Thursday, July 10, 2008

Preacher's Magical Touch

Earlier this Monday (7th July), there was this interview in the Life! section of Straits Times with my church's senior pastor, Pastor Lawrence Khong.

After reading the interview, I was even more thankful that he is the senior pastor of my church. The number of hats that he wears is amazing.

Just read the full interview below:

Pastor Lawrence Khong’s proudest contribution is setting up Touch Community Services, an award-winning non-profit organisation.

EVERYTHING about Lawrence Khong, from the many hats he wears, right down to his choice of shoes, screams unconventional.

This is a man who does not conform to normal expectations, and his red-rimmed spectacles, red Converse sneakers and stylishly gelled hair are testimony to that.

His appearance is not something you would expect of a 55-year-old, and certainly not of someone who is a senior pastor, social worker, magician, businessman and national athlete all rolled into one very energetic body.

When you compliment him on his trendy appearance, he replies with a boisterous laugh: “I’m just a lao hiao.”

The Hokkien term means old vainpot.

“We shouldn’t be afraid of who we are. Flamboyance is not wrong and it depends on how I use it. I can use it to flirt around and be immoral or I can use it to just add colour to an occasion.”

Still, it is hard to reconcile the image of a God-fearing man delivering a heartfelt sermon with that of an illusionist who has performed magic as shocking as “decapitating” his daughter and walking down into the audience, holding her head.

“The young people love it. It is our version of a horror movie,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes.

Pastor Khong may not be a household name but his resume is so long it can be an article in itself.

He is the senior pastor of Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC), which he started in 1986. One of the megachurches in Singapore, it has a congregation of about 10,000 and holds services at the Singapore Expo’s Max Pavilion.

He is the founder and chairman of Touch Community Services, a non-profit welfare organisation which has 18 centres in Singapore helping the under-privileged and the needy.

He is a magician and has performed in sell-out shows to more than 200,000 people in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan and the United States.

He is a businessman, the creative brains behind his production house, Gateway Entertainment, which produces magic shows and makes drama feature films and television movies.

To top it off, he is also a national polo player who won a silver medal with his team at last year’s South-east Asia Games.

“I’m someone who cannot sit still,” he says. “When I was doing my master’s in theology, I would be working on three papers at the same time.”

He demonstrates his yen for multitasking by pretending to type furiously on the table, then suddenly turning his attention to something on his right and then thumbing an imaginary stack of papers.

He adds: “I can think of nothing worse than a beach holiday where I do nothing.

“When I go on a skiing trip, I find out what time the ski resort opens and I will be the first in line, and the whole day will be packed with activities.”

It goes without saying then that the past few months have been pure bliss, as he squeezes daily rehearsals into his already packed schedule.

From Saturday (July 12) till July 20, he and his 27-year-old daughter Priscilla will be performing in a magical theatre show called MagicBox at the Esplanade.

They have also teamed up for the popular magic musical, Magic Of Love, which debuted at the Singapore Indoor Stadium in 2001 and has since toured over 15 cities.

Pastor Khong, who has been performing magic since he was 13, has a wellrehearsed answer when asked if there is a disparity between his roles as a pastor and as a magician, since some Christians frown upon magic as it is deemed to be demonic.

He says: “Yes, I’ve always been asked this question. ‘Pastors are supposed to tell the truth, and here you are bluffing me’.

“Actually, the most honest person in this world is a magician because I tell you I am bluffing you and then proceed to deceive you. I’ve warned you.

“There are some people who deceive you without warning you at all.”

His kids can do magic, too.

THIS interview is conducted over two days, first at his office in Serangoon North, then over lunch at the Singapore Polo Club a few days later.

Charismatic and forthcoming, he is the sort of person whom you will never feel bored being around as he is, in the words of his wife Nina, “full of surprises”.

Dr Khong, 55, who gave up her medical practice six years ago to help him run his production house, says: “He’s not the kind to be contented with the status quo, doing the same thing day in, day out.”

Besides Priscilla, they have three other children, who can all perform magic: Anthony, 26, works in the IT industry; Michelle, 25, is pursuing a degree in architecture at the National University of Singapore and Daniel, 21, is doing national service. They live in a condominium in Serangoon.

Describing her husband as a very easy-going man who never sulks, Dr Khong adds: “Lawrence lives life on the cutting edge and brings a lot of fun into our family life.”

For example, when he turned 40, he decided that he wanted to learn how to ride a horse and promptly enrolled the entire family in riding school.

Six years ago, he developed a passion for snow skiing and, of course, everyone in the family ended up loving the sport too.

He brings a lot of fun to this interview too, as he has all sorts of tricks up his sleeve – literally.

One moment, he is telling you about the two horses he owns, Indio and Sandy, and then the next, he is coolly switching coins surreptitiously from one palm to the next as you watch on, open-mouthed.

He can be munching hungrily on a hot bun with his left hand, and before you realise what is happening, he is already producing one card after another using his right hand, seemingly from thin air.

“These are all tricks. Everyone can do what I do. It’s not like you need some spiritual powers,” he says almost nonchalantly.

Then, in a more serious tone, he adds that he sees the art of magic as “just a medium to communicate good messages of love and family”. He says: “This is why I feel very integrated. As a pastor, I want my members to value family. As a social worker, I realise that (the lack of love) is an issue behind most social problems.

“As a magician, if I can have a great piece of entertainment that makes money for me, puts me onto the path of success and yet allows me to do something very valuable for society, why not?”

That last part refers to Project Smile (Sharing Magic In Love Everywhere), a programme which he pioneered and conceptualised in 2002. It trains youths and adults in magic, and they then entertain the under-privileged in hospitals, day-care centres and homes.

That, along with his “gentle persistence, constant dialogue and explanation and growing success in the positive aspects”, has helped him gain more acceptance from his church members about his love for magic.

But he acknowledges that there are people who find that this is something they cannot reconcile with and have left to join other churches. “Given my profile, there will always be people who don’t like me."

“It’s okay. Don’t make life so difficult for yourself, go find something that you like. I’m not the only pastor in town.”

From riches to rags

THE son of a successful businessman and a housewife, he has a younger sister and a younger brother. Phyllis, 53, is an executive secretary and Kin Mun, 51, is a banker.

His father, a general commodities wholesaler who came from Guangdong province in China, has another family in Hong Kong with four children, but married the pastor’s mother when he came to Singapore before World War II broke out.

As a boy, Pastor Khong was naughty and had the worst conduct in class when he studied at Catholic High School. His mother had to transfer him to St Michael’s Primary when he was in Primary 4.

“I was one of those hyperactive kids. I would stand up in the middle of a lesson and walk around or I would suddenly push my classmate for no reason,” he recalls.

At home, he was always running into trouble and getting caned for things such as jumping down from the tallest cabinet.

“My mother used to say: ‘When I gave birth to you, I was in a lot of pain. Now, you’re still giving me so much pain’.”

When he was 10, his sheltered life was over. His father died, sparking a bitter fight over the inheritance from his family in Hong Kong. His mother was left with little and was forced to work as a seamstress.

Overnight, he went from being a pampered rich boy who travelled to school in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz to a poor kid who had to learn how to take the bus for the first time in his life.

Life became hard as his mother developed high blood pressure and started blaming him for it. She would say things such as “If I die tonight, it will be because of you”, prompting him to wake up in the middle of the night to check if she was still alive.

He also remembers how, when he was about to take his O levels, his frail mother told him: “The future of the whole family depends on your exam results. Our fate lies in your hands. If you fail, I will kill myself.”

He says: “I was an angry child back then and I was very angry with my mother.”

He says he has long since gotten over his anger and his 83-year-old mother now lives with his sister.

But at the time, he found support and peace in his church, Grace Baptist Church in Silat Road, which he joined in Secondary 1. He also found solace in magic – he had a pack of cards with him all the time – which he taught himself by reading books.

“I’m motivated by levels of difficulty. The more difficult the trick, the more I loved to do it,” he says. “Anyone can collect stamps. But how many people can make things disappear?”

Fortunately, he did very well in secondary school at St Joseph’s Institution and went on to National Junior College, where he met his wife, Nina. But he turned rebellious in the army and became a chain smoker, lighting up three packs a day. He also stopped going to church.

But he cleaned up his act when he had a spiritual awakening at vacation time during his first year as a business administration undergraduate in the University of Singapore.

He had followed Nina to a church camp in Port Dickson, Malaysia, where a boy drowned on the second day. That shook him up and he “felt a calling” to become a pastor.

Focused and goal-driven

AFTER graduating from university, he worked as an intern pastor in his church. And three weeks after he and Nina tied the knot, they left for Texas in the United States so that he could study for a master’s degree in the Dallas Theological Seminary.

About five years later, he returned to serve in his church, then set up FCBC. It has 10,000 members today and it was at one point the biggest church here, although other megachurches such as City Harvest Church, New Creation Church and Lighthouse Evangelism (Singapore) have since overtaken it.

Reverend Kong Hee, 44, of City Harvest Church, which has a congregation of 24,000, has worked with Pastor Khong on a couple of inter-church religious events.

“I know him to be someone who is passionate in whatever he does and he has helped many people through his community service,” says Reverend Kong.

Indeed, Pastor Khong’s most significant contribution – and one that he is most proud of – is setting up Touch Community Services in 1992.

With 132 full-time staff and 800 volunteers, the non-religious charitable group has helped more than 100,000 people through activities and programmes.

Among other things, it provides free meals, offers counselling services and conducts health screenings for children from low-income or single-parent families, people with special needs and the frail elderly.

He admits that with their Christian roots, he and his colleagues were greeted with suspicion initially. Now, he says they have established themselves as a genuine welfare group “with no strings attached”.

Touch won the Outstanding Non-Profit Organisation Award from the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre last year.

“I’m a very focused and goal-driven person. Some people see this as arrogance. So in the church, you either love or hate me,” he says.

“But this is me. The other day, Priscilla fell from a height during a rehearsal and the first thing I asked was: ‘Did you damage the prop?’”

Mr Eugene Seow, 52, executive director of Touch, says Pastor Khong is a leader who is open to new ideas and gives people the freedom to try out different things.

“He’s also a very transparent and honest person. He shares things about his personal life so that people can understand him better,” he adds.

One of the very personal things that he volunteers to Life! without any prompting is that Priscilla is a single mother, with a five-year-old son born out of wedlock.

“I’m not ashamed of talking about it. In fact, I told my church members when it happened,” he says.

But he says it broke his heart when he first knew that she was pregnant and he was so mad that he wanted her to leave the family home.

However, his wife talked to him and he forgave Priscilla. His grandson Isaac is now the apple of his eye and he sends the boy to school every day.

“I don’t hold grudges. Whatever you’ve done, whether you’ve taken drugs or committed a crime, if you say ‘I’m wrong, please help me’, I will bend backwards to help you,” he says with quiet resolve.

“This is my job. But if you continue to sleep around or beat up your wife, then I’ll say, leave my church. I will not help you, but I will help your wife to get a divorce.”

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