The serene smiles on their faces speak volumes. Every weekday afternoon, 31 children in Dali, an inner-city district of Taichung, Taiwan, head over to an after-school program hosted by the local evangelical church. Among other activities, they receive tutoring help and listen to Bible lessons. The program not only enables them to cope with often difficult home lives and the challenges of living in a low-income area, but it also allows these children to experience the transformational love of Christ.
Pastor Chinyan Wang and his wife Yingyue Zeng began their outreach in the community by launching the after-school program in February 2012. Joined by TEAM missionaries Isomi and Chieko Saito (who are Japanese) and a few other national coworkers and volunteers, the Wangs began interacting with local schools and families and established what has grown into a vibrant ministry to elementary school students.
Starting the after-school program was a strategic move to allow the team to first build rapport with the community — where most families are either Buddhist or Taoist — and demonstrate Christian love and care to the local children. “We are trying to reach the people through this community service,” says Pastor Wang, who established the LiHsin Church in June of 2012, a few months after the after-school program opened its doors. Besides offering tutoring, the ministry also helps low-income families through a food bank, language classes, and opportunities for the children to receive leadership training or to learn new skills such as playing a musical instrument.
“We are now focusing on some children we believe are promising,” Wang says. “We set aside time to train them through a discipleship program. I hope in the future they will be leaders of the next generation!”
A MODEL FOR OUTREACH
“Dysfunctional families are a huge issue in Taiwan,” Wang says. “Most of the kids come from single-parent families or international marriage situations, which has a negative effect on their education. Our program helps the kids, and the parents are very happy.” Wang had previously served as senior pastor of the church that planted the LiHsin Church and had started an after-school program there. His past experience equipped him to begin the new project with a keen sense of the needs of the families in the area.
Two brothers in the program have a Taiwanese father and Vietnamese mother. The older brother came to the program with serious issues that went beyond his difficulties with his studies. He struggled in all his relationships, especially with his parents. He would not listen to anyone and was easily angered to the point of being unable to control his temper. “But he has changed! At first, we didn’t know how to treat him or how to deal with his issues, but we patiently worked with him and tried to communicate with his parents,” Wang says. “We also prayed for him continually. Then he changed a lot. I think it’s because he sensed he was really loved here at the after-school program. His mother saw the change in him, too. One day she cried, thanking us for the change in her son. Now we have a good relationship with those parents.”
Chieko Saito, who helps with the after-school program twice a week, lights up as she shares about another student, a first grader, who underwent a visible transformation. “I remember at the beginning, she looked very, very sad. She also had some problems with personal hygiene,” Saito says. “But she changed significantly and has become a model student who is not only very good at studying and reading but is also a leader in her class!”
On Wednesdays, Saito teaches the children Bible stories, and the Wangs lead the children in other activities and songs. On Thursdays, Saito plays with the children after they finish their homework and leads them in crafts — origami is a class favorite.
“It is my joy to share the gospel with kids and tell them Bible stories,” Saito says. “That’s my favorite thing to do. Since the kids are mostly from dysfunctional families, I believe they really need to hear the Bible stories, for help and guidance. Most of the kids had never heard the gospel or about the Bible before; they are always excited to hear the stories. Seeing their excitement, I am reminded that the stories in the Bible are wonderful.”
According to Isomi Saito, most of the children in the program had never truly experienced being loved by others, especially their parents. “They lacked this experience, but here they can sense God’s love. They really need that,” he says.
Ten of the students in the after-school program regularly attend Sunday worship service at LiHsin Church. “My prayer for my kids in the program is that they will meet Jesus and grow in a Christ-like way,” Saito says. “I hope they will be not only ‘normal’ Christians, but leaders in the future, leading this church and spreading the gospel in this area. My dream is that one of our kids will become a pastor or missionary and share the gospel all over the world.”
Pastor Wang shares this vision. “We hope these children will be able to share the love they receive here with those who are needy in this community,” Wang says. “Also, in the future, we hope this will be a reproducing church, not only in this area but all around the city.”
TRANSFORMING A COMMUNITY
Chieko Saito says she’s learned a lot from serving with the after-school program team. “Teamwork is very important; this is not just my ministry,” she says. “If only we missionaries were here, we could not do this, but working with the nationals makes it possible.” Besides the Wangs and Saitos, there are three full-time teachers helping with the after-school program and one full-time employee who helps with administrative tasks in the church. Several part-time workers and volunteers from a nearby university occasionally help, too. “By providing university students with opportunities to serve alongside of Christian workers, we hope these students may be able to sense the love of Christ,” Wang says.
Saito has also learned from the children. “We started this church just over a year ago,” she says. “Since then, many adults have come and gone. Most of them are not stable in their attendance, but the kids are! They come faithfully every Sunday and I have learned a lot from their commitment. I don’t think it’s the sermons that are interesting to them, but something is making them come every week.”
The response from parents suggests they appreciate the help their families are receiving. “Last year at Christmas, we invited the parents to the church to meet with the pastor,” Saito says. At that meeting, some of the parents verbally expressed their gratitude and shared that they could see significant changes in their children. “On a regular basis, when parents come to pick up their kids, they smile at us and thank us.”
It’s clear that ministering to these children is what keeps Saito going back to work each day. “Soon after I started to serve here, I got a sense that this is where I could do what I really enjoy doing: helping kids, sharing the gospel with them and playing with them,” she says. “Also, I really love to see our kids changing in a positive way and growing in Christ. That is my greatest joy.”
-Written by Ann-Margret Hovsepian
-Photography by Robert Johnson