Pastor Miak Siew dips his gloved fingers into a silver baptismal bowl. Before him, Michelle* kneels, her eyes cast downward. She has been preparing for this moment for four years.
“I baptize you in the name of the triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” the pastor says, sprinkling holy water in three swift movements upon her head.
As a lesbian, Michelle — who asked to remain anonymous because she is not yet out to some family and friends — had been rejected from her previous Church, a large Baptist congregation in Singapore, when she asked if she could be baptized in 2016. She still remembers the pained look on her sister’s face when she told her that the pastor had said no.
Free Community Church (FCC) is located in a large industrial building in one of Singapore’s oldest residential towns, Commonwealth, where an elevated railway carries hundreds of commuters daily past the church’s windows. There, Michelle found her spiritual home. The non-denominational Church is Singapore’s only publicly LGBTQ-affirming Christian Church. Helming it are Siew, the first ordained openly-gay minister in the country, and Pastor Pauline Ong, who identifies as lesbian.
Pastor Pauline Ong delivers the benediction at the end of a regular Sunday service. “Help us Lord, to find rest in you, as we reflect on what it means to be a follower of Christ,” she says. Photo: Ko Lyn Cheang
On an October Sunday, during the first in-person service after the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions were lifted in June, 54 people filled the small hall. One mother chased after her 1-year-old son, who her partner gave birth to, as he crawled between congregants’ legs. A leader of the children’s ministry used sign language for the children’s hymn “Jesus Loves Me” as part of FCC’s effort to make worship accessible to all.
FCC occupies a precarious public position in one of the most acrimonious cultural wars in Singapore. Joseph Lim, a ministry staff member at a large Methodist congregation, called the Church a “cult” group in an interview with VICE in October. Meanwhile, charismatic pastor Yang Tuck Yoong said in an email to VICE that “to condone what FCC is teaching is to be unfaithful to the faith and truth.” Another critic, Timothy Weerasekera, penned an open letter in June accusing the FCC pastors of “preaching inclusivity of sin.”
Still, the FCC has survived on a modest SG$436,000 annual budget ($330,754) in a country where acts of “gross indecency” between two men are punishable by up to two years in prison. Singapore is one of the former British colonies where the colonial-era law still stands, although it does not proactively enforce it. But Ong said that the fact that sex between two men is still technically illegal makes those who identify as LGBTQ feel like they’re “branded a criminal.”
With only three full-time staff and a devoted band of volunteers, FCC is a “beacon of hope for people who need to find dry land to come upon,” said Michelle. The diverse congregation of a hundred-odd members, about 70 percent of whom identify as LGBTQ, according to Siew’s estimate, are united by the belief that “God is love and that Jesus represents justice.” The “free” in the Church’s name is also an acronym that stands for “First Realise Everyone Is Equal.” Siew said that his acceptance of the LGBTQ stems from a deep understanding of scripture.
Pastor Miak Siew preaches with a mask due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Ko Lyn Cheang
“We are a Christian Church, first and foremost, not a gay Church,” said Siew, who spent three years completing a Masters in Divinity at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California.
“Sodomy is a wrong term,” he said. According to Siew, the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where God destroys the twin cities for committing sin, is often misunderstood. “The sin of Sodom is not about homosexuality. The sin of Sodom is about xenophobia, is about not being hospitable, is about violence, is about male rape.”
It is important to Michelle that her Church accepts her lesbian identity, rather than take the attitude of “love the sinner, hate the sin” that many non-LGBTQ affirming Christians espouse. The Methodist Church in Singapore's Bishop Gordon Wong told VICE that the Methodist Church's position is that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings,” but said celibate romantic same-sex relationships are "theoretically" permissible.
“I want to feel whole,” Michelle said. “I can’t be living two lives. I want to be the same person in my spiritual journey as I am in my earthly journey.”
“I can’t be living two lives. I want to be the same person in my spiritual journey as I am in my earthly journey.”
It has not always been this way for her.
Growing up in a strict Taoist and Buddhist household, where reading the Bible was banned, she had to hide both her Christian beliefs and her sexuality. A shy and lonely child, she converted to Christianity at age 10, after her Christian cousins invited her to an evangelical stadium event.
On weekends, she continued to visit the family temple, offering joss sticks to the deities. But at night, in the room she shared with her grandmother, she would crack open the headboard of her bed, where her Bible was tucked, and read it under her covers with a flashlight.
She also knew from a young age that she was attracted to women. She’d play-act Charlie’s Angels with her sister, pretending that her bolster pillow was her secretary and her girlfriend. When Michelle had her first girlfriend at 15, her aunt said she’d send her to a psychologist for the “sickness” of liking girls, Michelle recalled.
Ridden with shame and unable to reconcile her sexuality and her faith, she stopped reading her treasured Bible in secondary school. The horrific stories of God smiting Sodom and Gomorrah were too overwhelming.
"It was only when I was much older that I realized that is not how it should work,” she said.
Many LGBTQ attendees of FCC made their spiritual migration there because a previous Church rejected or did not fully accept them. It became Ashley*’s home Church in April 2019, after she and her then-girlfriend, Anna* traveled to Oregon to get married. The couple requested to stay anonymous because Anna is not out. They had decided to conceive through in vitro fertilization and wanted to be married when they raised their child.
Alongside an icy river, under a steel suspension bridge with high arches resembling those of a cathedral, Ashley and Anna were married by a Christian minister. It was February and colder than anything they were used to, but Anna was radiant in a sleeveless white dress. Ashley sang “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” with her guitar, a reminder of how they met at one of FCC’s worship band practices. The ceremony was streamed to the couple’s friends in Singapore via Facebook. Someone on the social media platform must have reported it to the leaders of the large Methodist congregation she grew up in, Ashley said, because two months later, she received a message from one of the Church’s pastors, asking her to withdraw from her service position. She still does not know who raised the issue to the pastors, leading to her departure from the Church and adopting FCC as her young family’s spiritual home.
FCC began when 10 LGBTQ Christians started meeting in 1998 for prayer and Bible study. Intellectual, well-read, and “radical,” said Pastor Siew, the founding members were active in Singapore’s fledging gay and lesbian liberation movement.
Pastor Miak Siew (second right) and Pastor Pauline Ong (second to left) during the first Advent Sunday service of 2020. Photo: Ko Lyn Cheang
The Church’s first parish, where they spent half a year in 2004, was a pub on the fourth floor of an elegant red brick shophouse building that was also home to a prominent gay bar known as Mox. Worshippers met beneath two silver disco balls hanging from the ceiling where they listened to the pastors preach acceptance of all.
In May 2018, while Ong was preparing for a Church event to commemorate International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia, she received a call from the Singaporean police who questioned her about the event.
“They couched it as making sure it was safe, with the number of people and everything,” Ong said — an odd claim, given the church usually only has about 100 guests. On the Sunday of the event, two plainclothes police officers stood outside the church the entire time, she recalled. Ong conjectured that they were afraid the Church was organizing a protest, which is illegal in Singapore.
FCC has also faced intense opposition from within Singapore’s sizable conservative Christian community. Lim, the ministry staff member at the prominent 800-person-strong Covenant Community Methodist Church, told VICE that he thinks FCC pastors “twist the Bible to suit what they want.”
“If you had asked me whether they'll be saved when they die, will they be in heaven?” Lim said. “It’s not for me to judge. God knows. I would love to say they won't be.”
One highly public conflict began in 2016, when FCC’s Pastor Ong was approached by organizers of Pink Dot, an annual LGBTQ pride event where tens of thousands of demonstrators wear pink. They asked her to be in a campaign video. She agreed because she wanted people like her to know that “God still loves them,” she said. In the video, Ong shares how, for years, she prayed and fasted for God to change her sexuality. “If this is truly abominable to you, then change me,” she recalled thinking. But God would not change her. “I realized that not only was God OK with me, but I am who I am for a reason.”
“I realized that not only was God OK with me, but I am who I am for a reason.”
The day after the video was posted, Yang, founder of the charismatic Cornerstone Community Church, called it “disturbing” and “a misleading lie” in a blog post.
“Let me put it in simple and unambiguous terms: A homosexual Christian is an oxymoron,” Yang wrote. In an email to VICE, he said that he is “concerned for the faith” of those who follow pastors Siew and Ong’s teachings.
FCC pastors have to strike a delicate balance between engaging with critics who are willing to listen and ignoring those who “are not out to understand,” said Siew. Without an apology from critics like pastor Yang, Siew does not think he could be “in the space to be reconciled” with him, he said.
“You might see us as victims in terms of differential in power. Look at this church, it's nothing compared to the size of his church and his connections,” Siew said, referring to pastor Yang. He gestured at the one-room auditorium of FCC, which they are paying a mortgage on, six years after moving in. Yang’s Church, on the other hand, is 30 years old with 5,000 members. Yang, similarly, said that there is “no point in meeting them because we will not change our position and neither will they.”
Irene Lee in prayer. She first attended FCC in August 2011, heartbroken by the end of a 13-month relationship with her girlfriend and feeling God’s love compelling her to stay. Photo: Ko Lyn Cheang
But in August, Ong participated in an earnest effort to reconcile with a non-LGBTQ-affirming pastor. Ching S. Sia, a Pink Dot organizer of seven years, had invited Ong to dinner with Norman Ng, a pastor who founded a movement called TrueLove.Is, which is known for using the rainbow pride colors and inclusive messaging to compel LGBTQ internet users to their website, only to encourage them to “overcome” “same-sex attraction” by embracing God’s love. One such slogan reads: “Don’t just come out. Come home.”
Once part of the group, people are shown videos about “same-sex attracted Christians” who had overcome those desires. The movement has been criticized by LGBTQ supporters for promoting what amounts to “a psychological version of conversion abuse,” wrote one Medium blogger.
The August evening was meant for Ng, Ong, Sia, and other attendees to listen to each others’ opinions and experiences in a safe space. “The point is to not live in a bubble,” Sia told VICE. “These conversations are necessary, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.” Over a meal of ayam penyet, or Indonesian fried chicken, Ong told Ng that she took issue with how TrueLove.Is is promoted as a resource for Christians who want to understand LGBTQ issues.
“The problem is, even if you look at the videos they have done, [the participants] say they don’t identify as gay,” said Ong. “They just say I’m someone who is struggling with same-sex attraction.” She added later, “It's fine that that's their perspective and how they see their situation. But to say this represents the whole LGBTQ narrative and experience is actually misleading.”
Ong recalled that over the course of a 3-hour conversation, she told Ng that the videos perpetuate negative stereotypes of LGBTQ people, while Ng explained that they were just trying to put stories out there as they were. Ng did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this article, but three participants of the meeting, including Ong, said he was receptive to her criticism. She left feeling hopeful. Since then, they have set up a messaging group and are trying to meet again in hopes of building a friendship.
“I think at heart, we want to be able to listen to one another, to really listen, and to understand where we all are coming from,” said Ong.
On a rainy November Sunday, Siew delivered a sermon to his Church about how forgiveness and reconciliation is a Christian duty. He invited the churchgoers to reflect on who they needed to forgive and submit their answers online. One by one, the responses were projected on the screen in rainbow-colored bubbles. “Myself,” Siew read. “Someone has said: ask forgiveness from myself. ...I hope that through this journey of forgiving ourselves, forgiving other people, we grow and transform.” With that, he raised his open palms, sheltered in the church from the downpour outside, and preached.
*Name has been changed for privacy.