Family Risk Taking as an Expression of Faith
Choosing service despite risk is an elemental aspect of the Gospel
Cliff Tam is a liver-transplant survivor and former triathlete. A Canadian based in Singapore, he is currently a stay-at-home father, caring for his two young daughters. His wife, Wai Jia, is a doctor who normally works out of NUS, and is currently serving on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic in the migrant workers’ dormitories – the area hardest hit by the Coronavirus in the nation.
Cliff previously worked as a missionary for OMF International, served as a Bible teacher in Uganda, and was an Executive Pastor in Ontario, Canada.
We spoke to Cliff about the values that orientate his family decisions.
Can you describe how you and your wife came to realize God was calling her to help with the foreign worker dormitories?
In the beginning, she was still working at the university and was not in a clinic. As the cases continued to grow worse in Singapore, I remember telling her that the day may come when she had to go in and help with the problem. We realized that if you don’t have enough health-care workers on the frontline, you have a serious problem.
As the outbreak sprouted up in the dormitories, we felt really sad. We know that one dorm can have more than 10,000 men inside. It’s a serious situation and Wai Jia and I really prayed, “How can we help? What can we do?”
Lo and behold, my wife got in contact with one of the volunteer teams who go to the dorms to swab the migrant workers and test for COVID-19. We realized this was the time for her to go in and help, because the teams working in the dorm were so stretched
As Christians, we knew she needed to get involved – we are called to love others as we love ourselves.
As a liver transplant survivor, you would fall into a high-risk group for the coronavirus. Was it a difficult decision to encourage and support her as she went to the dormitories?
That’s a really good question. We talked about how this virus could affect my family and me. It’s funny because I never used to think about my own mortality, but now that I’m 40, I think about it.
As Christians, we thought we should help however we can, especially for the migrant workers. Many of them probably do not know Jesus. For me, I know Jesus, so if anything happens to me, I’m good. Of course we take precautions, but we don’t avoid danger when there’s a chance to help others.
“Look at the New Testament. Jesus never taught us to be motivated by fear or self-protection, and the disciples never lived that out. So why should I be any different?”
I don’t think choosing maximum caution and avoiding the problem is the right way to look at it, especially when Wai Jia is a doctor and she can help.
Something that really encouraged us to make the decision was our past experience of moving to Uganda and being missionaries there.
You mention moving to Uganda – what were some of the insights you picked up there that are especially relevant to what you’re both doing today?
We went to Uganda five years ago, when it was just Wai Jia and me. Moving to Uganda was an even riskier decision than helping with the dormitories, for a few reasons.
First, I wasn’t able to receive the required yellow fever vaccination because of my liver transplant – normally you’re not even allowed in the country without this vaccination.
There’s also a high risk of malaria in Uganda, and that is a disease that specially attacks the liver.
Finally, we knew there were limited specialists to help me in Uganda, unlike Singapore or Canada – it’s just a different type of healthcare system. There was no way I could get the same level of support there that I am used to.
But looking back on that whole experience, we realized, “Wow, God really protected us while we were there – we never even got sick.” So it gave us confidence to help with COVID-19.
I think about the decisions that we make when it comes to following Jesus and taking risk. When we moved to Uganda, we had to make those really carefully. We wanted to protect ourselves, but at the same time, there is always an element of risk when you talk about God’s Kingdom. That’s just the reality of it.
Look at the New Testament. Jesus never taught us to be motivated by fear or self-protection, and the disciples never lived that out. So why should I be any different?
Let’s say I’m a ‘cautious believer’ and I come up to you and say, “Cliff, I admire the faith of you and your wife, but somebody else can do this. You have a medical condition to think about, and two young daughters. Wai Jia can still find ways to help in the university – someone else can work in the dormitories.” What would you say to me?
The reality is that living the Gospel is risky and requires faith. Compared to what some ministers are doing, I don’t think our choices have been very risky, but I feel we do have to help whoever we can. If we are really going to love our neighbor as ourselves, what is stopping us?
Should sickness or death or disease stop us? I don’t think they should – if I believe Jesus was resurrected from the dead, why am I so scared of sickness? This doesn’t mean I don’t take medication or receive medical care, but it does mean my sickness doesn’t stop me from doing the will of God.
The most important thing is seeking God’s will.
What have you seen as the result of deciding to take this risk and support Wai Jia’s work in the dorms?
When I consider the decisions we make in life, am I seeking the Gospel first or my own safety? If my own safety is more important than Kingdom work, then definitely – Wai Jia should remain in the university.
But we knew deep in our hearts, that there was a need and an open door. The most amazing thing is when we took that chance, we didn’t realize where God would lead us next. Initially Wai Jia was going in to help with the testing, which any health professional could perform, but then one thing led to another and God opened more doors for her. Eventually she created a booklet, explaining COVID-19 and preventative measures to the migrant workers in their own language.
No one else was doing that. Could someone else have created a booklet? Perhaps, but nobody was. And since Wai Jia can draw and illustrate her writings, she was perfectly situated to create this resource. Now we’re able to print thousands of copies of this booklet, and they are being distributed to dorms all over Singapore.
So I look and say, “Wow, this book is really going to open doors – God is using her for this specific time and place.”
The thing that sticks out to me is God’s perfect leading. We went to Johns Hopkins in the USA for two years so she could study public health, and then Singapore had a massive public health emergency shortly after we came back. She had always asked herself, “What can I do with a Masters in Public Health?” And then God showed her. God is putting all the pieces of the puzzle together.
Moving to your home life, what do your two girls think about COVID-19, and how your family is helping? I know they’re very young, but how do they process it or what do they think is happening? Are they even aware that something special is going on?
I have two daughters, a three-year-old and a one-year-old. Obviously, the one-year-old doesn’t understand anything right now, as being unusual. But our three-year-old will communicate with us – she knows about coronavirus and that it makes people sick. She knows we wear masks because of this virus.
“I want the name of Jesus to be glorified, and His name to be lifted high. As we continue to do that and are in a relationship with Him, we can serve Him.”
When I drive Wai Jia to work in the dormitories, we explain to her why Mommy is going there – she sees her mother walk in wearing a mask. We tell that she’s going to work, that she is a doctor and she is going to help the “uncles” who are sick. We explain to her why her mommy is going to the dormitories.
You’ve had such a varied history of life and ministry – serving as an Executive Pastor, a missionary, a Bible teacher, an IT specialist, and you even were a successful triathlete. How do you reconcile that with your current role of being a stay-at-home dad? When you’re used to all of these high-intensity Kingdom roles, how do you adjust to being at home with two little ones?
I want the name of Jesus to be glorified, and His name to be lifted high. As we continue to do that and are in a relationship with Him, we can serve Him.
My primary responsibility right now, in this season, is to take care of my two daughters. During circuit breaker, there is no one else who can help you. I think we really need to understand that in whatever circumstance we are in, our desire should be to serve Jesus. If you’re walking right with God, you will be able to excel in any role.
What would you say are the lessons you’re learning in this time of taking care of your girls, and supporting Wai Jia’s work on the COVID-19 frontlines?
The first lesson is this – stay-at-home moms are amazing! As a stay-at-home Dad, my hands are already so full, and I don’t even have to cook dinner!
But I’m also learning that it is important to know where God has put you, and learn to rejoice in these circumstances. God has put me in this season, and the girls really need their father to be with them.
I’m also learning the value of prayer, as a way to support the ones on the frontlines. Prayer opens doors for us. For example, with Wai Jia’s booklets, there was no money to print them. And then we prayed, and somebody contacts us with the money needed. Every step of the way – when it comes to translation of the books, or someone to handle the organization, we pray and then someone comes and volunteers to help.
Being where God wants you to be is the most important thing – don’t try to open the door that God hasn’t told you to. As we stay in the role God has for us, whether that’s taking risks on the frontline or raising our children, He leads us into blessing and favor.