After two decades of sojourn in Singapore, I returned to the comfort and familiarity of my old home town. My compassionate half was introduced to at first a handful of broken souls, yes, emotionally hurt and spiritually maimed from a particular church. They in turn brought the rest, almost the whole congregation, to her door step. They needed answers and resolutions, healing. Annie counseled and prayed with them. I stayed by the side, just a bit curious. Annie always kept her counseling confidential even from me her most intimate soul mate.
After a while, I was introduced to some of the more vocal ones. Over coffee, they confided stridently of cheats and deceits by their pastor whom they had supported with all their hearts and pockets. They were clearly hurt as he had deeply disappointed them. I listened patiently but unconvinced, doubtful that a man of the cloth with such a high calling to serve had instead hurt the very people he was supposed to serve. “How could you people turn against your pastor? Isn’t he called by the Almighty? Don’t you know he has given up everything to come and serve in your small town? Are you so ungrateful?” My thoughts condescended inaudibly. I just folded my arms and waited for them to continue.
They shared that they had been in the harvest field with their pastor from the very first day he started his ministry there over 10 years ago. They excitedly heeded the call when reminded that the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. They fervently devoted their hearts, souls and minds into building the body church, and faithfully poured their hard earned money into purchasing the church premise. They would drop tool whatever they were doing at a snap of his fingers at his beck and call any time all the time even just to attend to his young children or drive him all the way down the Peninsula for his preaching engagements. They had cheerfully given their tithes and love offering, as if they were their last two copper coins to support his ministry.
They had frequently congregated for worship at rented premises in some nearby back water towns when called upon as part of mission works according to their pastor. I suspected more for show and dance when overseas visitors and donors are in town. Soon, he would be asking for more love offerings to buy more premises in those smaller towns, church planting. He would then operate kindergartens from most of those premises. He stressed that incomes generated the kindergartens are to fund further mission works in those towns. I nodded understandingly but thus far everything seems alright.
They highlighted that he had gone to Singapore on a number of preaching engagements and fundraising. Yeah, I have heard of him before I moved back. So far, I still find nothing unusual. It is quite normal for pastors to do so. Churches in Singapore are quite prosperous and known to be very generous. He had even sent regular newsletters to churches overseas pleading for funds to support his works in the “Islamic” heartland and “Christian” hard land of Kedah. I was still quite okay albeit he may be stretching the hard land sales pitch a bit far for his overseas readers. I guessed just to tug at their sympathy and purse strings.
Then they continued that all monies, tithes, love offerings, kindergarten’s incomes and overseas church’s remittances received had always been banked into his personal accounts. The various premises purchased were registered under either his personal name or his close associate’s names purportedly holding in trust for the church. He explained that their church is an underground church and hence cannot be registered with the authorities as a club or firm or company. As a result, their church cannot open any bank accounts or own any real properties. He confirmed that this is a common practice amongst the smaller independent churches. My suspicious left eye brow twitched a notch. Something didn’t smell right.
They trustingly, more likely gullibly, acquiesced with his reasoning. They even averred that he is a man of the cloth after all and he wouldn’t cheat them or take them for a ride, right? I could only surmise they were probably just uncomplicated small town simpletons, definitely not legally minded, too trusting of their pastor to know that such so called common practice is simply wrong. Any monies banked into his personal accounts and properties registered under his personal name, even held in trust, are legally his personal property.
“Still, what is your beef?” I inquired. They replied that now he had moved to a bigger town, my hometown, sort of heeding some divine prompting from up high. He could no longer pastor their church. However, he insisted that they must still continue to channel all their tithes and love offerings to him. They must also foot the utilities bills for his kindergarten. Initially, for a while, they obeyed and did not question him.
However, over time when they needed some funds for functions, celebrations or even repairs, they were told each and every time to find the funds elsewhere. “They are just speed bumps, never insurmountable tests, permitted by the Almighty to fulfilling His divine purpose according to His richness in glory. Come on, you are more than conquerors. Ask and it shall be given, beg or borrow but don’t steal from elsewhere. Have faith, Jehovah Jireh will provide. Trust and obey for there is no other way.” Against such Scriptural quotes, how could they confront their pastor who is God’s chosen spokesperson?
Emotionally, they felt abandoned, not chosen heirs, more wretched than beggars in their own church for even orphans and beggars do not need to pay any tithes. They had ignorantly supported his wrongdoings, wholeheartedly indulged and spoilt him and innocently allowed the love of mammon to take roots in him. Anyway, whatever alleged so far were still at most hearsays.
So they naively requested some sort of autonomy since he was no longer pastoring there. Well, I can find nothing unreasonable or wrong with their request. As earthly parents, we would be more than happy and proud when our grown up children asked for some autonomy, better still leave the nest, flap your wings and fly into the horizon. Instead of emulating the generosity father of the Prodigal Son, he threatened to excommunicate them even branding them deviants and heretics and was adamant they must vacate the church premise. Sigh, whatever happened to the more blessed to give than receive and abiding grace so often preached.
Despite their vehemence, I asked for evidence. Well, since they were rather unwilling to vacate the very church they occupy, I asked for a copy of the accounting records and title deeds to confirm their allegations. They went the extra mile and extracted also title deeds for other premises from the Land Office except for those old premises built on undivided land and those low cost premises without any title deed in the first place.
I drove to some of the premises. I needed to see for myself their conditions. Most were being used as kindergarten otherwise empty. I doubted any regular church services could be conducted at any of those premises, just too small, possibly for occasional cell group or cottage meetings. And, yes, the premises were registered under his personal name or his close associate’s names.
I think I need to pause here and elaborate further for us laymen what their pastor did was wrong, actually illegal. Bear with me, indulge me for a moment. Hmmn…
Legally, money is fungible. Therefore, any tithes and love offerings should be banked into an account clearly separated from his personal account to avoid commingling. By receiving money to support his church ministries and/or to purchase premises for church use, the pastor had assumed the position of a trustee, albeit a constructive trustee, and endowed with the fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interest for the beneficiaries. The three certainties of a trust, certainty of intention (to create a trust), certainty of subject (underlying assets) and certainty of objects (beneficiaries), are most certainly present in their situation.
Their pastor did by conduct undertake to act for and on behalf of his church or overseas churches to use the tithes and offerings appropriated from them for the expansion of God’s Word and/or purchase premises for church use and not for his personal use thereby giving rise to a relationship of trust and confidence. He had commingled the money received for ministry with his personal money when they were banked into his same personal account. The premises purchased and registered under his personal name and the incomes generated from kindergartens were similarly banked into his personal account. Clearly, he had committed some breaches of trust.
As ignorance of the law is no excuse, he cannot plead that he was not aware of the constructive trusts created. From his conducts, it is clear that he lacked probity. He preached extreme hardships, abject poverty and dire need of money for evangelism and church works only to dip his hands into the money when no one was looking. “Occasionally only what, like that also cannot meh, sure boh”. In fact, no one had ever looked through his personal account. Audit, what audit? Audit costs money, you know. He should thank the Almighty that no one was willing or had made any police report against him for surely the public prosecutor would have had a field day and as surely he would have had been found guilty as charged.
Anyway, they refused to vacate the church immediately. They needed time to heal and find a new place. However, their obstinate pastor was not easily assuaged and mollified. He stubbornly insisted that they must vacate the premise yesterday. He even went as far as making a police report to instigate a police raid in an attempt to force them out during one New Year’s Eve celebration. Gratefully, nothing untoward happened as the police chief ordered them to seek settlement through the civil courts. How interesting, abundant grace so freely showered often preached by their pastor from the pulpit yet so lacking in practice, so damn hollow.
A few years passed in a blink, broken hearts were mended and maimed lives healed. Time indeed is a good healer. Their pain, anger and disappointment subsided. We helped raise some money for them to buy a new place where they can call their own. They forgave their pastor and return the old church premise back to him.
Christian community in my hometown is quite small. Some my friends worshipping at his church often wondered why I was so distance or cool toward their pastor. When I gave them the abridged version, most would try expectedly to defend him. Their favorite retort, “Who are you to judge the anointed of God? Even David did not slay King Saul when he had the chance because he knew King Saul despite his transgressions was anointed of God.” Further, they would usually add, “Let God judges him.” Yeah, right. It is very easy to preach when you are not the ones cheated.
My replies were simply who affirmed him as anointed of God but himself? Even if he was divinely anointed, he may have lost his anointing like King Saul. Didn’t the Scriptures warn of wolves in sheep’s clothing? Didn’t the Scriptures also admonish us to be as wise as a snake and to test everything in the Spirit? O my God, why is your chosen people so gullible?
Then City Harvest scandal exploded across the headlines, I must admit I was not surprised at all. It was kind of expected, not if but when, déjà vu. Honestly, I was expecting the Island’s another megachurch not City Harvest to make such headlines. Nonetheless, I was still saddened by the news. Geez, history really has a bad habit of repeating itself.
Curiously piqued, I forced myself to watch Mr. Bill and China Wine. Somehow, I could finish neither. I found not just the lyrics offensive but the whole Sun aka Geisha ala temptress’s performance sleazy, make-ups vampy, gyrations slutty and wardrobe scanty, just too painful to watch, contemptuously distasteful bordering doxy pornography. I can only wonder how the Almighty is going to mysteriously intervene to miraculously transform her music videos into semblance of Gospel evangelism. Even then, I would still give City Harvest the benefit of doubt and acknowledge there was nothing wrong or illegal. I mean you should see David Pierce with his band “No Longer Music” performing in red light districts (Rosse Buurt) of De Wallen, Singelgebied and Ruysdaelkade in Amsterdam. I can accept that certain ministries are out of the ordinary to reach out not to the regular people but to those who dwell on fringes of society. They are not your main stream ministries, very alien, very loud, very weird and very provocative. Yet, I am still fine with all so long as the Good News is shared.
Well, City Harvest’s Crossover Project, like any projects, needed money, lots of it if you want to make any significant inroads into the MTV world. “Hey, we have some idle cash in the church building fund, let’s use that first in the meantime and pay back later. Let’s talk about pay back later when we come to the bridge. Come on people, it is for a good cause, divine mind you.”
The day of reckoning inevitably came to pass. “Oops, the Project is a flop. Don’t worry. I have found someone to donate some love offering to cover the money expended for Crossover. Let’s create some paper trail to treat that money coming in as redemption of some bond investment, to regularize the books. What round tripping? No loss to the church, brother. Okay everybody, capeesh?”
Now that the trial has ended all 6 charged, Co-founder of City Harvest Kong Hee, his deputy Tan Ye Peng, former church accountant Serina Wee, former church finance manager Sharon Tan, former investment manager Chew Eng Han and former CHC board member John Lam, have all been found guilty as charged for all the charges of criminal breach of trust and falsification of accounts. All six were clearly involved in the misuse of the church Building Fund to finance the Crossover Project and to later create some sort of sham bond investments with supporting audit paper trail to cover up the former.
The guilty verdict which was not unexpected did send grievous shock waves throughout the Island and almost rent asunder the Island’s Christian community with City Harvest in the epicenter. Heated debates and emotions on both sides of the divide flared vociferously and raged on unabated. One side proclaimed justice done and vindications while the other decried miscarriage of justice, innocent mistake and pure motives. Whatever they may be, let them ventilate their feelings and frustrations and allow time to assuage and heal mysteriously. Didn’t God created time? Didn’t the Almighty say He works in mysterious ways? So please say your peace graciously and please allow your detractors to say theirs graciously too. Let’s just agree to disagree and move on with life.
Kong Hee, I am certain, has (not had) started off well. I had the privilege of witnessing his works and honor of listening to his preaching of the Word. I would add he is definitely gifted and called by the Almighty. Although he seems to be a man after God’s heart, but he still remains, albeit chosen or even anointed, a carnal man nonetheless and most definitely not God. And to err is human. Kong Hee did err when he surreptitiously dipped his hands into the church building fund for funds to finance the Crossover project. He knew it was wrong. Instead of coming clean on the onset with his flock and get their agreement which is in all likelihood a given, he took the most convenient route. However pure or morally justifiable his actions may be, the crux of the matter is he did misappropriate the church building fund and later tried to cover up the misappropriation.
Coming clean even at this stage and seeking his flock’s ratification, he would most probably be let off with a stern warning by the Regulators for an innocent breach. Instead, he decided pull wool over everyone’s eyes by creating the rather convoluted sham bond investments and paper trail. If he had done nothing at this stage, the prosecutor would be facing an almost impossible uphill task of proving any prior knowledge of wrongdoing and/or the intention to deceive or dishonesty. Ask any prosecutor, he will relate how hard it is for him to prove a negative in court where the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Ask any judge, he will confide that the best explanation is no explanation. The Defendants’ explanations were just too complicated and convoluted, too thorough and professional, to be genuine more like an afterthought arrangement to cover all bases to cover-up prior misappropriation of the church building fund.
I am neither City Harvest’s nor Kong Hee’s detractor. I too feel the pain and sadness. Yes, he did sacrifice much for the expansion of His kingdom. Yes, he did bless many lives. Yes, he did not make any personal financial gain. Yes, he was most likely ill-advised. Perhaps, the matter should have been settled quietly internally. But, now it is already water under the bridge. No, the guilty verdict is not wrong. No, there is no miscarriage of justice. No, it is also not devilry or spiritual attacks or works of the principalities and powers in high places. Remember, Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” All things refer to both good and bad. Uphold all six as they await sentencing, their families, City Harvest and the rest of the Body in your prayers. Pray not simply for some divine reversal of their convictions but like our Lord in Gethsemane pray for the Father’s will to be done. Prayer for repentance and forgiveness, pray for grace to abound and pray for the strength to live according to His purpose.
In closing, let’s pray the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.”