REMEMBERING REVEREND DR. YAP KIM HAO.
MONDAY MEMORIAL SERVICE
SHARING BY CLARENCE SINGAM
TRANSCRIBED BY GARY WHITE
Around 1961 or 1962, I can’t tell now because it is kind of lost in the timeline fog of my family’s history, my Dad got a relapse of his tuberculosis and basically the doctors at that point said to him and his family that there was nothing they could do and that he would die.
But for some odd reason, I don’t know why, there was this lady from Australia by the name of Dorothy, who was a missionary from the Inland China Mission. She came and prayed for him. And you know, if I was my Dad I would not have let her pray for me, because it must be really bad trouble when someone called Dorothy from the Land of Oz comes and prays for you!
He must have… I don’t know why, he didn’t realize that that kind of prayer would eventually doom at least one of his offspring to eternal gaydom – and so here I am. And he was miraculously healed; he did not die as the doctors said he would. And so two years later I was born.
Perhaps out of gratefulness, I don’t know why, Dad took me to this Methodist church called Wesley Methodist in Kuala Lumpur, and got me baptized there as a little baby. I can picture myself being clothed in some lacy garment and that probably further entrenched my eternal destiny into total faggotry.
But, you know, the part I can’t understand: Dad, what on earth was going on in your mind? You allowed a Dorothy from Oz pray fo you, you were miraculously healed – so far so good – and then you went and got me baptized in a church where the senior pastor – a fellow by the name of Yap Kim Hao – who was a guy who probably didn’t believe in miraculous healing! I mean, did you screw me up or did you screw me up?! And so that was my first encounter with Reverend Yap.
I was thinking about how to deliver this eulogy and initially, I wanted to tell you all these beautiful things about Reverend Yap as everyone who has preceded me in the last few evenings has shared. But as I thought about it, I decided I don’t want to tell you all these nice and wonderful things about him. Instead I want to share with you how he messed up my life. Yes, I really want to tell you how Reverend Yap messed up my life!
One day I was walking, crossing the street with my partner, Jason, who comes from a family of four generations of Christians. It was a six lane road and I love crossing that road with lots of cars zipping by– it must be my subconscious my death wish or just the thing we Malaysians like to do – living on the edge of danger. And then there just as we were about to step off the kerb, I don’t know why, Jason asked me: “So do you believe in God or not?” He was getting really exasperated with me over the last few weeks as he had begun to know that that my thinking about God was in a state of flux. And so I said: “Well…, I kinda believe and yet I don’t believe at the same time.” And there right in the middle of the road Jason keeled over in an even more total exasperation at my answer. And you know what, I blame Reverend Yap for that.
In my last conversation with Reverend Yap, I brought my Mother to visit him. I was trying to get Mum back into the church. Well let me give you some advice, if you want to get your Mother back to church don’t take her to visit Reverend Yap! So there we were having lunch with the Reverend and Hee Choo and suddenly he said to me, “I don’t believe in God anymore!” And his eyes lit up as he said it again, “I don’t believe in God anymore! Because the word is laden with so much baggage. It has become a word that is useless to me. Instead, I believe in Mystery”.
And I thought about it and said, “Yeah, I know Reverend Yap, thank you very much, because I don’t believe in God any more either.” “God” has become a word that is so laden with so much baggage; there is a “God” who is the only God who can save; there is a “God” who kills; there is a “God” who terrorizes; there is a “God” who heals. God has become a function. But the Divine transcends all labels and he had come to that point in this life where the label “God” was no longer adequate.
And I really, really understand this, because even as I grow older, I just don’t know what’s out there. The universe seems empty except for physical bodies orbiting and exploding around one another. And yet, it is so hard to believe that there is nothing out there, that it is all empty and that we are all just events of probabilistic chance.
Look at us today – we are here celebrating a life of a great man and when I look at the karmic connections that I have had with this man, there must be something out there. It can’t be just empty space. It can’t be just complete chance. But…but, I just don’t know what it is. And Reverend Yap was trying to tell me that he kind of didn’t know either. And so he just said: “I believe in Mystery”. And that’s true, there is no “God” there is only Mystery and our lives are full of that Mystery which permeates us and that space between us and binds us together as communities.
I just shared with you that I was baptized in this church and of course even as bright a child as I was, there was no way I could have known that the senior pastor was a certain Reverend Yap. I had no idea that Reverend Yap was part of my baptism until many years later.
Then in 1992, when I was going through the throes of my fundamentalist phase of life – I used to go for long walks around mosques and temples with my church mates, praying that the walls of this mosques and temples would come tumbling down, you know, like the walls of Jericho. Just circumambulate these buildings seven times wailing in your heart to God and he will do the rest.
So, I was in a bookstore and if you go back to my library of that time you will see I always wrote down my name and the date of purchase in every book. I always wrote down my full name (which, by the way, is Clarence Kulasingam Poopalasingam). I wrote down my name and the date, and that was 1992, and all the Christian books I bought in that period were things like Jack Hayford’s “The Power of Healing” or “The Leadership Principles of Nehemiah”.
But there was this one book that I saw called “Doing Theology in a Pluralistic World.” It was one of these theologically liberal books – the theology of the devil we used to call it; the insidious corruption of the Christian faith through clergy who had lost their way along salvation’s path. But yet for some odd reason I felt this lure; the lure of forbiddenness perhaps. The book was, my tree of the knowledge of good and evil, standing there having crept into the midst of this fundamentalist garden of a bookstore. I just could not resist. And I reached out and touched, bought the book. But I was too terrified to read it! And to this very day (I just checked the book the other day), I still have not read it! But there was something about the book I found so alluring, so forbidden – the idea that maybe the book held the keys to all that I was struggling with as a fundamentalist; that perhaps, just perhaps there are more than just one way to attempt to apprehend God. I had no idea who the author was – and it a fellow called Yap Kim Hao, who I was certain had been lost in the grip of a theology meant to lead us Christians astray. At the time I bought the book I did not know that I had been baptized in the church where the author was once its senior pastor. And so I bought it and left it sitting there on my shelf, where it still is till this day.
And then in 2003 I was thumbing through the pages of the Straits Times and ran into this guy who wrote this letter. It was the time when the then Prime Minister had said that it was okay to be gay and a whole flurry of responses for and against came flooding out. And there was that name – Yap Kim Hao. He had written to the press in support of the Prime Minister’s position. Think about it. How amazing is that? The guy was leader of the church where I was baptised, I buy a book I would not normally buy written by him whom I didn’t know, and somewhere along the line we both moved to Singapore, and now I see his name popping up in the press and I still didn’t know he was the senior pastor of that church. How amazing is that?
By that time, FCC had been in operation for a short time and the moment I saw that name I said I needed to connect with him, I needed to find him, I needed to track him down, I needed to locate him, and I needed to lure him into the church as he had lured me to buy his book. And so we connected – I can’t remember now how I located him, but we did and we connected.
That is my encounter with Reverend Yap and as I stand here this evening I am just bowled over. I am overwhelmed. I am amazed. This guy was the senior pastor in the church where I had been baptized, I buy his book some 20 odd years later not knowing he was the pastor of the church I was baptized in, and then another 11 years later I see his name in the newspaper still not knowing that infant connection, and I say: “Oh my God, I have to locate him!” I mean, what is that? How do you explain this? I can only call it Mystery – that inexorable and yet gentle force that nudges us forward, graciously inviting us to be an integral part of the redemptive dance of the Divine.
The other thing I blame Reverend Yap for is that I now believe and do not believe the Bible. For those of you who are gay Christians, you’d know that there are 6 passages in the Bible that LGBT people really struggle with, the six clobber passages, as they are commonly known in LGBT Christian circles.
And, if you are a LGBT Christian, you know, they always try to find a way to explain away those six passages. And it is actually very easy to explain away 5 of the 6 passages, they are no-brainers to my mind for anyone who wants to be open in their thinking. But there is one that is very difficult to explain away and that is the first chapter of Romans. And Christians, who are gay and come from conservative, evangelical backgrounds, go through all sorts of contortions to try to explain Romans 1 away: “Oh, Paul was talking about something else, he was not talking about committed loving monogamous relationships. He was talking about pagan temple related homosexuality or wanton promiscuity, but not loving committed relationships – he wasn’t talking about that.” I’ve always found this attempt to explain Romans a struggle. It seemed too clever by far.
And then one day I read the text again and re-read it and re-read it and re-read it, and I came to this conclusion: “I think if Paul was here today, he would say “You are wrong! Homosexual relationships are not acceptable to God” He would tell me I am wrong – that being in a gay relationship is not right.
And so I went to Reverend Yap and I said to him, “Reverend Yap, I don’t think all these explanations of how Paul wrote Romans 1 in a different historical context are correct. I really, really think that if we read the text and its construction, and if we are faithful to the text, we will say that Paul said: “It is wrong.” And you know how his head would tilt when he sometimes speaks and breaks out into that slanted cheeky smile. He did this when I said to him: “You know what, I disagree with Paul. I think Paul was wrong.” Reverend Yap was the one person I know who helped me successfully question the Bible without losing my faith. Coming from a conservative evangelical background – I grew in my faith practice in Baptist, Charismatic and Brethren churches – I approach Christianity always anchored in the Biblical text, even till this very day.
In this Reverend Yap and I are somewhat different. He is not as anchored in the text as I am; while I would always go back to the text. But he brought me to the point where I can now question the text, question this thing that I call the Word of God and assert that I disagree with it and yet be able to say that this is the most amazing book that I have ever read. This is the book, where I can see the Life, the Word and the Spirit of God flow and from where I can derive knowledge, love, wisdom and understanding. And so today, because of Reverend Yap, I believe and yet I don’t believe in the Bible, and yet the Bible till this moment, is to me, such a beautiful, beautiful book from which the Divine can still speak to me. That is a legacy this man has deposited in me.
Nowadays if you ask me what is your religion – and I get asked this question a lot, – I tend to reply, “I am kind of Christia-ny”. Yes, Christia-ny. Not Christian, but Christia-ny. I just can’t call myself “Christian” anymore. I’m Christian of course, but I can’t call myself Christian anymore. I am “Christia-ny”. You know what brought me to the brink, to this point? Who else? Reverend Yap!
When we first set up the Free Community Church, our goal was twofold: One was to create a safe space for LGBT Christians working through reconciling their faith and sexuality. But we also had a second – and I dare say a more important – mission: To build a church that practised a progressive and inclusive theology that provided a balance to the theological fundamentalism that has infected the Singapore church. In the years that FCC had been formed, the first goal has practically overwhelmed the second. This is understandable because the crying need of LGBT Christians to understand that God accepts them and who long for a space where they are able to safely work through their theological conflicts is great. But we now need to move further.
You see, there are two key things about Reverend Yap’s practice of his faith. One is his theological liberalism. For those of you who are from FCC, if you want to carry on his legacy you must carry on his theological progressiveness. To me, that is the most important thing that the church in Singapore and Asia needs today – a progressive, open minded, inclusive Christian theology and practice. You – FCC – must anchor yourself in this.
This is why this year I agreed to lead a Bible Study Group again after so many years of not being involved. We call the group Scandal – it is a motley collection of straight and LGBT men and women who come together to learn and attempt to live out a more progressive Christianity. We now also run a 7-week series in the church called the Beta Series. The idea of these groups is that our theology and beliefs are constantly in a state of flux – they are constantly, to use IT speak, in Beta mode. We are in a constant state of exploration and sometimes confusion even, for while we know God, and continue to grow in knowing God, we will never ever completely arrive and indeed we will often have to revise our understanding of the Divine, sometimes most radically, even. I spent many moments discussing how we needed to run this group and this series with Reverend Yap. (By the way, if you want to you join the Bible Study group, do come. The group is called Scandal and it meets on the second and fourth Fridays of each month. So please come and join us in Scandal. We are currently working through a book called The Meaning of Jesus co-written by NT Wright and Marcus Borg, two very different theologians, one conservative and the other extremely liberal, but much more importantly, they were lifelong friends.)
But today I want to focus on the second aspect of Reverend Yap’s practice of his faith. Reverend Yap always believed that Christianity is about the priority of the poor, the priority of the marginalised and the downtrodden. To him it was not about a coming kingdom of God in some eschatological future through a cataclysmic second coming, but of the kingdom of God in the here-and-now. It is about how we bring the life of the Divine into this world through our fellowship with the poor, the marginalised, the downtrodden.
It struck me one day during our Bible Study that we gather on a Friday night discussing the Bible and Jesus around wine and cheese (yes we serve wine and cheese during our Bible Study). And I kind of wondered what Reverend Yap would think about that – a bunch of bourgeois middle class mainly English university educated singles and couples gathering to discuss The Meaning of Jesus around glasses of wine, cheese and fruits. While I am sure he would have graciously attended one of our sessions, I think in his mind we would not have been doing Christianity because his Christianity did not happen in a Bible Study group. Reverend Yap’s Christianity happens in the muck, grit, sweat and blood of life. His is a Christianity not of ortho-doxy but of ortho-praxis; not of right-belief but of right-action. That – the idea that Christ and the Christian are called to prioritise the poor, the marginalised, the downtrodden, more than anything else I think, epitomizes Reverend Yap’s life and faith.
As I was sitting over there as the various family and friends delivered their eulogies celebrating the life and legacy of Reverend Yap, these words came to my mind – most of you would recognise where these words are from:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind…having the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who though being in very nature, God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped for his own self;
but rather made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death –
even death on a cross.
It struck me, it really struck me as I was sitting there. The number of times this man – Reverend Yap – became something else, not hold on to who he was but became something he wasn’t so that he could stand with and identify with the marginal, the downtrodden – the unwanted and the unloved. Surely more than anything else this must have been the life of Christ flowing through this man.
You know, I have faced rejection every now and again as a gay person. But the rejection I face is a rejection for who I am, not, for who I am not. But when I think about the number of times Reverend Yap and his beloved Hee Choo have faced rejection because they chose to stand on the side of the gay man, the lesbian woman, the transgendered person, the sex worker, and the HIV+ person, I am at once deeply pained, and so very blessed to have encountered them. Not thinking that who they were as something to be grasped, Reverend Yap and Hee Choo became something they were not, something others found to be disgusting, abominations, because they felt that that was their calling in Christ and were therefore willing to suffer for it.
And when I think about this, I am asked this question by that voice that resides in all of our heart of hearts: Who have I stood for? Who have I become for, who I was not? And my answer is, “Not much, perhaps even none.” So how can I call myself Christian anymore? How can I claim a right to that label? I can’t! I have no right. And so today I just say, “I am… Christia-ny”. Not Christian, just Christia-ny, a pale, fleeting shadow of the man we are gathered here to honour, and through whom the Christ life flowed freely to those who would have otherwise never have had the opportunity to encounter Jesus.
I was on my way in the taxi here. And for those of you who know me, my preparations for my sharings are always undisciplined, last minute, prepared on the fly. So I always know, if I have anything of value to say, it is only by the grace of God. So on my way here I was thinking, clutching at straws, and suddenly a passage from Genesis popped into my mind. It is one of my favourite verses in the Bible.
This passage appeared when I reflected on Susan’s sharing about how Reverend Yap, as a teenager, was thrown around by some drunken Japanese soldiers for sport one night. I thought about this and exclaimed to myself, “Wow, my God!” when I realised its import. Let me read this passage to you:
“That night, Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants, and eleven sons,, and he crossed the ford of the Jabbok, and after he had sent them across he sent over all his possessions, so Jacob was left all alone. And a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower Jacob, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip, so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. And the man said: “Let me go, for it is daybreak!” But Jacob replied: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him: “What is your name?” “Jacob” he answered. And the man said: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God, and struggled with man, and you have overcome”…Then the man blessed Jacob there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” And the sun rose above Jacob as he passed Peniel and he would limp for the rest of his life because of his hip.
And I thought about this, just as I was coming here, because Susan shared yesterday about how Reverend Yap was being thrown around from one end to another like a rag doll one night by these drunk Japanese soldiers. She shared about how in that moment he wondered whether this was the end of him, whether that would be his last night on this earth.
We read this passage from Genesis about Jacob and we romanticize it. We think it is beautiful and we think it is sublime. But you must wonder how Jacob must have felt during those compressed, sweat and agony saturated hours of that night. We know he was overcome with terror, and we must wonder if Jacob too, thought whether that night would be the end of him. We know he fully expected to die that night and we can’t help but wonder at that long, long moment when Reverend Yap was being hurled here and there – would it be the end of him? And his leg was broken, so badly broken, that he would forever walk with a limp like our Jacob of old.
And you know – I don’t think, that as Reverend Yap goes into his eternal rest, I don’t think as he enters into the arms of the Divine Mystery, I don’t think God’s going to be saying: “Hi Reverend Yap. Hi Kim Hao.” I think God is going to be saying: “Welcome home Israel, because you have contended with God, and you have contended with man, and you have overcome.”
I want to leave you with that thought. And for now, farewell Reverend Yap – we shall meet again, soon.