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Meet the Man Providing 20,000 Meals a Day to Foreign Workers

His story of helping people in this vulnerable sector began far before this pandemic.

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Singapore has reported over 25,000 cases of COVID-19 to date. Most cases come from the country’s foreign worker population, where workers are housed in close proximity dormitories.

During this pandemic, Samuel Gift Stephen has been visiting and overseeing the daily delivery of over 20,000 meals to migrant workers in these dormitories. However, his story of helping people in this vulnerable sector began far before this pandemic even started.

So, how did this all start? Were you involved with the migrant workers in Singapore before COVID-19?

Yes.

In the 1960s, my dad was on the way back to Sri Lanka from an evangelistic crusade in Medan when the ship he was on sank. He arrived in Singapore and found himself knocking on the door of a church in Sembawang. He slept right outside the door. The next morning, a Finnish missionary sister opened the door, took him in and gave him a job. He started as a caretaker, but soon began reaching out to migrant brothers from India and different parts of the world in the Sembawang area. Many people were saved through this ministry.

Samuel with his father, Rev. John Sam Stephen, in their home, Singapore, 1988

 

In the 1980’s, my dad started Smyrna Assembly, which was meant from its very conception to be a migrant church. Growing up, almost every single day, there would be at least 5 brothers staying in our house. They would share their joy, their trials, and all of their life experiences. Most of these brothers would call my father “Appa,” so they became like brothers to me.

When my father passed on in 2008, I was appointed Senior Pastor of Smyrna Assembly. We started to be more intentional about our ministry to migrant workers: we started classes in English, financial management, and other life skills, to assimilate the workers into the community. We found these programs to be very successful.

How have these programs tangibly impacted the foreign workers’ lives?

For the past 12 years we have been doing this, and have seen thousands of men come through the doors. We make our classes official and we give them a certificate of completion. One of our successes in migrant worker ministry is that it has become self-sustaining – it is now the migrants themselves who run it.

Eventually, we came together with three other pastors to start the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach (AGWO) in 2018, and by May of last year we had 70 partners from religious organizations, NGOs, corporations, and individuals working together.

Since then we’ve always worked to bring awareness to the daily plight of migrant workers. For example, in August 2019, we had an exhibition called “Walking in Your Shoes.” This portrayed the foreign workers living conditions, what kind of food they eat, and what kind of beds they sleep on. We also shared some testimonies from the workers, how they had found success, and this garnered a lot of good coverage.

“We are called to be salt and light to our brothers and sisters in the most vulnerable moments of their lives. We say, ‘I will journey with you, through your pain and difficulty.’”

We also hold banquets of appreciation, host sports tournaments, and stage other events to honor and appreciate our migrant brothers. We hold events for female domestic helpers as well.

What motivated you to get involved in COVID-19 relief?

We started off with this question; “What can we do for our brothers during this pandemic?” Initially, we thought of preparing one large meal on Good Friday, to bless 30,000 brothers at once. That was the beginning of this whole idea.

But then on the Thursday before, we heard that one of the large dorms, holding about 20,000 people had become a COVID-19 cluster, so we couldn’t bring food there. Thus, on Good Friday, we were only able to give out 9,200 packets of food to 113 dormitories.

The next day, since we had a balance of 20,000 food packets, we said, “Let’s look for needy dorms we can give these to.” We started giving packets of food to different dormitories, and the numbers just continued to grow.

What has this grown into? What are you specifically doing in the dormitories today?

Right now, we are the largest feeding program for foreign workers, next to the government. Our first priority is always to give these men a hot meal. Our second is to meet their social and emotional needs.

As of today, we oversee a total of 260 dormitories, providing food to over 90 dorms on a daily basis. Our operation is now a full 24 hours – we provide the sahur, or pre-fast meal for Muslims, at 2am. For the non-Muslims, we provide lunch, and we then provide dinner for everyone.

 

Distributing the 2 AM “sahur” meal at a dormitory, Singapore, 2020

We prepare close to 20,000 meals a day, and are ramping up our numbers to hit 30,000 meals by the end of the month. In addition to food, we provide the workers with phone data cards, soap, shampoo, and other necessities.

We work with existing caterers who prepare the food, and we have volunteers deliver the packets in different areas. We currently spend $60,000 per day on this program, and all of these resources come from willing donors and well-wishers.

A few weeks ago, we started a new project – “Adopt a Dorm.” This became the connect point, where volunteers could find out the needs of the workers and flag any important information inside. Out of the more than 90 dorms we are feeding, close to 50 have been adopted, by religious organizations and NGOs.

Do you think the whole church is called to a ministry like this or is it only for a select few who are “called”? Do all believers need to be reaching out and helping the poor and marginalized?

The Bible is very clear – we are to go into all the earth. The privilege that Singapore has is that all the earth is already inside our nation! We can do missions right at our doorstep.

We are called to be salt and light to our brothers and sisters in the most vulnerable moments of their lives. We say, “I will journey with you, through your pain and difficulty.”

I believe through this experience many will come to know the love of God. Not many people will understand, and some will be scared to come to church. But when the church comes to them, they will know we are Christians by our love.

“The story of the Good Samaritan is the mandate of the church. We can open our churches, open our homes, and open our hearts. Small acts of kindness will lead to a mountain of good.”

I believe this pandemic is a God-given opportunity for the church to stand, to walk in wisdom and grace, and to extend God’s love to our brothers. Remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 25 – “When I was hungry, you fed me.” The vast majority of those who are volunteering in this work right now come from religious organizations, and we praise God for that.

What does success look like in this work?

One of the most intimate moments in life is when you share a meal. The greatest success we see is when a guest worker can enter into our home and eat a meal together with a Singaporean.

I believe that the table is a place of neutralization, of forgiveness and love, of equality – the rich and poor can come together and say they are equals, eating the same meal together. We are not defined by our titles or positions or wealth, but we are equal in the eyes of God.

This is what humanity needs to know. Just because you are earning a 7-digit salary you are not better than somebody else. Share what you have.

Together with the guest workers after food distribution, Singapore, 2020

The story of the Good Samaritan is the mandate of the church. We can open our churches, open our homes, and open our hearts. Small acts of kindness will lead to a mountain of good.

This is an unprecedented opportunity for the church to respond.

Your work is so inspiring, but certainly difficulties come up? What are your 3 biggest challenges in ministry to these workers?

My three biggest struggles would be the following:

First, not anyone and everyone can help us at this moment, because of the safety issues during COVID-19.

Second, there’s so many more who need to be fed, but finances are always a limitation. We can only do what we can do with the resources we have.

Third, we need more churches to step in and say, “We will adopt a dorm.” If we can do that, we will see the glory of God.

Thank you for sharing those with us. To close on a positive note – what would be your 3 biggest joys?

First, it is seeing how Singaporeans are stepping up to serve our guest workers.

Second, even as bridges are being built with our guest workers, we are also seeing a greater collaboration between the Church, NGOs, and other partners.

Third, I love seeing how the plight of our guest worker brothers has been brought to light. There is much hope that their situation will change in the coming days.

Let’s say someone wants to help reach out to the migrant workers in Singapore, but doesn’t know where to start. How could they get involved? 

They can contact us at Hope Initiative Alliance, where we have different streams of volunteers, drivers, truckers, and befrienders – it’s open to anyone and everyone. Simply log in to our website and there’s a hotline number to call.

The important thing to remember is this – anyone can do something. This is what I always believe in: nothing is too small.

Please visit the HIA website to get information on daily food distribution, updates, and information on how you can contribute towards their work.

Samuel Gift Stephen is the Chairman of Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach (AGWO).

Read more about how churches around the world have responded to the pandemic here