We are excited to share the story of Dr. Wai Jia Tam, who is a graduate of the Public Health Program at Johns Hopkins. We are thankful both to Wai Jia and Bill Nelson, GFM Staff at Johns Hopkins for putting us in touch with Wai Jia. We hope it will encourage you to “wrestle with God” as you consider his will in your life.
“That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[f] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
The story of Jacob wrestling with God has always puzzled me.
After all, in a wrestling match, when two wrestlers fight, the more equal in strength the competitors are, the longer the match will take. So, if God is who He is, powerful and all mighty, why did the match between Him and Jacob take “till daybreak”? It baffled me.
In a showdown between a strong man and a weak one, which this should have been, the match should end in seconds. Yet, God invited Jacob to wrestle with Him, amid an anxiety-filled journey where God had told Jacob to return to his father’s homeland, where he was afraid to meet his brother Esau, from whom he had stolen his birthright, and was likely filled with wrath.
Do life’s hard decisions feel like that for you at times? There may be times in your life where you feel God’s gentle nudging in a particular direction. Yet, the circumstances of life seem downright unfavorable. You’ve set off on the journey, fearful and anxious if God will meet you on the other side, while filled with dread at what the outcome might be. Worse, the stakes are high. Just as Jacob could have lost his life and the lives of his wives and children, we, too, could suffer losses in our finances, career prospects and mental well-being, after saying yes to God.
I knew I felt that way when I applied to Johns Hopkins for my Masters of Public Health. After all, it was my third time filling out the application. The first time I did so was when I was 21 years old, bristling with ambition at a world filled with possibility. The sky was the limit and I would take on the impossible. But much to my chagrin, my then-boyfriend-now-husband, proposed. God made it clear I was to marry him and very grudgingly, I laid my application aside, only to pick it up again a year after we married. I re-applied, only to have God call us to Uganda to serve as missionaries. Worn out from the discouragement of the tedious application processes, I laid that dream to rest. Surely, God could use me in the field with or without Ivy league degrees.
When we returned home to Singapore from Uganda, however, a still small voice stirred within me to become a heaving tempest. At an award ceremony one day, I saw a vision of our family in Baltimore. Shrugging it aside, I blamed myself for not getting over my overly ambitious dreams. Yet, Cliff encouraged me to bring it to the Lord in prayer. I struggled. Not the third time, Lord!
At another conference one day, I had the most bizarre experience. A little elderly lady followed me everywhere, drawing out my deepest dreams while listening attentively. I wondered what her motives were. The next day, I was shocked to hear that she was the Dean of a medical school in Texas, on a Fulbright fellowship to Singapore, and insisted she had to connect me with the US Embassy to apply for a Fulbright scholarship.
“You don’t understand,” I said. “It’s complicated.”
I explained that I had applied for the online instead of on-site program, which scholarships typically do not fund, that my husband needed to be back in Canada for a season, that he had been offered a prestigious position in Singapore, that I was pregnant, that the on-site program cost too much–over a hundred thousand dollars. It was all implausible. Besides, with my transcripts filled with Bs and Cs from a bout of severe depression in medical school, I would never get past the selection process.
Week after week, this lady texted and emailed me. She was relentless in her pursuit.
“Maybe you should apply,” suggested Cliff. “Remember your dream?”
“But it doesn’t make sense,” I argued.
Inwardly, I was wrestling with the Lord. If this was all going to be a waste of time like the previous two times, why bother?
The Fulbright interviews came. I shook so hard during the interview that I had to hold my hands together. Out of all the dozens of candidates bristling with brilliance, I knew I wouldn’t stand a chance. They said they would inform me of the results in a month.
Six days later, I had a dream of a letter with a red seal, and the words “Fulbright” on it. On the seventh day, I received an email notifying me that out of the hundreds of applications received, I was one of two students selected.
The weeks that followed were a whirlwind.
Johns Hopkins accepted my application. They allowed me to convert my program from online to on-site. We were called to church to sign a contract for Cliff’s new position. But at the last minute, the senior pastor informed us that as of that morning, all the pastors had gathered together and unanimously felt led by the Holy Spirit to release us overseas.
We were speechless.
In the nights prior to that day, Cliff and I had wrestled with God in prayer and He had been faithful to make what had seemed to be crooked paths straight.
I had only one problem. While I was grateful Fulbright would sponsor $40,000, and Johns Hopkins would sponsor another $10,000, I was still $50,000 short of this massive endeavor.
But reaching the 50% mark unleashed a tenacity in me to pray. “God,” I cried every night, “If you can provide $50,000, surely you can provide the second half!” Like Jacob, I wrestled with Him in prayer relentlessly, refusing to let go until I had received the blessing.
My hope wore thin. The only scholarship board available promised a maximum grant of $15,000 on its website. But two months before school started, I received a letter stating it had decided to award me $60,000, above and beyond what I dared dream or imagine.
Just like in the vision, Cliff, myself and our newborn baby were in America.
My aim was to work with the World Health Organization. Yet, the months passed without me finding any suitable project nor mentor with the right fit. As my hope wore thin, I began wrestling with God again, at times berating Him for sending me all the way to America on so much money only to have me squander the opportunity. “It’s all been a waste,” I cried, between tears.
“Has it ever occurred to you, that God wants you to start Kitesong Global?” Cliff asked me.
Kitesong was the name of a book I had illustrated and published as an 18-year old, which was used to raise $100,000 to build a permanent home for a group of orphaned girls I had lived with in Nepal for six weeks. Since then, I had published three more books, each fundraising for specific global health needs. After publishing my second book to raise awareness about mental health, from my own recovery from anorexia, I received a vision that I was speaking at an international audience. I laughed at its incredulity.
I scoffed at Cliff’s suggestion. “No, I can’t do that.” Deep inside, it was a blow to my ego. I wanted to achieve something grander, more prestigious.
The days went by without a glimpse of hope of securing my coveted World Health Organization project. My supervisor warned me I might not graduate if I did not start on a project soon.
Grudgingly, as if exhausted in a wrestle like Jacob was, with his hip finally wrenched and afflicted with humility, I succumbed and said yes to God. With His amazing provision, Kitesong Global was set up as a 501c3 international non-profit to bring wholeness to communities through inspirational experiences.
My hope was to share my testimony about Kitesong in a small classroom of 20 people while celebrating my daughter’s first birthday. Since I had started school, Cliff prayed for me daily to be salt and light at Johns Hopkins.
In a miraculous stroke of God’s provision, my program director offered to book the largest conference hall at the school since it would be “fitting for the occasion” to launch Kitesong Global and celebrate Sarah-Faith’s 1st birthday- my baby had become a school mascot, somewhat of an icon at the school since I brought her to school for a few hours every day. An anonymous professor sponsored food and drink.
Kitesong Global’s launch at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 2018. Photo by Sevly Snguon. Used with permission.
Hundreds of people showed up. The room was so full that security guards had to seal the doors. There and then, I had the opportunity to share what God had done in my life. After the event ended, a number of people reached out to me one-on-one to ask me about Jesus, who this God I believed in was. A young woman who returned to her home country, whom I lost contact with, contacted me three years after that encounter. I was the first person she reached out to when she became suicidal during the COVID-19 pandemic, as she remembered I had told her about Jesus. I led her to Christ and connected her to a church community where she was.
During the rehearsal of Kitesong Global’s launch, a woman from Nashville called me. “A friend of mine is a clinical psychologist. She’s the sister-in-law of a faculty member at Johns Hopkins, who apparently had picked up a copy of your book A Taste of Rainbow from your supervisor’s desk. I saw the book online and felt this stirring in my heart that you need to share your story in America.”
The vision of me speaking to an international audience flooded my mind. God had done it again. Who but God could have orchestrated this divine intervention with divine timing, such that the conference took place just two weeks after my graduation?
Wai Jia Tam speaking at the Hungry for Hope conference at The Factory, Nashville in 2018. Photo by AJ. Used with permission.
As I look back at this series of life-changing events, I marvel at the wonder of God’s hands, at the mastery of His storytelling. Just as in Genesis 32, I am grateful that God chose to initiate encounters with me to invite me into the wrestling ring of prayer with Him. I am grateful that through the wrestling, God broke my pride and afflicted me. That through the wrestling, He spoke to about my Chinese name “Wai Jia” which I had hated all my life, that as the Chinese character “蔚(Wai)” represents the splendor of the skies and “佳(Jia)” represents goodness, my life’s call was to, through Kitesong Global, represent His splendor, majesty and goodness for all to see.
Through the wrestling, God gave me a new identity, just like Jacob when he was renamed Israel.
Today, if you are in seemingly unfavorable circumstances, struggling with a call God has placed in your heart and grappling with uncertainty, take a hold of God and wrestle with Him through prayer. It may be tough and you may be afflicted. But know this, that as you take a hold of God, through travail and with tenacity, He is delighted to bless you, to humble you where needed, and most of all, to renew your mind and heart, to transform your identity to be conformed to His highest will.
Let God take you on an adventure, as He did me, as you wrestle with Him to know His highest will for your life.