Fr Francis Teo, who was born in Malaysia and studied in Singapore, tells Tee Hun Ching how he came to be a missionary in Africa
Smart , bold and driven, the law undergraduate at the National University of Singapore seemed destined for a bright future.
But there was a void within that he just could not fill, a restlessness he could not quell.
Then a devastating famine struck Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, its harrowing pictures seared in his mind. Yearning to be of help, he dropped out of school, gave up his life here and left for Africa in 1987.
Now, 30 years on, Fr Francis Teo, 53, looks back on his eventful life and declares, “I have never for a single moment regretted my decision to go to Africa, to choose a different path.”
Born in Malacca, the second of five children left home for Singapore at 14, after he was awarded the Asean Scholarship. He studied at St Joseph’s Institution and later Hwa Chong Junior College, where he spent “the happiest years of my school life”.
But he was gripped by an existential crisis in university. His quest for a more purposeful life eventually led him to Turkana, an impoverished region in north-western Kenya, where he finally found peace with the Missionary Community of St Paul the Apostle (MCSPA), a public association of the faithful of the Catholic Church.
MCSPA now runs 10 missions in four African countries and a formation house in Metro Manila in the Philippines, which Fr Francis helms. The dynamic priest, who marked his 20th ordination anniversary in August, still spends a few months each year in the various African missions. He estimates that at least 300 people from Singapore of different faiths and backgrounds have visited these missions since 1989.
Tell us more about your family background.
My dad was a government land surveyor who was constantly being posted around Malaysia. As children, we often had to move just as we settled into a new school. It was quite a painful experience but it sort of prepared me for a nomadic lifestyle.
Why did you drop out of law school after two years?
I was in spiritual and emotional turmoil during my two years at NUS. I’d travelled to Turkey and hitchhiked across Europe during my first-year break. The following year, I went on a solo trek across the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. I found it hard to return to face four walls. The routine and mundane life killed my spirit. I questioned many things that I had taken for granted all my life – relationships, life goals, God.
I felt a great, deep emptiness but couldn’t put my finger on it. That depressed me, and I lost interest in my studies and prospects of life as a lawyer.
Why were you drawn to Africa, of all places?
Famine struck East Africa in the mid-1980s, with Ethiopia being the hardest hit. Irish singer Bob Geldof mobilised a global fundraising effort through the Live Aid concerts in 1985. We, too, did our part in NUS. A few friends and I even danced at a concert. While it felt good to be doing something, I wanted to do more.
I spent hours in the NUS libraries reading up on Africa. I took notes of the countries in the continent and began planning a trip there.
When my second-year final exams came, I failed spectacularly. My parents were devastated. I lost one night’s sleep. The next day, I decided I would leave NUS and go to Africa. Then the movie The Mission, about a Jesuit missionary in 18th-century South America, hit the screens. It moved me even more to question what I was doing with my life. How could I be content with what I had without doing anything for the many who had less?
How did you come to join MCSPA?
A friend sent me a list of 23 Catholic missions in Africa. I wrote to all, certain that they would welcome a young man to work with them. But no one replied except one – the Bishop of Lodwar Diocese in Turkana, Kenya. Bishop Mahon invited me to visit Lodwar and work at a mission in Lowarengak, on the border with Ethiopia. I felt at home instantly with the community there. The Spanish priest who started this mission, Fr Francisco Andreo, or Fr Paco, was never indifferent to the needs and suffering of others. He moved those around him to solve problems and constantly called others to leave everything and follow Christ. It was through Paco that I began to understand the Gospels. I was 24 then and already, I had been drawn into a life of caring for others – the young, the elderly, the hungry, the sick. I began to see my life as a missionary with this group.
How did your parents react?
They weren’t happy. There were so many reasons to object: my prospects, the dangers of travelling in Africa, all that time wasted.
I bought a large map of Africa, framed it and hung it on their wall so that they could follow my movement across Africa. Phone calls were expensive, so I wrote long letters. Many years later, I learnt that my dad looked forward to news from me and studied every word carefully. My mother, I knew, kept praying for me throughout.
What about your decision to enter the priesthood? How did they take that?
That was a real problem. That I wanted to live in Africa already meant so many uncertainties for my dear parents. Now, their son wanted to be a priest in Africa! Goodness, that was too much. I remember my father pleading with me, “Be a priest here!” But I argued that my roots were in Turkana, that I had discovered my vocation there with this community.
How did they come round to your decision eventually?
My parents could not attend my ordination on August 15, 1997, as my father was suffering from bone cancer. A month before he passed away, my sister called to say his condition was serious. Paco insisted that I return immediately, and I spent a few weeks in the hospital with my dad.
One night, he got out of bed and shuffled towards the mirror with great difficulty. He looked in the mirror and shuffled back. Seated on the bed, he said, “Son, if I had to live my life all over again, I would be a priest like you.” I was moved to tears. He went on to say, now that he was at the end of his life, he could look back and see that everything he had done didn’t matter at all. Everything was in vain except the good that one had done. To me, it was confirmation that my father was truly happy with and accepted my decision to be a priest in MCSPA. When he died in August 1999, his funeral rites were the first I ever did as a priest.
Have your family members visited you in Africa?
My younger brother Gabriel, a former auditor, stayed with MCSPA for some time. He later left and set up a charity trust called Tana River Life Foundation. He works to improve schools and educational facilities in the Tana River area in south-eastern Kenya. He is doing a lot of good in an area that is difficult and backward.
My mother, her sisters and friends from Singapore visited us in Turkana in 2012. It wasn’t easy for them. My mother was 72 then. She spent the days cooking for all who wished to taste some good Malacca Portuguese cuisine.
In the last four years, she has been visiting us at our formation house in Quezon City, Metro Manila. She spends a great deal of her time shopping with our Kenyan seminarians for foodstuff and teaching them to clean and store the items as well as to cook.
It might appear that my mother has “lost” two sons to Africa. But there is no doubt that she has “won” so many other sons and daughters from Africa and beyond.
Looking back on your years with MCSPA, what are you most grateful for?
If I had to live my life all over again, I would go through the same thing with the same
people. I am thankful for this wider family that is MCSPA. I am totally grateful for God’s gift of the priesthood – there has not been a single moment in the last 20 years when I have doubted my vocation.
What lessons have your daily encounters with the poor and marginalised taught you?
The indomitable human spirit to survive, to improve and to push on against all odds. They teach me not to take life – and all that comes with it – for granted.
What is clear also is the amount of good that can be achieved when each of us brings our five loaves and two fishes. And there is no doubt that we find deep existential joy in doing good for others.
What does Mission Sunday mean to you?
Not everyone can afford to go on mission trips or make that decision to give everything up and follow Christ as a missionary. But remember: Mission Sunday is actually World Mission We need to look beyond our family and friends, parish, religion, race and even nation, allowing “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties” (Gaudium et Spes, 1) to be our joys and hopes, our griefs and anxieties. This day reminds us that we are Catholic, universal, and to be open to God speaking to us in the lives of peoples near and far.
How can we teach our children to look beyond themselves and be of service to God and others?
What is essential is that parents teach their children to be really generous with what they have, and that includes their time, talent and their youth.
When your child is taught to be generous to the point that a generous disposition becomes second nature, then you are laying the foundation of a vocation – a good priest or religious cannot be self-seeking, while a good parent or spouse is one who loves his or her family deeply. Whichever the path chosen, with generosity as the foundation, a person will serve God selflessly.
Want to play your part and spread God’s love? Visit www.caritas-singapore.org/volunteer-sign-up to see where God is calling you to serve!