Loving Her Neighbours in Geylang

Geylang Ministry’s efforts to reach out to prostitutes and pimps aim to share God’s unconditional love—the same love its founder Debbie Zhang received in her own life.

Debbie and ministry volunteers pray with a Geylang lady.

Many Christians seek to fulfil Jesus’ greatest commandment to love God and their neighbours by loving their families, friends, colleagues, and the needy and vulnerable.

But what if God sends you to reach out to the prostitutes and pimps in Geylang?

Some people might find themselves quickening their footsteps to get away—or to avoid walking around the red-light district altogether.

Debbie Zhang felt the same way, 20 years ago. Yet today, the mother of three won’t hesitate to talk to prostitutes and pimps on the streets.

Since 2008, she’s been running Geylang Ministry, which aims to show God’s love to these ladies and “uncles”—as Debbie calls the pimps—in hopes of introducing them to the only One who can transform their lives.

Before Covid-19 struck, she and her team would walk around Geylang and strike up conversations with people they met, handing out snacks along with Our Daily Bread devotionals and gospel tracts, and even praying for and ministering to them if the opportunity arose.

“We recently taught two brothers from Geylang how to hear from God, by using Our Daily Bread materials in their daily devotions and Bible reading,” she shares.

Yet, even as the ministry aims to point the Geylang community towards Christ and to lean on God for their future, Debbie keeps her focus on one key goal: to let them know of God’s unconditional love, and His faithfulness if they choose to walk in His ways.

Experiencing God’s Love Firsthand

It’s something that Debbie herself experienced when she first arrived in Singapore in the 1990s. Hailing from China’s Fujian province, Debbie was a graduate from a top-ranking university, a successful businesswoman, and a proud owner of a four-room flat.

Despite all these symbols of success, however, the newly-minted citizen found her life “meaningless”.

She was lonely; her family was far away in China, and her relationships always ended painfully. “My business looked successful on the outside, but there were many problems,” she adds. “It seemed like I was earning a lot of money, but I had to keep chasing my customers for the money.”

Her distress reached a point where she even contemplated committing suicide.

In the midst of all of these struggles, she met one customer who behaved very differently. He was a Christian. “I found him very innocent; he always made his payment on time,” she recalls. “He never shared with me about Jesus, but through his actions, I respected him.”

When Debbie appeared visibly distressed as she visited him one day, the man passed her his Bible, simply saying, “For you.”

That night, she returned to her empty flat and opened up the Bible. She was immediately struck by Ephesians 5:25–30:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body.

The verses struck a chord with Debbie, for at the time, she was facing problems in her personal life.

“I had just separated from my boyfriend and was very heartbroken. I felt that the whole world was like this—where it’s very common to see customers committing adultery, and going overseas to find prostitutes,” Debbie says. “So during this period, I already lost my confidence in marriage.”

While her friends chided her for holding onto such “traditional” views of marriage, Debbie realised that her deep desire for love in a relationship could indeed be found and met—in the person of Christ.

The biblical view of marriage—which reflected Christ’s sacrificial, committed, and faithful love for the church—resonated with her.

“Years later, when I started this ministry, I realised this was the problem the girls faced. I always quote this passage, and it’s always encouraging to them,” she shares.

Debbie’s customer invited her to his home cell group, and, later on, his church. Someone passed her a copy of Our Daily Bread, which she started to read daily. And though she wasn’t a believer yet, God spoke to her through the devotionals.

She was also touched by how the Christians she met always welcomed her warmly. “I wondered if they had the motive of just wanting me to be a Christian,” she says, “but they were never pushy.”

Debbie began to attend church regularly, where she eventually prayed to receive Christ. She met her husband Kelvin in the same church, and they married in 2003.

But Debbie would find her newfound faith severely tested by various trials. Her business went bust—and at her lowest point, she rented a pushcart to sell costume jewellery, making as little as two dollars a day. Yet, as she learnt to surrender to Him, God miraculously restarted her import-export business. She also witnessed His divine providence during her pregnancy and the birth of her first child.

When her first son was old enough to be placed in a childcare centre, Debbie prepared to embark on a new business venture. Yet that was when God unexpectedly planted a seed of calling in her, to reach out to the Geylang community.

A Call to an Unusual Ministry

Volunteers approach a Geylang lady to pray for her.

For the longest time, Debbie didn’t even know that there were prostitutes from China in Singapore.

It was only when she and Kelvin started attending a course at a Bible school in Geylang in 2008, that she began to see prostitutes—many from her birth country—outside the school.

She struggled with the stark contrast between the worlds she encountered: stepping into the Bible school, where students happily learned God’s Word and how to serve Him; and stepping back out onto the streets, where women were soliciting prostitution.

Debbie felt prompted to pray over their plight, and wondered how she could help them leave the trade. But she had no ideas or experience. Churches in the neighbourhood were apprehensive about helping, because some of the women had asked them for money to return home, only to return to Geylang soon after.

“This mission was totally new to Christians here,” she says. “There was limited information on these ladies, and people saw them as coming from a different world.”

For three months, Debbie sought the Lord’s counsel, struggling between this newfound burden and a desire to carry out her latest business plan. She soon saw God answering her in amazing ways.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone”

One day, Debbie woke up to pray before dawn—and for the first time in five years, noticed her husband’s football jersey on the desk. It was emblazoned with the motto of the Liverpool Football Club: “You’ll never walk alone.”

Sometime later, she was in a vehicle with Kelvin at the wheel, feeling particularly downhearted by all the closed doors. She was pondering whether God had truly called her to serve in this neighbourhood, when a car suddenly swerved in front of her—with a bumper sticker bearing the same words.

These moments, Debbie believed, were comforting assurances from God that He would walk with her as she journeyed with the women of Geylang.

As she surrendered her doubts, insecurities, and fears to Him, she began to take small steps of faith. She continued walking along the streets in the area, praying for the community, and trying to summon the courage to talk to the ladies whenever prompted by God.

Soon, she witnessed for herself that she would never have to walk alone, as God was with her. Slowly, doors began to open, one by one. Impressed by her perseverance and determination, churches in Geylang let her use their facilities. Financial support poured in miraculously and at the perfect time, and volunteers and donors joined in her outreach efforts.

Debbie shares the gospel as part of outreach efforts.

Over the years, God granted the team favour to build friendships with brothel owners and the workers. They were even allowed to hand out copies of Our Daily Bread devotionals to them. While they were not yet believers, Debbie says that it was common to see these uncles and ladies diligently reading the devotionals.

Many of them personally encountered God, especially when they were struggling for direction or to make a decision. “Most of them are lowly educated, and Our Daily Bread devotionals are simple enough for them to read and understand,” Debbie shares. “The materials also come in different languages, which is a good tool for us to disciple ladies from different nations.”

The progress of the ministry taught Debbie to surrender her worries and concerns over the ministry and her own family to God, and to relinquish control to Him. As she did so, she saw how God provided for herself, her family, and her ministry miraculously.

He showed her that He would look after her three children—including their studies—and the ministry’s finances. Various donors and supporters gave her almost exactly what she needed, even though they did not know her precise needs.

“In the past, I understood my Christian faith as a religion,” says Debbie. “I knew that there is a God, but the actual reality of overcoming life’s challenges with His help was always a question mark. That’s why when I faced trials, I questioned Him.”

“I think many Christians struggle with trusting God fully. But serving in Geylang Ministry shows me that He is true; that there is something divine, and something beyond my ability.”

A Tough Ministry in a Tough Trade

Debbie and fellow volunteers share the gospel during their Christmas outreach in 2020.

Of course, reaching out to the Geylang red-light community has its fair share of challenges. While some are willing to open up and befriend Debbie and the volunteers, few have accepted Christ—and even fewer have left the trade.

One lady who was rescued from prostitution and placed in a Bible school was suddenly whisked away by her boyfriend, who harassed Debbie. Some women choose to return to the trade or abusive boyfriends. And some who return home are forced to continue prostitution to earn money.

“In the early years of the ministry, we reached out to older street ladies,” Debbie explains. “They came here to buy houses for themselves and save up for the future; and to provide for their children, like buying houses and even cars for them when they grow up.”

Some, she adds, were tricked into prostitution and into coming to Singapore. “But the problem is that even when they have a chance to leave, they don’t—because of the money. They think that since their body has been dirtied, that’s it. For the sake of their family, they will just do it for the money.”

There are also those who do it for love—or their distorted understanding of it. Debbie finds that many local street ladies and young brothel ladies come from broken families, and have abusive relationships with boyfriends or husbands who take their money and even prostitute them.

“Everybody is looking for love,” Debbie says simply. “Many of these ladies come from a very broken background. All of their lives, they have never encountered unconditional love.”

Seeing Stories of Hope

While there are those who have doubts about Christianity, some ladies and uncles have chosen to follow Jesus, over the past 13 years.

As Debbie and her team continue to plant seeds in the lives of the Geylang community faithfully and obediently, they have seen God cause some of these seeds to sprout and grow.

One of them is Ting Ting (not her real name), a Chinese lady who came from a broken family. Sexually abused by her caregivers while growing up, she was raped by a colleague when she started work. She was then manipulated by different boyfriends, who turned out to be pimps who lied that they would marry her if she earned enough through prostitution. Her then-boyfriend sent her to Singapore after she was caught in a police raid in China and jailed.

A week after Ting Ting arrived in Geylang, Debbie and her team showed up outside her brothel during their weekly outreach. Initially, Ting Ting avoided them. But when she was at her most desperate point, amazingly, she found a Bible in her brothel. The Word of God spoke to her about Jesus’ love, and she began to tear uncontrollably.

Debbie brought her to church, where she was warmly welcomed by believers. She began to join the team for daily Bible study and devotion, and over time, God convicted her to leave the trade and return to China, where she enrolled in a Bible school. She married a brother-in-Christ from her church this April. Through her testimony, the Lord has touched the lives of many—from a former client whom she prayed for, to her former boss, who eventually accepted Christ, along with his wife.

Ladies attend a Christmas party in 2014.

After leaving Geylang, a lady returns home to Thailand, where she is baptised.

Witnessing God’s Hand in Covid-19

Surprisingly, Covid-19 has opened more doors for the work of Geylang Ministry. The shutting down of the red-light district has affected the sex industry, and left many ladies waiting out the pandemic or for a flight back home—and thus, more open to efforts by the ministry to reach out them.

As the ladies no longer have any income, the ministry partners with churches to distribute meals and other necessities—along with copies of Our Daily Bread—to the brothels on a weekly basis.

They’ve also been seizing this opportunity to reach out to them through video calls, where they conduct virtual cooking and baking classes, English and Chinese lessons, and online Bible study.

With God’s timely providence, Debbie and her team have also procured funds to help a number of ladies arrange last-minute flights back home. “This was when borders were starting to open up and the seats of the embassies’ chartered flights were very limited,” recalls Debbie. “Many miracles happened during the circuit breaker and after, especially during the second phase of Singapore’s reopening.”

More recently, all the brothel ladies were told that they could not renew their passes and had to go home. Following an appeal for donations to help the ladies fly home, Debbie’s team received much-needed luggage, funds for the air tickets, and farewell love gifts. Many ladies who received Jesus said they were keen to go for further discipleship. Once again, says Debbie, God showed that He could turn the impossible into possible.

Debbie believes that their efforts to show God’s unconditional love will not be in vain. Her faith, obedience, and hope in Him, refined through the crucibles of loneliness, suffering, and various trials, have shown her that God will answer and provide as she and her team continue to trust and obey Him.

Groceries are delivered to brothels as part of a food blessing outreach during the pandemic in 2020.

Debbie and fellow volunteers prepare bento meals for the ladies, which they deliver to them.

As she wrote in a recently-published book, God at Geylang: “Whether or not all the ladies and uncles will leave the trade . . . they will never forget in their lifetime about Covid-19, and the fact that it was the disciples of Jesus who stood together with them during this crisis.”

“We’ve been able to do this for the past 13 years, because God has been very faithful,” Debbie shares. “It’s not just the ladies and uncles who have encountered Him, but us too.”

Geylang Ministry volunteers pose with the book God at Geylang, which chronicles the ministry’s genesis and work over the past 13 years.

If you are keen to know more about Geylang Ministry or God at Geylang, visit geylangministry.com.

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