Father John Wong, OFM, gave up a lucrative and enjoyable career as architect to become a builder of people and communities in the Church. Darren Boon reports
WHEN ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI heard God telling him to “repair my house... which... is falling completely to ruin”, the saint thought it to mean the chapel he was praying at. Only later did he realise that God was not referring to the physical church building.
Paralleling the journey taken by the founder of the Orders of Friar Minor (OFM), Franciscan Father John Wong has gone from building skyscrapers as an architect, to building God’s kingdom.
While growing up, John never once thought of becoming a priest or religious despite having attended a Lasallian school in Petaling Jaya, or being active in a Jesuit-run parish. He remembered saying “no way” when a La Salle Brother once came to his school to drum up vocations.
Later, John chose architecture for his university studies because it offered “breadth and scope”. It allowed him to face different challenges, and to use both scientific and artistic aspects of his mind. It also allowed him to use his people skills, coordination, and design, fulfilling all “these different parts of me that I liked”.
He envisioned himself as an architect for life. So when the “crazy idea” of becoming a priest came, it was quickly dismissed.
After returning to Malaysia and obtaining his professional architect license, John got involved with church work and ministry. Yet, as his relationship with God deepened, he found himself wanting something more, and so he began to explore the religious vocation.
Unlike the experience of St. Francis of Assisi, there was no one event or experience that tipped the balance towards religious life. It was a gradual process, but at a certain stage when all seemed right and ready, John said to himself, “Okay, I’m going for it.” He joined the Franciscan Order at age 28.
He has since swapped his title of “Ar. John Wong APAM” (Ar. for architect; APAM for Associate of Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia) for that of “Friar John Wong, OFM” (OFM for Order of Friars Minor), and this, he said, is not a waste.
Alluding to the parable of a merchant finding a pearl of great price, Father John said, “It’s not that everything else is worthless, but [rather] no longer a consideration... because I knew this was it. ... This is exactly what I want... desire... long for in all my heart.”
From buildings to people
As an architect, John was involved in various residential and commercial projects such as skyscrapers built in Sydney and Malaysia. In the process, he was required not only to come up with the thought, idea, and vision of a project, but also to put these into concrete plans.
Yet, what John enjoyed the most about his job was coordinating the engineers, designers, contractors, and clients.
These skills, which include problem-solving and people relations, are transferrable to the priesthood, said Father John.
Now, rather than creating physical buildings, Father John builds lives, communities, people’s sense of self-worth, and image of themselves before God. “This is even more fulfilling,” he said.
While John the architect had “almost complete say” in the structure and could use his powers of persuasion to convince the client, engineer or contractor that something needs to be done his way, John the priest cannot.
Father John works with people not to bring about his vision, but to help them in their relationship with God and to discover what they are called to be. This requires him to listen to their needs, hopes and expectations, and to be realistic about the capabilities.
“I like to see it as helping them to cooperate with God’s vision,” he said. “I think there’s something inherently better ... more exciting, more noble and beautiful and truthful.”
A Jack of all trades
“I’m not all things to all people,” Father John laughed, “but I can be a lot of things to a lot of people.”
For example, with his limited command of Mandarin, Father John ministers to the Mandarin-speaking community at Church of St. Mary of the Angels where he is assistant priest. He does the same for the deaf community with his partial knowledge of sign language.
Being a generalist, he can journey with couples having marital disputes, or offer prayers for a deceased non-Christian at the family’s request.
As a Franciscan, Father John has also been to the fringes of society.
In Malaysia, he taught English and Mathematics to Tamil-speaking Hindu children. In East Malaysia, he went to pray and be with kampong people who saw a priest only once every six months.
When East Timor gained its independence in 1999, he was there with the people while anarchy reigned.
“Bombs were thrown, guns fired, and people were going missing. Just being there with the people ... [helped] them to realise that God was present in all of the chaos,” he said.
In Singapore, Father John works with other Christian groups to reach out to sex workers in Geylang. He prays with them and helps them realise that “they are good and human” and that “it is possible to treat each other as human beings without degenerating” into treating people as mere objects or service providers.
Father John Wong radiates joie-de-vivre, such as greeting each person with a smile while ministering Holy Communion to the congregation.
The smiles are not forced. “I’m naturally happy. How can I not be happy, being alive, accepted, loved and blessed by God!” Father John exclaimed.
He does not believe in showing a “black face” to others because since young he was taught that it is “unfair to load your sadness and crossness at others”.
Justin Chan, 20, a St. Mary of the Angels parishioner, sees Father John as a kind and caring person whose optimism rubs onto others.
Talking to him about problems “makes me recharged, ready to face the problem I’m facing, go through with it and have this feeling ... you’re going to come out fine,” said Justin.
Although Father John no longer designs or builds structures, he continues to read architectural news and worldwide developments. But he still builds – people, communities and lives. n