Monday October 25, 2004

Faith leads the way for Robert Chai

By 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,” confesses Chai.

Three years later, after earning his diploma in theology, Chai enrolled at the Baptist Seminary in Penang to pursue a degree in theology.

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 expensive.

“I do miss Malaysia sometimes, and especially my friends.”


Name: Robert Chai  

Age: 46 

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, Taiwan  

Occupation: Pastor 

Current base: Brooklyn, New York 

Years abroad: 16