing more food in the kitchen and laying it out on the table. Ken, as everyone calls him, is soft-spoken and self-deprecating in a charming way. His sentences tend to trail off as his voice gets softer, before breaking out in laughter over a joke he’s made—often at his own expense. His wife, Adeline (just call her Addy), 39, is giving a tour of the house—all four stories plus basement, both balconies, and six rooms. Like her husband, she sports a permanent warm smile and a cheerful, gentle demeanor.

Today, most of the occupants of the house are out except for a young man who’s helping Ken out in the kitchen.

Perhaps the only giveaway that this isn’t just another upper-middle class dream is a large sign made from Lego bricks, hanging amid the packed bookshelves in the living room. It reads: “The Last Resort, welcome”.

 

The large sign that greets all visitors in the living room.

 

What Is The Last Resort

Ask Ken and Addy what this sign means, and they have a ready answer. “The Last Resort is a place for young people, with young people, by older people,” says Addy. Ken chips in: “We want young people to know that if there is really nowhere else to go, there is a place for you.”

This is what The Last Resort is all about: Since they got married in 2007, the Thongs have opened their home to a wide range of young people seeking a refuge, especially from abusive families or unlivable conditions. In general, their guests are welcome to stay for free, though they can choose to help out with the living expenses if they can. For the past 10 years or so, Ken and Addy have been living with “strangers”.

“They’re invited as part of family,” says Ken. “We want them to have the experience of what a normal, safe, functional family looks like. And that means they’re free to have whatever we have here.”

Indeed, from doing the chores to going grocery shopping to cooking and eating together, the couple tries to create a sense of belonging and community for their guests. “That’s something that many of them have never experienced,” says Addy.

Some would call this radical hospitality—going beyond what most people would be willing to do—but Ken and Addy see it far more modestly. “Being radical doesn’t mean doing things that nobody has done before,” says Ken. “Being radical is simply to do what needs to be done.”

The couple also invites other Christians to come and share in their ministry, mobilizing them to serve at The Last Resort.

 

One of the cozily furnished bedrooms at The Last Resort.

 

How the Idea Began

The idea for The Last Resort had come even before Ken and Addy were married. After spending four years as missionaries overseas—Ken in South Africa and Addy in South India—they connected in 2004 over a shared desire to make a difference in the lives of those from troubled backgrounds. On their first mission trip together in Hoedspruit, South Africa, Addy was struck by how close-knit Christian communities there were. They not only lived together, but shared everything with each other. It was a great example of loving both God and people, something they wanted to bring home.

Ken and Addy on a mission trip in Myanmar in 2007.

Back in Singapore, they saw another need: to help young people whom existing social services couldn’t fully support. It reminded Ken of Matthew 9:36, which describes Jesus’ compassion for the helpless crowds. “That’s the challenge to us,” says Ken, “would we have the same compassion?”

The couple found their own answer to this challenge: offering themselves and their home as an example of what Christian community should look like—loving, compassionate, and nurturing. “Building communities was something that God had laid on our hearts, and when we got married, we knew we would want to open and share everything we had,” explains Addy.

The opportunity to do this came shortly after their wedding, when they came to know of a young lady who needed a place to stay. She had just become a Christian, a decision that her family opposed. She had nowhere else to go, so Ken and Addy opened their home to her. At the time, all they had was a two-bedroom apartment.

Before long, word got out about this couple who was willing to house anyone who needed a safe place to stay. Some came through social workers, while others found their way through friends. “We didn’t set out to look for people,” says Addy. “We just made space for those who had nowhere else to go, when we came to know of them.”

Since then, Ken and Addy have hosted missionaries from overseas, Christians needing a retreat, and young people needing a safe place. Some stay for a few weeks, while others have stayed for more than a year. Right now, The Last Resort is a refuge for a 25-year-old mother, her newborn child, as well as a 19-year-old girl needing an alternative place to stay. Also staying with them are two Christian young adults wanting to live out radical hospitality in a Christ-centered community.

 

The young occupants are free to make their rooms look as homely as possible.

 

One of the adopted cats lounging lazily on a table.

 

Overcoming the Challenges

This ministry, however, has not come without its own set of challenges. For one, the couple has found that providing refuge for people often means having to deal with some aspects of people’s troubles. Once, loan sharks came looking for one of their guests. It eventually led to someone breaking in to steal some of their family heirlooms.

There’s also the not-insignificant detail of paying the rent and providing for the people staying with them. This is made all the more challenging by the fact that neither Ken nor Addy currently have a paid job—Ken left his director role at a non-profit organization some months ago, and Addy stopped having an income since 2014. Both saw the need to be fully devoted to this ministry, in availing their time to be present with people.

When asked about such challenges, Ken and Addy say it’s all about responding to what God has laid on their hearts and believing Him, even when their ministry may not seem pragmatic.

Their housing has been a testament to this truth. Not wanting to be weighed down by a housing loan, the couple decided, early on in their marriage, to rent a three-room flat. They moved to a larger flat later. Throughout this time, God was sending them people in need—while expanding their capacity to serve others. “We were being taught along the way how to avail ourselves, no matter how much we had,” says Ken.

God honored their obedience, providing support in the form of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who chipped in for the ministry needs and provided practical help.

In early 2018, the couple felt directed by God to look into moving to a bigger place. The search led them to a four-storied house that seemed perfect.

There was just one problem—the rent. “At that point, it felt like we had no business to be here,” Addy recalls her thoughts when they first viewed the house. “But we felt that if God was showing us that this was the place, then we would go ahead with it.”

Despite not knowing how the provision was going to come, the Thongs took the step of obedience and moved in. True enough, God provided them with enough to pay the first month’s rent. It was just one of the many examples of God’s provision that they had seen in their ministry.

“It’s been a journey of walking with God and seeing how He provides, and how He takes care of every single detail,” says Addy. Whether it’s much-needed food items, money, furniture or even appliances—mostly shared by friends and acquaintances—the Thongs readily attest to how God has come through for them on a daily basis.

 

It’s About Christ

It’s hard not to be inspired by the Thongs’ spirit of sacrifice and generosity. In a world where godly, philanthropic dreams are often derailed by cold, hard pragmatism, Ken and Addy seem to have succeeded in escaping the things that many of us chase.

“All of us pursue what we deem as important to us. It is in discovering what matters much more that we shift our priorities. We’re not telling people to not pursue their dreams, we’re simply inviting people to experience for themselves this great joy of pursuing what truly brings delight,” explains Ken.

But the couple is quick to dispel any notion that they are in any way special. “We’re not saying to people, ‘Oh, come and look to us’,” says Addy. “No, not at all—come and look to Christ!”

“If there’s anything that our experiences have taught us, it’s that we’re all broken because of the effects of sin in our lives, even in a so-called stable family,” she continues. “We are not a perfect family. And we are not trying to create a perfect family. But we are forming a community who looks to Him.”

Ken adds: “We want to build communities. We want to be near people, to be involved in the daily lives of people by caring for them, as well as to be very clear in our proclamation of where our hope really lies.”

In many ways, that’s the simplicity of their ministry: modeling godly living while walking alongside young people and encouraging them to ask bigger questions about God.

And this, he hopes, will have a knock-on effect on other Christian couples. “Our crazy idea is for two or three newly married couples to dedicate their first year of marriage to living together in community, while creating room in the shared space for someone else in need of refuge,” he says.

Call it a utopian dream. But Ken believes that if every church has a community home like that, it would put the church in a good position to foster the next generation.

 

 

Zakaria Zhou: From Drug Dealer to Gospel Bearer

Written by Janice Tai, Singapore

Zakaria Zhou Zhao Zong.

The alliteration of the ‘Z’s in his name catches one’s eye and ear.

Learn about his life and it is no less explosive as the syllables in his name.

In Primary 5, he smoked his first cigarette.

In Secondary 1, he was gambling hundreds of dollars online on soccer matches.

In Secondary 2, he became an online gambling agent, responsible for helping his peers start online betting accounts.

He also joined a secret society, befriended prostitutes and began selling methamphetamine (Ice) to them.

When the time for National Service* came, he continued gambling and drug dealing. It was also then that he first tasted Ice in the toilet of a shopping center in Orchard Road, a street in Singapore.

“I still remember the person who introduced me to Ice telling me that the drug was very addictive and warning me from using it each time I took it,” says Zakaria, now 32.

When people close to him got caught for drug possession, Zakaria became fearful of his own safety, and told his father he wanted to start life anew by going to Australia to study. By then, his parents had already helped him clear about S$100,000 in gambling debts.

However, in Australia, he fell back into his former hedonistic lifestyle. Once after winning a sum of money at the casino, he hailed a cab and told the cab driver to drive him to the dodgiest place he knew. He landed up at Kings Cross, a red light district filled with drug peddlers.

Drugs in Australia cost about four times more than in Singapore. To finance his gambling and drug use, he began applying the business “model” he learned back in Singapore. He bought drugs from dealers at Kings Cross and resold them to addicts, prostitutes and transvestites at the notorious inner city.

During this period, he dropped out from one university only to apply to another so that the school would not report him to immigration and revoke his student visa. Each time, he made half-hearted promises to his parents that he would buckle down and study hard.

After paying for him through three universities over three to four years in Sydney, his parents became fed up. They agreed to pay for his course in the fourth university on the condition that he move to Brisbane to study instead, where he would live with a family friend who agreed to keep an eye on him, and go for regular urine testing to make sure he was clean from drugs.

Things were fine in his first year in university at Brisbane. But all hell broke loose in his second year there.

Instead of smoking drugs, he started injecting them into his bloodstream. Drugs were expensive and since he could only afford a few milligrams of Ice, he needed to inject it directly into his blood to feel its effect. He shot himself with so much drugs that many of his veins collapsed and were clogged up.

His parents learned about it and sent him to an expensive rehabilitation program that lasted a month and cost S$30,000. Staff at the private hospital counseled him and showed him how to overcome the triggers to his behavior. Yet three days after he completed the program, his drug habit relapsed.

Concerned, his family friend told him to move out as they had young children around the house.

Once Zakaria had free rein at his own place, he linked up with other criminal groups and his drug dealing operations expanded. His drug habit also fed and funded his gambling lifestyle.

“I enjoyed the thrill of making easy money from gambling, it’s even easier than selling drugs. Even if I lost, I didn’t care as I could always sell more drugs,” says Zakaria.

However, his gambling spiraled out of hand. He found himself unable to pay the debt he owed the mafia and resorted to cheating other international students of their money.

“I felt remorse about taking advantage of their naivety but such feelings did not last long because I needed the money,” he says.

During his time in Australia, Zakaria had a Korean girlfriend. They broke up because of his drug habit and she went back to Korea pregnant with his child.

In 2014, his student visa expired and he had to return to Singapore without getting his degree. He moved back home, got a job as a waiter in a hotel and yet persisted in gambling and taking drugs during the weekends. Not before long, loan sharks and moneylenders began hounding him. Once again, his parents paid off a $30,000 debt for him.

“My parents were a safety net for me and so I always tell them it’s the last time I am asking them for help even though I kept slipping back into old patterns of behavior when things got better,” says Zakaria.

This time, his father gave him an ultimatum to move out and rent his own place.

 

The Turning Point

At the age of 29, he found himself homeless after he could not pay for the second month of his rent.  By then, he was attending a gambling support group once a week at One Hope Centre after he saw their hotline on a billboard at a bus stop and called them up out of desperation.

“I had no other option. I felt lonely, condemned and useless because I couldn’t crash at my friends’ homes for long and my family had cut off contact with me,” says Zakaria.

One Hope Centre referred him to The New Charis Mission, a Voluntary Welfare Organization that runs a Residential Rehabilitation Program.

“My life was a total mess. I was desperate and everything seemed hopeless. Who can save me now?” thought Zakaria.

In 2016, he admitted himself into New Charis’ residential program because he was at the end of his tether and needed a roof over his head.

While he was in there, some of the other residents shared with him how their lives were transformed after they found God. They kicked their addictions, reconciled with family members and were earning a decent wage.

Zakaria wondered: “Are you sure God is so good? Who is this God?”

As a young boy, he used to follow his mother to church on Sundays. His father traveled for work most of the time and Zakaria went to church because he wanted to please his mother, who he knew loved him.

At that time, he was not interested in God and all those “Christian stuff” and would take smoke breaks during the church service and wait for his mother outside.

At New Charis, Zakaria was intrigued by this God because of conversations with Johnny, a staff and mentor there.

“You wouldn’t understand my situation,” he told Johnny. “All of you only smoked drugs but I was the hard core one injecting myself for years.”

Johnny related to him his own life story of being a drug addict who shot himself with drugs for over 20 years before encountering the love of God.

Zakaria then knew that if someone like Johnny could do it with God’s strength, he could too.

On the third day of the rehabilitation program, one of the residents there shared Revelation 3:20 with him, telling him that Jesus was knocking at his door and all he needed to do was to let Him in.

Sick and tired of his life of debauchery, Zakaria told God, “If you are real, please change my life. I promise to give you this one year of my life and I would either kick my addiction and walk righteously with you or fail and give up trying to quit.”

The next day, Johnny led Zakaria in the Sinner’s Prayer and Zakaria invited Jesus into his heart.

 

A Life Restored

Things did not improve immediately. The first month was torture for him as he had to endure withdrawal symptoms, such as battling extreme fatigue and having bulging veins that continually tempted him to fall back into his old habit, while following a regimented timetable.

At New Charis, everyone woke up at 6am for morning devotion, breakfast and then chapel service before starting work. He worked as a mover, though that was the first time he had to do hard, physical labor. At night, residents did their quiet time before heading to bed.

“It was hard and I couldn’t sit still for one hour to read the Bible but I felt so much brotherly love because everyone was from the same background and working towards the same goals,” says Zakaria.

Even though there were strict rules in place and residents could not use their mobile phones, Zakaria felt their love for him when an exception was made so that he could make nightly calls to his partner and daughter in Korea.

While singing worship songs to God, Zakaria would feel God’s presence and His peace. He also experienced God answering his prayers by turning the heart of his daughter back to him. Initially, there were times when she ignored him. However, he persisted in calling his then girlfriend, now wife, and daughter every single night for one year to get to know what was happening in their lives and tried to make his little girl laugh. Eventually, his daughter was won over by his sincerity and perseverance.

 

Zakaria with his wife and daughter.

 

When temptation struck, often in the wee hours of the morning, he would pray and the desire to consume drugs and get the euphoria that came with it would leave as fast as it came.

“I know that this God is real because one month passed, then three and six months and I was clean. I can’t do it on my own strength and I have failed many times in the past,” says Zakaria.

Zakaria was successfully rehabilitated after a year.

“I was so thankful to God that he helped me fight temptations when I couldn’t in the past so that even a hard core addict can still manage to stay clean throughout the year,” he says.

Seeing the change in him, his father also decided to go to church and came to know the Lord.

His girlfriend forgave him and flew back with their five-year-old daughter to Singapore last year. The couple got married in September and Zakaria was baptized shortly after at Bartley Christian Church. Since then, they have found a home at that church, and serve and worship God there together. His wife attends the Korean service while Zakaria attends the English service.

 

Zakaria getting baptized at Bartley Christian Church.

 

Looking Ahead

Today, Zakaria is getting to know God better by studying His Word at a school of Theology in the mornings.

“I am a new believer so I need to strengthen my foundation in God so as to build on my new identity in Him,” he says.

In the afternoons, he works part-time as an administrator for The New Charis Mission in Eunos to earn his own keep. Every Wednesday night, he volunteers his time with the elderly living at Ang Mo Kio. He makes house visits, befriends them and occasionally cleans their homes.

 

Zakaria spending time with an elderly.

 

“I know what it is like to be lonely and without support so I feel for the seniors. Relative to their plight of being abandoned by family members and having poor living conditions, I feel fortunate about my own situation,” says Zakaria.

His dramatic turnaround has surprised not only his family and friends, but also shocked him.

“I still struggle with feeling guilt over my past but I know God does not condemn me but loves me,” says Zakaria, whose favorite verse in the Bible is Psalm 1:1-2, which reminds him to delight in and meditate on the law of God:

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.

Every day, he is reminded of God’s grace and mercy in protecting him.

“I am grateful I am able to help other druggies now but I am also cautious because the urge to consume drugs or make fast money still come,” he says. “But now I have learned how to be content, channel my thoughts elsewhere and trust that God has a plan for me.”

 

Zakaria helping out at The New Charis Mission.

 

After his Bible studies, he intends to finish unfinished business—since he dropped out of school in Australia—by getting a degree in hotel management. Through his service in the hospitality industry, he hopes to spread God’s love to others.

It is his dream to bring the love of God beyond the shores of Singapore. He wants to open an orphanage and reach out to homeless children in Indonesia, to teach, feed and clothe them.

“I hope to get to them when they are young and let them encounter God’s love,” says Zakaria. “My story went awry very early on so if I get to them when they are young enough, they will have a greater chance of living life right.”

 

* National Service (NS) is compulsory duty in the uniformed services for all Singaporean males upon finishing their tertiary education (but before any higher education). This usually includes two years of full-time service.

Xempt: A New Name And New Lease On Life

At the age of 17, Caleb Bloomfield found himself in the dark basement of his apartment no longer in control of his own life. He was reeling from two major losses: he and his girlfriend had just broken up after reaching the decision to give up their newborn son for adoption.

“I found myself in a very dark place,” says Caleb. “I was depressed and was diving deeper into drugs and alcohol as well as other women, trying to fill that void.”

Only God, he would discover later, could fill that void and give him a new lease on life—and even a new name. “I searched out all the ways that the world says brings you happiness,” Caleb says. “And I never did find that happiness until I found Jesus.”

That is the message the now 25-year-old Christian hip-hop artist wants to tell the world today through his music, starting with his recently released debut album Me Vs Me. The album is an ode to God’s redemptive love and the hope he has found in Jesus after years of wrong choices and painful consequences.

 

The Journey

Caleb was born in Canada and grew up in the Fiji Islands, where his parents were missionaries. His multi-talented family gave him not only a Christian upbringing, but also a childhood filled with music. Realizing he had a talent for writing lyrics and rapping, Caleb naturally gravitated towards hip hop.  “I had always wanted to be a rapper,” he recalls.

The young hip hop artist’s career started off well. His stage name then was “Tu K” a shortened version of “Ratu Kelepi”, which means “Chief Caleb” in the Fijian language. He started writing songs under that stage name, working towards his dreams of becoming a rapper.

At the same time though, he struggled to fit in with his peers and his relationship with God took a backseat. “The core problem was that I did not know who I was in Christ or who Christ called me to be,” he says.

When he was 15, during one of his family’s trips back to Canada, Caleb found the acceptance he was seeking from a group of hard-partying friends. It wasn’t long before he found himself doing things he never thought he would do, just to fit in. “I was dead set on finding a way to make me happy without God,” Caleb explains.

Drugs, partying, and sex became a part of his everyday life. When he was 17, Sara, his girlfriend at the time, gave birth to their son. After quarrelling over what to do about the baby, they decided that they would give him away to adoption. This eventually led to them breaking up. Depressed, Caleb sought solace in even more drugs, alcohol, and other women. On the outside, it looked like he was having a good time. But on the inside, all he felt was emptiness.

 

Photo by Xempt

 

Called by God

One particular day, a friend invited Caleb to a Christian conference that featured hip hop dancing. Figuring he would have a bit of fun with his friends, he agreed—even arriving at the venue stoned. Despite his blasé attitude towards God at the time, Caleb was immediately struck by God’s presence at the event. Over three days, he found himself responding to one altar call after another and unloading his burdens to Jesus. “All the pain and shame I’d held onto for so many years began to fall off.”

After experiencing the truth of Christ’s love, Caleb decided to dedicate his life—and his music—to God. That started a time of transformation, redemption, and restoration. Four years later, Caleb was reunited with Sara, his former girlfriend. They married and had two more children together. “God is using our story to glorify His name,” he proudly proclaims.

As God continued to turn his life around, Caleb began to see the truth of Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

But it wasn’t just a new identity that God gave Caleb: He also gave the hip hop artist a new name.

 

The Birth of Xempt

After God transformed him and Caleb began to use his music to honor God, he continued with his stage name, Tu K. However, he felt that the name carried a lot of baggage from his past life, which he had spent chasing after the pleasures of the world. “In all those bad things I was doing, people knew me as Tu K,” he says.

A memorable encounter changed all that. While he and Sara were choosing a name for their newborn daughter—whom they eventually named “Mercy”—Caleb felt convicted about the importance and power behind a name. Around the same time, he was also reading about incidences in the Bible when God had changed a person’s name to speak life and identity into their lives. “God spoke to me and said ‘Caleb, you have died to yourself and resurrected with me. I want to give you a new name. You have been exempted from your past and your past no longer affects you.’”

And so the name “Xempt” was born.

To Caleb, it is much more than a stage name: he sees it as an effective way to share his life story and identity in Christ. “A lot of people out there in the hip hop scene have been down the same roads that I have been,” Caleb says. “When somebody comes up to me and asks, ‘Oh, what’s your name?’, I can say ‘Yo, this is why my name is Xempt: because I’ve been exempted from my past’.”

 

Photo by Xempt

 

Me vs Me

Some four years after he changed his name, Xempt released his debut album Me vs Me in November 2017, which opened at #12 on the Canadian iTunes charts. The title was inspired by Romans 7:19, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”

“If you listen through the songs (on the album), it’s a reflection of where I was and where God has brought me,” Caleb explains. From the recounting of his childhood in the opening track “Psalm 6” and the reality of spiritual warfare in “Shadows” to “Jehovah Jireh”, a song of praise that glorifies God’s work in his life, the album is filled with meaningful lyrics centering on the hope found in Jesus, solid beats, and moving melodies.

The album has a simple but powerful key message: “No matter where you may find yourself, whether you feel like the closest thing to God or the furthest thing from God, it doesn’t change the fact that He isn’t finished with you yet.”

That message is expressed especially in “Good Enough”, one of the most popular songs in the album. It was a deep, personal expression of Caleb’s journey back to God which almost was not included in the album. One of the lines in the song recounts the time he found himself sitting in the front row in a church service, feeling completely worthless. “It was a song I wrote out of a cry from my heart that I wasn’t good enough,” he says. “I found myself in a place where people would laugh at me and be like, ‘That’s not who you really are. You’re not a Christian.’ They would speak down to me and tell me what they thought I was—an addict.”

Listen to the song, however, and you’ll walk away with the overwhelming message of God’s grace and Jesus’ love. In a verse from the song, Xempt raps:

“For the seeds that I’ve sown don’t match the grace that He’s shown,
Now my mind is blown. No, I can’t comprehend.
Is it all pretend? His Son, did He really send?
Can He really be my Father, and my King, yet my Friend?”

Asked what he would say to anyone on the same journey, Caleb chokes up with emotion. With tears welling in his eyes, he proclaims: “Man, there’s hope. There’s hope and it’s found in Jesus Christ. To anyone who doesn’t know they’re worth, I just want to remind you that Jesus, the Son of God, came to die for you. No matter what situation you find yourself in, there is hope and there is a reason to live.”

 

 Me vs Me by Xempt is available now. For more info, check out xemptmusic.ca.