Willis. It’s not his given name. It’s a name Wei-Chih Lin chose for himself.
At University, his English teacher wanted all students to have an English name. Willis searched the internet and a book of English names for one beginning with “W” because his Chinese name begins with “W”. He found “William”, which means “strong, determined”. He liked that. Finally, he settled on “Willis”, a variation of William.
Willis has dual citizenship. He is Taiwanese by birth, Australian by choice. He became an Australian citizen in July 2016, but retains his Taiwanese citizenship. As a citizen of two countries, markedly different in culture, language and religion, Willis’ life straddles two worlds. But it’s more complicated than that. Willis has a third citizenship. More about that later.
Let me start at the beginning.
A carefree child
Willis (Wei-Chih) was born in Chiayi county, in a small town in a farming district of central south Taiwan. He spent his childhood there. He was the third of four children and the only son. The family lived in a large 100-year-old house that had been in his father’s family for 3-4 generations. Willis’ parents still live there.
As a little boy, Willis liked to play. He wasn’t too keen on school or schoolwork. He looked forward to the holidays, when he had the freedom he sought. He was a dreamer. Often he was so preoccupied in his make-believe world that he forgot to go home for lunch or dinner. “Where is this little boy?” his worried parents would ask each other.
Willis didn’t do well in his first 3 years at primary school. “I didn’t want to learn. All I wanted to do was play,” Willis told me. His parents expected more of their son, so they sent Willis to a different school to complete Years 4-6. They hoped he would make new friends there and start afresh. Willis went to live with his uncle (his father’s brother) and family. He stayed with them one year. He attended the new school with his cousin (a girl). Unfortunately, the new school didn’t bring about the change Willis’ parents hoped for.
A reluctant scholar
At junior high (Years 7-9), Willis found himself in the lowest level all-boys class. (In Taiwan, boys and girls are segregated in Years 7-9.) His parents were not pleased, but it didn’t worry Willis. Well, at least not until he took the national exam at the end of Year 9. His scores were low, so he had to re-sit the exam. For the first time in his life, Willis studied. On the second attempt, he gained enough points to obtain a place in a public high school in Puzi City, majoring in electrical work.
A driven student
At high school Willis took study seriously and his results started to improve. At the end of first year, out of 50 students, Willis was placed 40 in his class. This result was not good so Willis was in big trouble with his parents. The next year he worked really hard and at successive exams was placed 30, then 20, in his class. In his final year, he was numbered in the top 5 students. What had changed?
Willis kept pushing himself to do better. Several factors motivated him. First, he no longer wanted to be “at the bottom” of his class. Second, he began to think about the future: “What job will I do? My parents are not rich. How can I help them?” Third, he became more competitive. As he compared himself with his peers, he thought, “If they can do it, I can too.”
For the last 18 months of high school, Willis was a driven person. He studied late into the night, until 2.00 or 3.00 am, slept for 3-4 hours and was up again by 6.00 am. Although he was living at home, his parents weren’t aware of the hours he was keeping. All they knew was that Willis’ school results were good, so they were happy. What they didn’t realise is that Willis was not getting enough sleep and not eating properly. He succeeded in hiding this from his parents.
Loving, industrious parents
Willis’ parents worked hard to provide for their family. As he reflects on his upbringing, Willis is grateful for his parents and all they did for him. “It was not easy for them. They often struggled to make ends meet. At times they had to borrow money to pay my tuition fees. Schooling is not free in Taiwan. Even at public schools, one has to pay.”
His mother didn’t have paid employment while Willis and his sisters were little. His father was a farmer. The family farm comprised two plots of land within 5 kilometres of the family home, on which they grew rice and at times watermelons. Willis helped his father on the farm, at weekends, during planting and harvest times. His father used traditional Chinese farming methods and tools so the work was arduous and labour-intensive.
The family’s income was not solely reliant on the farm. In good seasons, the farm provided enough to sustain the family. But if there was a cyclone, for example, the crops were destroyed and there was no harvest. And no income. Thus, to ensure the family’s survival, over the years Willis’ father had many different jobs – tiler, electrician, taxi-driver, to name a few.
A diligent University student
After Year 12, Willis went to university. His parents wanted him to have a good education. He won a scholarship to study Electrical Engineering at the Oriental Institute of Technology, a private university in Taipei. For the 2 years he was there, Willis did well and consistently gained first or second place in his class. His efforts were rewarded and he gained admission to the National Formosa University, a public university. Here, after 2 more years’ study, Willis gained a Bachelor of Engineering.
Compulsory military service
After University, Willis spent 18 months in the army. All males aged between 18 and 36 born in Taiwan or holding a Taiwanese passport are required by law to undertake 12 months of active military service. Willis had four postings. The first was induction at the military training centre in Chiayi in south western Taiwan. The second was to Taoyuan, near Taipai, where Willis trained for the military police. The third was to Taichung, in central Taiwan, for training as a truck driver. The fourth and final posting was to Changhua, in central western Taiwan, where Willis was the driver for the captain of the Changhua Military Police.
Willis would like to forget this period of his life. He didn’t like anything about his military service. He found the rigour of army life difficult to accept. “It was a restrictive, closed community. There was no freedom. No freedom to express one’s ideas, to say a single word out of place. We had to do exactly, exactly, as the commanders said.” Willis was 25 by the end of his compulsory military service.
Willis, the engineer, and a job
It took Willis quite a long time to gain employment as an engineer following his time in the army. Eighteen months had lapsed since he completed his degree. Willis felt that he had forgotten so much. He did further study while applying for positions and waiting for a job. Eventually he gained a position as an Equipment Engineer in the semi-conductor section of Hsinchu Science Park in northern Taiwan. Willis worked there for about 18 months.
A young man on an adventure
The lure of travel, of exploring the world, brought Willis to Australia. His first visit was in 2007, when he came on a 12-month working holiday visa. Byron Bay, in northern New South Wales, was his first stopover. There he took a 12-week English language course to prepare for the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test. Next, he spent 4-5 months picking strawberries, apples and blackberries on a farm in Tasmania. By mid-year it was wintertime and cold, so he left the island state and moved to Perth, Western Australia. Here he worked for 2 weeks in a Thai restaurant followed by 2 months at a McDonald’s fast food outlet.
Willis returned to Taiwan at the end of 2007. He tried to secure work as an engineer, but without success. It was a challenging time. Willis had his heart set on returning to Australia to study, to improve his English and his job prospects. On the other hand, his parents wanted him to stay in Taiwan, get a job and settle down. But Willis was not deterred. He applied for a student visa and, after a 3-month wait, it arrived. He returned to Australia at the beginning of 2009.
On his second visit to Australia, Willis came to Brisbane. This time he stayed put and Brisbane was his home for 12 months. Willis enrolled at Brisbane’s VIVA College to prepare for the IELTS test. He wanted to enrol in the Graduate Certificate in TESOL course at South Bank TAFE but he failed to obtain a high enough score in the IELTS test to gain admission. As an alternative, he enrolled in the English for Academic Purposes (EAP) course. It was here that Willis met Jim (Junjiang Luo), from mainland China, who became Willis’ best friend. But that is a story for another time.
A resident of Highgate Hill
In Brisbane Willis resided in the inner city suburb of Highgate Hill. He was one of three international students who boarded with a Taiwanese landlady and her family in an old Queenslander. The owners extended the house by adding three bedrooms, a kitchen, living room, bathroom and toilets downstairs. Willis had one of the downstairs bedrooms. He was happy there. It was a house full of women, but Willis was used to that. He had three sisters after all.
In June 2009, a new female boarder moved in. Like Willis, she was assigned a downstairs bedroom. A petite, pretty and gregarious young woman, she was Indian-born, and a Christian. Willis had never met anyone like her. From the outset, she talked openly about God. She prayed at mealtimes. Her name? Sonal.
A tentative seeker
A couple of weeks after she arrived, Sonal invited Willis and the other boarders to Conversational English at St Andrew’s Anglican Church South Brisbane. (I coordinated the Conversational English program.) Willis responded politely but emphatically to her invitation, “No, thanks. That’s not for me.” But Sonal didn’t give up. She invited Willis again the following week.
Unexpectedly, he changed his mind and came.
The young man I met on 25 June 2009 was slightly built and of medium height. He had olive skin and black hair. He wore glasses, which framed sparkling, warm and attentive eyes. You couldn’t help but notice that his whole face lit up when he smiled, exposing a wide teethy grin. My first impression of Willis, despite his cheery demeanour, was of a serious, somewhat reserved person.
Willis enjoyed the program (much to his surprise) so he kept coming. He hardly ever missed a week. He found the discussion topics interesting and he felt quite at ease in the small groups. He recalled, “It was very welcoming and there were a lot of international students who, just like me, wanted to improve their English communication.”
Initially, Willis was reluctant to stay for the Bible Study. … But on the second occasion, he waited “to see what it was like”.
Initially, Willis was reluctant to stay for the Bible Study. He told me, “At Uni, I had a bad experience when I went into a Christian environment. It was very forceful. I didn’t like that.” Willis didn’t hang around for the Bible Study the first time he came. But on the second occasion, he waited “to see what it was like”. Obviously he thought it was okay, because he stayed for the Bible Study every week after that!
An inquiring churchgoer
Sonal invited Willis and her other housemates to come with her to St Andrew’s Anglican Church South Brisbane. They came. Willis remembers meeting three of Sonal’s friends, who (among others) made him feel very welcome. So he kept coming. Week after week he listened to the sermons. He found himself wanting to know more about God, Jesus and the Bible. A lady in the church gave him a Bible, which was the impetus he needed to join a small group to study the Bible to find answers to his many questions.
Willis met weekly for Bible Study and prayer with two folk from the 10.30 am congregation. Around the same time, he participated in a 10-week Alpha course, which helped him a lot. By the end of the course, Willis understood the gospel and realised that God was calling him. He found himself weighing up the pros and cons of becoming a Christian. Nicky Gumbel, in the Alpha course, called it “counting the cost”.
Willis realised that if he became a Christian, it would change his life. For several weeks, he wrestled with the Lord. It was a spiritual battle.
A new citizenship
In October 2009 Willis made his decision. First and foremost, he wanted his parents to know. He phoned his father and said, “I’m going to become a Christian, to follow Jesus…” Not surprisingly, Willis’ father was upset. The news came as a shock. He and Willis’ mother didn’t understand why Willis would make such a decision. They insisted that he come home immediately. I think they feared losing their only son, whom they loved dearly.
Willis did not return home. He stayed in Brisbane and completed his TAFE course. He continued to grow in his new-found faith.
By January 2010, however, he had run out of money and his visa was about to expire. Now he had to return to Taiwan.
On Sunday 17 January 2010, the very day he was due to fly home, Willis was baptised in a moving ceremony at St Andrew’s. Here he declared his allegiance to Christ. It was just like a citizenship ceremony. Willis was no longer a foreigner, or stranger, but a fellow citizen with God’s people and a member of God’s very own household (Ephesians 2:18-20). When we sang these words from Geoff Bullock’s “You rescued me”:
And you loved me before I knew you
And you knew me for all time
I’ve been created in your image, O Lord
And you bought me, and you sought me…”
many of us present, including Willis, couldn’t hold back our tears of joy.
A humble servant
Back in Taiwan, Willis lived at home with his parents. He needed to find a job, so he was not reliant on his parents. He found one, a 6-days-a-week position at a Ducati motor cycle dealer in his home town.
Every Sunday, without fail, Willis met with local Christians and English-speaking foreigners at “The Grace Place”. It was a small Christian fellowship led by a local Chinese pastor and a missionary couple from the United States of America. Once Willis’ English language skills became known, he became one of the church translators. Every couple of weeks, he translated the sermon, English to Mandarin or Mandarin to English (depending on the preacher). Willis was happy to use his language skills in this way, although it was challenging work and at times he felt like he was working a 7-day week!
It was hard for Willis being a Christian at home in Taiwan. Nevertheless, he grew in his faith and experienced much joy. He was too busy to join a mid-week Bible Study group (he worked 10-hour days), so he studied the Bible on his own. He read the entire New Testament and large sections of the Old Testament. When he was at church, he felt a sense of belonging. He contributed and served in the church in whatever way he could. He found that to be very satisfying.
An unlikely match
Little did I realize at the time but Willis and Sonal were more than “just friends”. In each other they had found a soul-mate. Throughout 2010, Willis and Sonal communicated daily via Skype. They found the separation difficult.
In July 2010, Sonal travelled to Taiwan, to spend time with Willis and meet his parents. It confirmed their relationship. On 3 January 2011, while in India visiting Sonal’s parents, they announced their engagement. Sonal’s family hosted a large engagement party in India for the happy couple.
My husband and I were privileged to help Willis and Sonal plan their wedding. They wanted to get married in Brisbane, at St Andrew’s. They considered St Andrew’s their home church. With both sets of parents living outside Australia, organising their wedding was quite a challenge. They booked the church, the celebrant (Rev Alan Moore) and set a date: Easter Saturday, 2011.
Willis and Sonal wed at St Andrew’s Anglican Church South Brisbane on 23 April 2011. It was Willis’ and Sonal’s heartfelt prayer that their parents would be able to come to their wedding. They knew it was a “big ask”, but their requests were granted. Sonal’s father and mother came, as did Willis’ father, an uncle and a member of “The Grace Place”. Willis’ mother does not like air travel, so she didn’t come. Willis’ uncle, her brother, came in her place. It was a joyous occasion.
The Brisbane marriage ceremony was followed by a reception in St Andrew’s Church Hall. It was the first of two receptions for the happy couple.
A second reception was held in Willis’ home town (Puzi City) almost one year later, on 4 April 2012!
Willis: A faithful believer
Like all Christians throughout the ages, Willis had to learn (and is still learning) that being a Christian does not mean that life is easy or without its difficulties. In fact, in the New Testament (James 1:2-4), we read:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Willis’ first major trial was finding employment in Australia. When he gave up his job in Taiwan, about 3 weeks before his wedding, he had no job to come to. In fact, after their wedding, Willis joined Sonal on Palm Island, where Sonal was working as a schoolteacher. Palm Island, 65 kilometres northwest of Townsville, is home to a mainly Aboriginal community of about 5000 residents.
During the 20 months they lived on Palm Island, Willis tried but did not find work. He applied for jobs on the island and in Townsville, but without success. This was a difficult time for Willis. Although he and Sonal (and others) prayed, Willis felt like their prayers were not answered. “Why, Lord? Why is this happening to me?” he asked many a time. He felt inadequate, discouraged. He knew his parents were unhappy. Nevertheless, during this time of testing, Willis’ faith was sustained by helping in the local community, the church and by further study.
A second major trial for Willis (and Sonal) was a life-threatening illness. During a visit to India at the end of 2012, Willis contracted Dengue Fever. It was a serious case, and Willis nearly died. His illness was at first thought to be typhoid fever, but after 12 blood tests, two ultrasounds and one X-ray, it was finally confirmed as Dengue Fever. He lay stricken in bed, so weak, in the same hospital where his father-in-law had died just weeks previously.
Willis told me that the intravenous fluids saved him. He recalled: “To be honest, I did not want to die but I felt I was going to die. The only hope for me at that time was to submit myself to God. So did Sonal. We had to say to Him, ‘Let Your will be done, Lord.’ That was the turning point. God’s healing work began and I started to get better. I do not know why God did not take me. I am still searching for a reason. But I know that I grew in my understanding of God and I thank Him for saving me.”
I learn to thank God more in tough times. I try not to rely on my own strength but ask God for help. I pray more and read the Bible regularly.”
A third area of testing is Willis’ work as a private contractor, a telecommunications technician. Willis’ first concern is job security. Second, he is assigned the most difficult technical tasks. This is probably because he does such a great job. His employer has high expectations of him, as does Willis himself. Willis finds it difficult to turn down jobs he is offered. Third, this pressure is negatively affecting Willis’ health. He doesn’t sleep well, he keeps thinking about jobs and even dreams about jobs! He feels inadequate. He fears what the next day will bring. Despite the difficulties, Willis says: “I learn to thank God more in tough times. I try not to rely on my own strength but ask God for help. I pray more and read the Bible regularly.” Recently, Willis had a trainee assigned to him. It turned out to be a great blessing. They worked together well and developed a warm friendship. Willis praises God that he had an opportunity to pray with and for the trainee, and speak of his faith, during their lunch breaks.
Through each one of these trials, I have witnessed the work of the Holy Spirit in Willis’ life. Willis is truly a man of faith. He is humble. He prays. He takes his worries and concerns to God, and trusts God to give him the strength and courage he lacks. Willis’ faith and example is a great encouragement to other believers (like me) and a powerful witness to his unbelieving relatives, friends and colleagues.
In Townsville, Willis and Sonal have a new church family. They are actively involved in the Ross River Anglican Church. They are on Sunday morning rosters. They attend a mid-week small group Bible Study. They have made a number of special friends there.
My husband Tony and I keep in touch with Willis and Sonal and pray for them regularly. They are our “children in the Lord”, and we treat them like our own. We maintain contact via text message, phone, email and Skype. We have visited and stayed with them on several occasions, first on Palm Island and more recently in Townsville.
We attended Sonal’s Australian citizenship ceremony in Townsville in January 2014 and Willis’ Australian citizenship ceremony in Townsville in July 2016. Norma, a member of our Brisbane church, friend and “grandma” to Willis and Sonal, attended these ceremonies with us.
Tony, Norma and I consider our ongoing relationship with Willis and Sonal, and our prayerful and practical support for them, both a privilege and responsibility. We pray that Willis will continue to be a strong, determined man of faith his whole life long.
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