Marianne Tan (right) was given a special award by the Chanellor of the Singapore Order of Malta, and a special blessing from the Order’s chaplain Archbishop Nicholas Chia (left) at a feastday Mass of the birthday of St. John the Baptist, patron saint of the Order. Photo provided by the Singapore Order of Malta

With images of the month-long 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah still fresh in the mind, most people would not go to Lebanon if they had a choice. However, when Marianne Tan was offered an opportunity to go there for a seven-month mission trip sponsored by the Singapore Order of Malta, she jumped at the chance.


Marianne, a temporary youth worker with the archdiocesan Youth Ministry Office, is 22 this year. Her brother Jarvis works as pastoral executive in the Church of the Holy Spirit where they are both parishioners.

It was Jarvis who was originally recommended by a member of the Order of Malta to attend this summer camp called “Caravan”, but he declined and recommended his sister instead. Archdiocesan youth chaplain Father Brian d’Souza, under whom Marianne works, also highly recommended her to the Order of Malta.

Caravan is a project launched this January by the Grand Hospitaller of the Sovereign Council of the Order of Malta in Rome. It was called by Grand Master Fra’ Prince Matthew Festing to develop a 10-year programme aimed at strengthening the youth in the motto of the Order “Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum” (defence of the Faith and assistance to the poor and suffering).

To this end, Marianne and nine other youths in the international project will be working to foster mutual trusts and understanding among young people of different denominations and religions in Lebanon through service of the poor, handicapped children and adults, and the sick.

“They will be working with the Lebanese Order of Malta who, in their travelling dispensaries, visit poor areas, including Muslim areas, where medical attention is given,” Dr Gabriel Oon told CatholicNews. Dr Oon is Hospitaller of the Singapore Order of Malta, of which Archbishop Nicholas Chia is chaplain.

Before setting out, the youth will spend one month in Frankfurt, Germany where they will be taught Arabic, and learn about Islam from muftis (Islamic scholars). They will also participate in Christian-Muslim dialogue sessions and faith-sharing experiences with one another.

Marianne was one of four potential candidates, and the only female among them. Through a selection process chaired by the Chancellor, Hospitaller, and one senior Council member, which Marianne described as “nerve-wracking”, she was finally chosen to go.

“She impressed the interviewers with her enthusiasm and commitment,” said Dr Oon when asked why Marianne was finally selected.

Marianne said that her mother was “supportive” of her decision to go, while her father was “very concerned” about her safety.

Her decision to go for the Caravan project had come about as part of her vocation discernment journey. Even before she heard about the project, she had been inspired by two people and wanted to find out more about them.

One was Yasmin Ahmad, a critically-acclaimed film director and writer from Malaysia whose films have won many international awards and praise from critics and the public. Most of her films have been screened at the Berlin, San Francisco, Singapore, and Cannes international film festivals.

What struck Marianne about Ms Ahmad was that in every film of hers, “she begins with a thanksgiving to Allah”, she said. “I read her blog and found out that she’s a staunch Muslim. I fould that she is able to share the universal love [taught in all religions] and inspire me to love Jesus more,” explained Marianne. Ms Ahmad also inspired Marianne to want to find out more about Islam.

The second person that inspired Marianne was Henri Nouwen, a Dutch-born Catholic priest and author of 40 books on the spiritual life. Father Nouwen was pastor at the L’Arche community of Daybreak in Toronto, Canada, where he shared his life with mentally handicapped people until he died in September 1996.

“He was writing that he could not use his intellect to [reach out] to the people [in the L’Arche community] because they were mentally disabled. I wanted to read about Jean Vanier and how he started the L’Arche community,” said Marianne.

It was Vanier who invited Father Nouwen to visit L’Arche in France, the first of over 130 communities where people with developmental disabilities live and share life together their caregivers.

So when Marianne heard about Caravan and what it involved – living and working with Muslims to care for mentally and physically disabled people in Lebanon – she knew that this was what God was calling her to. This gave her “a sense of peace” during the interview even though she was feeling nervous.

Marianne will be leaving behind her employment at the archdiocesan youth ministry office, her mother, four brothers, and a boyfriend of seven months in order to attend the summer camp. When asked if her boyfriend, Aaron, has been supportive, she quipped, “He’d better be!”

“He did express his fears, but there is trust in God. He knows that these next few months, I’ll be dating God. He also knows that I’m open to religious life. I think [this experience] will strengthen our relationship because these seven months is a time of trust in God and in each other,” said Marianne.

Marianne has only two main fears regarding this mission trip – the fear of being the only Asian in the group (and the oldest youth), and the fear of stepping out of her comfort zone by going to a different country with a different culture. However, she said, “I expect God to take care of me, and that’s my only expectation – that He’s there for me and with me.”

Marianne leaves Singapore for Frankfurt on Jul 24, and will depart for Beirut on Aug 15. She will complete her mission on Feb 15, 2010. She will be keeping a blog which will be updated with photos and reflections during her journey. Her blog address is: http://???

Additional info:

The Order of Malta is sponsoring her a total of S$11,050. Breakdown:

-         seven-month stay and living expenses at 540 Euros per month (S$6,650)

-         one-year economy flight Singapore / Frankfurt / Singapore (S$2,200)

-         Return air ticket Frankfurt / Beirut / Frankfurt (S$1,200)

-         Personal allowance for contingencies of S$1,000

Dr Oon told CatholicNews, “Marianne showed her commitment and offered to pay for the Frankfurt / Beirut / Frankfurt air travel section (S$1,200) and her medical/travel insurance cover of S$400.

“However, our Council took note that she comes from a poor family with a single working mother, and that she would be giving up her paid job of S$1,200 a month to go on this mission. So we decided to give her every support needed. Thus we decided to pay for her whole air fares, sustenance of seven months, and a personal allowance, and left her to pay a minimum sum of S$400 for medical and insurance cover.”

On her return to Singapore, Marianne will be submitting a report as well as giving some talks and sharing of her experiences.

By Daniel Tay

 

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