By ONG JUAT HENG
Come Valentine’s Day, as lovers lavish each other with gifts and romantic meals, Susanna Liew will be feeling the palpable absence of her husband, Pastor Raymond Koh, who was abducted last year on the eve of Valentine’s Day. “Yes, Raymond is a romantic person,” Susanna replied to the question. “Every year, on our wedding anniversary, he will buy me a bunch of fresh roses. Once, on our 30th anniversary, he gave me 30 roses,” she exclaimed.
She is still learning about the extent Raymond would go through to express his love for her. “Recently, a Christian leader told me that several years ago when Raymond was attending some meetings with the EFC mission leaders in Thailand, he suddenly remembered it Valentine’s Day the next day and insisted on going home by bus all the way (to Petaling Jaya) so that he could spend the evening with me. I didn’t know that he had made such an effort and he didn’t tell me either. I was so proud of him and so touched that I teared up when the leader told me.”
In fact, “I love you” were Raymond’s last words to Susanna just before his abduction. In an interview with Asian Beacon, Susanna recalled, with tears rolling down her cheek, that fateful morning when he uttered those words. “I was at my friend’s apartment, helping to babysit her children. I called Raymond at around 9 a.m. to come and get some sambal belacan to pass to a friend he was going to meet later. He dropped in at around 9.30 a.m., took the sambal belacan and said, ‘Bye. I love you’. That was the last time I saw him,” Susanna said as she wiped the tears from her eyes.
Little did she know then that an hour later, Raymond would be swiftly abducted by at least five men wearing ski masks in a scene that looked as if it came right out of a movie. Susanna was oblivious to the ordeal until 7.30 p.m. that night when her son, Jonathan, came home with her handphone, which she had left at their Harapan Komuniti office in Kelana Jaya, Petaling Jaya. (Harapan Komuniti was founded by Raymond in 2004 to help the poor and marginalised, especially HIV/AIDs patients and single mothers.)
THE NIGHTMARE BEGINS
There were many missed calls on Susanna’s phone. She replied one and was told that Raymond had not turned up for a 4.00 p.m. meeting in Klang. Sensing something amiss, she called her friends, who advised her to make a police report.
Two hours later, she and Jonathan, 33, were at the Kelana Jaya police station where they were questioned about Raymond’s activities and work in Harapan Komuniti. This lasted until 3.00 a.m. and they were back there again several hours later for more questioning. Frustrated, she told the police they should be looking for her husband and not interrogate her about his work.
Two days after the abduction, and still without a clue about Raymond’s whereabouts, Susanna’s daughter, Esther, and Jonathan decided to take things into their own hands. They had read from that morning’s newspaper that the abduction had taken place on Jalan Bahagia. They drove there and found shattered glasses on the road.
An idea struck Jonathan to look for houses with CCTVs in the area. Brother and sister then walked door to door, explaining to the house owners what they were looking for. “We kept going back to the area and going house to house to ask for CCTV videos,” said Esther. Their persistence paid off on Feb. 18, 2017, five days after Raymond was abducted, when they obtained from a house owner a CCTV video that captured the abduction.
Susanna was stunned when she saw the video . “I couldn’t breathe. It had never occurred to me that he could be abducted. Arrested yes, but not abducted,” she said. (Harapan Komuniti had received at least one death threat in the past.)
The video immediately went viral, viewed by many all over the world except Esther, who couldn’t bring herself to watch it until several months later.
Emotional moment for Susanna at the interview.
Susanna maintained they are just ordinary folks but this is no ordinary event. At the time of their interview with Asian Beacon, Raymond had been missing for 296 days. How have they coped?
“Only by the Lord’s grace can we stand strong,” she replied and quoted 2 Cor. 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. She admitted the first few weeks were hard and she felt lost and confused with the many different advices coming to her from all sides. “I didn’t know which way to go.”
In her confusion, she decided to go for a silent retreat in Thailand that she and Raymond had planned to go. The retreat, sponsored by a friend, was scheduled the year before. Instead, she went with their youngest daughter, Elizabeth, three weeks after the abduction. There in the serene silence and comforting solitude over the next seven days, she found the breakthrough she desperately needed.
“The retreat helped me to focus on God instead of my circumstance. Though it was overwhelming, I found strength in His word. Psalm 46:9-10 reminded me to be still and know that He is God. The story of Ruth and Naomi also ministered to me. They did not have a future but Boaz, their kinsman redeemer, gave them a future. Likewise, Jesus is my kinsman redeemer and I have hope, I have a future,” she shared.
One specific incident that lifted her during the retreat was when she walked through the labyrinth at the centre. In the middle of the labyrinth was a rock and there, Susanna knelt and laid her burdens. “When I got up, I had this assurance that He’s with me, He holds my tomorrow. The song, “Be still”, came to me and truly ministered to me. Worshipping God in songs helped me focus on Him and not the problem.”
For the perky Elizabeth, 21, the initial months were the lowest point of her life as she was also dealing with some personal issues. “There was so much happening in my life then and I tried to remember what Dad had told me before,” she said.
“I remembered one sermon that he preached two years ago, about Jesus sleeping in the boat when the storm hit and His disciples were crying out to Him. Oh wait… I think it was the sermon on the Great Commission,” she said, to much laughter from us. “He preached a lot of sermons, so I can get them mixed up,” she continued.
“Whatever it is, they all boil down to the promises of God and our trust in Him no matter what happens. Putting the boat incident and the Great Commission together, it’s knowing that Jesus will be there for us to the very end of age. When I think about my dad, that’s what he believes, that no matter what happens, God’s going to take care of him.”
During the first few months, Elizabeth felt “Jesus was sleeping” and there was no answer from Him. “But He was there in the boat all along and He eventually woke up. I was reassured that His promises will hold true.”
As the months passed, it became easier to cope with Raymond’s absence as Susanna continually laid her burden before God and surrender the uncertainties to Him. Still, there were many days when she wondered how he’s doing. “Thank God he’s very healthy as he’s very particular about food. No salt, no oil, and he’s not on any medication. He’s 63 years old but he could play football with the teens.”
Susanna added that Raymond was “spiritually prepared” as he had been doing prayer walks and memorising chunks of Scripture passages. “We have come to accept the situation. At our counselling sessions, we were advised to do normal things, like go back to cooking and hobbies, and live as normally as possible.”
For Esther, the quieter one, she has learned to surrender everything to God after the initial months of pain when she kept crying out to God to save her father. Her breakthrough came one day as she was driving home. “I was listening to a song about oceans and crying out to God. I asked Him, ‘Is there hope?’,” she said, and stopped to compose herself. “Then, something hit me. I felt God telling me, ‘All this while you’ve seen the way your dad lives when he helped the poor and needy. Did you see hope for them?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ God replied, ‘Then, there’s hope in this situation.’ At that moment, I felt His deep assurance.”
WHAT THEY SPECIFICALLY MISS ABOUT RAYMOND
For Susanna, it is his spiritual guidance and direction. “He’s the one who leads the family in spiritual matters, prayer, Bible reading, devotion. I miss his sharing about his prayer walks and the Bible passages he’d been memorising. I also miss seeing his enthusiasm for God and passion for people, especially the poor and the discriminated that no other organisation would want to take. Whenever the hospital called our centre (Harapan Komuniti) to ask if we could accept some HIV patients, he would take them in. He was always helping people, raising funds for them.”
Elizabeth chipped in, “One big thing I miss – his guitar playing every day. He got me a small classical guitar when I was 7 and it’s always lying in the living room. After lunch or dinner, he would pick it up and play some random songs. He’d tell us, ‘I’ve got this song’, and he’d show us.”
On a more serious note, she said, “I think about all the time when he gave me the best advice – how to treat people, how to deal with difficult boyfriends or what to say to the teachers. He just knew how to connect with people. Because of his very poor background, he could emphathise with people as he understood what it’s like to feel pain, to have nothing.”
HAVE THEY EVER BEEN ANGRY WITH GOD FOR RAYMOND’S ABDUCTION?
“No, never. But I was angry with the police,” Susanna said and quickly added she had to learn to forgive and also ask for forgiveness from the Investigating Officer. During the Suhakam inquiry last November into the disappearance of Raymond and three others, the Investigating Officer testified that the family was not cooperative. She couldn’t sleep that night and the next day, God led her to a Scripture verse, “Be angry but sin not. Do not let the sun go down with your anger”.
On the way to the inquiry that morning, her friend told her not to be angry with the police as they were just doing their job. “Another arrow on me,” she said. When she saw the Investigating Officer later, she went up to him and apologised. “I’m glad I sorted that one out. It’s also important for them to see how Christians behave, that we are able to ask for forgiveness,” Susanna said.
Since Raymond’s disappearance, Susanna has had to step out of the shadow and take charge of Harapan Komuniti. “In our family, Raymond was the public speaker and I was just a housewife in the background. Suddenly, I found myself speaking in front of large crowds and making decisions for Harapan Komuniti. It’s a steep learning curve but in a way, it was good as it means I have to depend on God for help.”
Esther, 33, and Jonathan,34, are also stepping up to take on more work at Harapan Komuniti, while Elizabeth, 21, is going back to the US to continue her college education after taking a year’s leave. As they wait patiently for Raymond’s return, they will continue doing his work as he would have done. He’ll be proud of them when he’s back and sees that everything is in order.
BY THEIR SIDE
Through it all, the Koh family has been well supported by the family of God. During the first month after the abduction, they (except Esther, who’s married) stayed with a friend who took care of them.
“We were busy running in and out and my friend would make sure we had nutritious food and always boiled nutritious soup for us. Another friend would bring breakfast and dinner and helped us write the chronology of the events. This came in helpful for the Suhakam inquiry and the submission to the United Nations Working Group For Enforced And Involuntary Disappearance,” Susanna said.
Many churches and Christians showed support and Susanna singled out Pastor Daniel Ho of DUMC, who met with them several times and made sure they shared what’s in their heart. Susanna is also grateful to their church leaders, Pastor Chan Ah Kee and his wife, Ah Poh, and their advisors, who include lawyers Philip Koh and Datuk Kenny Ng, Datuk Lee Hwa Beng, Sheryl Stothard, their communications strategist.
Beyond the faith community, God has brought many prominent individuals and organisations to support the Koh family on their case – the family lawyers who volunteered many hours representing them at the Suhakam Public Inquiry, such as Datuk Gerald Gomez, Prof. Guardia Singh, Steven Thiru and Ambiga Sreenavasan. “We are also thankful to observers like CAGED, Bar Council and EIAC, who gave their support with their presence and participation,” Susanna said.
“The family of God is so important. We really must stay connected to God’s people,” she stressed.
Indeed, as Raymond had counted the cost of serving Christ, he and his family can count on the family of God to walk with them.