October 25, 2004
Faith leads the way for Robert
ChaiBy MICHELE LIAN
MICHELE LIAN speaks to a pastor who found his calling in New York.
urning to God was never part of Reverend Robert Chai’s plan in life. That is,
until he turned seventeen. Chai says he heard God speak to him, and that helped
him turn his life around. “I had always felt a sense of emptiness and
meaninglessness in my life. I didn’t even believe that there was a God.
“Then one day, I heard a voice speak to me, asking me to
serve God,” explains Chai, who runs the Faith, Hope, Love Assembly of God
Church in Brooklyn, New York. He returned to Kuala Lumpur recently for a seminar.
“It did not explain why I had to do this, but I felt a need
to change and so my journey began from there.”
The voice stirred something within him, prompting him to explore
his spiritual side. He attended Bible study, theology and
ministerial classes at the Bible College of Malaysia to learn more
about the Christian faith. There, he decided that he wanted to
become a pastor.
“I used to be an introvert who hardly talked to anybody.
For the first time I had a sense of joy, meaning, purpose and direction,”
Three years later, after earning his diploma in theology,
Chai enrolled at the Baptist Seminary in Penang to pursue a degree in
At first, Chai’s parents found his decision to devote himself to Christianity difficult to accept.
“They couldn’t understand why and tried to discourage me
from doing what I wanted, but they eventually accepted my choice. My
father became a Christian later on because he saw the positive
changes in my life.”
After completing his degree, Chai left for Taiwan in
1988 to take up a masters degree in divinity at the China Evangelical
Seminary, where he also taught other students how to interpret the Bible.
Chai then moved to Hong Kong in 1991 with his wife Trina and son Noah,
where he served as a pastor at the Ecclesia Bible College in the New
Territories. In 1999, Chai decided to be the pastor of the Bethel
Chinese Assembly of God in New York at the invitation of an acquaintance
he met at a church camp in California several years earlier.
He took his wife, son and daughter (who was born later)
along “because I didn’t want to leave them behind. It was a family
decision to move to New York. When I got there, I realised that
there were many ethnic churches there: African-American, Hispanic,
Korean, Portugese, Japanese, and even African, but very few Chinese
ones, so I decided to do something about that.
“As far as I know, there are only 17 Chinese churches
in the whole of the United States.”
Three years later, Chai left Bethel to set up his own
church – the Faith, Hope, Love Assembly of God in Brooklyn.
“It was very difficult in the beginning because we were
new and didn’t know many people. Some members left after a while when they
didn’t see results fast enough. Location was a primary consideration
as it had to be near the Chinese community. It was also financially
difficult. In our first two years there, we went without medical
insurance because the premiums were too expensive, about US$500 to
US$800 per month,” says Chai, who now lives with his family in a
rented apartment in Bay Ridge, south west of New York city.
“My goal is to set up at least 10 more churches in
the States by the time I retire in about 20 years!”
An ambitious plan, admits Chai, but one that he plans
to execute with conviction, because “God wants me to.”
“There are a number of Malaysians who come to my church
now and there is a kinship among us. Because we’re Malaysians, we
instinctively feel close. The rest of the people who attend are from
Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.”
A typical day for Chai includes leading services, counselling,
meeting with church members, and planning for the church. Chai’s
wife and children help him run the church whenever they can.
His son Noah, 21, is now a soldier with the US Army and
his daughter, Charissa, 11, assists in social events while Trina tends
to administrative tasks.
“Noah is in Iraq. He is serving the army on a four-year
contract that began in June. I’m proud that he’s representing the country and
I believe God will keep him safe,” says Chai confidently, adding:
“He calls back whenever he can.”
Living in New York, says Chai, is like living in any
other big city.
“There are pros and cons to it, but on the whole, I
really like it there,” he admits. He and his family are permanent
residents of the United States.
“I like the multiplicity of New York ... there are so
many people of different races living here. What I don’t
like is the traffic jams, and the dirty subway trains. You see rats and
garbage strewn all over the place in the trains.”
Chai says he has no immediate plans to return to Malaysia.
“I visit Malaysia once every two years, but the flight is very long and
“I do miss Malaysia sometimes, and especially my friends.”
|Name: Robert Chai
Hometown: Teluk Intan, Perak
Education: Karak Secondary School, Pahang; Victoria
Institution, Kuala Lumpur; Bible College of Malaysia, Petaling
Jaya; Baptist Seminary, Penang; China Evangelical Seminary,
Current base: Brooklyn, New York
Years abroad: 16