Come & Hear

February 14, 2024
Ann Tan

The Testimony of PT Tan

Birmingham, AL, USA. 1985 – I was five years old. We had just read Psalm 91 and prayed as a family, asking for God’s protection during my brother’s heart surgery. The team raised the rails on Ernie’s bed and proceeded to roll him out of the room and down the hall. As they left, my father Pheng Theng (PT) stepped into the hall, cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled for the entire ward to hear, “Don’t be afraid, Ernie!”

I was not yet born when Ernie had his first heart valve transplant surgery at age six. But this time, Ernie was thirteen and was more aware of the procedure’s risks. My Dad knew it was his job to lead our family in faith through this event. And the one thing Dad wanted Ernie to remember right before he went under was, “Don’t be afraid!”

PT Tan was a self-described “skinny kid in form three (equivalent to 9th grade) in Malacca, Malaysia” who was floating through life as an indifferent student. He had good reason to be unsure of himself. His mother had died very young, and he had gone to live with his aunt when he was five. Although his family was very loving, it was an extremely confusing time – no one explained what had happened. He returned home after his father remarried, and PT was blessed with five siblings.

PT’s childhood was characterized by unauthorized swimming in the Malacca Straits, digging holes in Coronation Park, illicit fruit consumption, etc. whereas my grandma always told him to return home right after school. It wasn’t until my father saw a group of older schoolmates gather under a large tree in the Malacca High School yard and preach loudly about the saving grace of Jesus Christ that anything really caught my father’s attention.

These students spoke with great enthusiasm and conviction. Daddy was drawn to the certainty in Christ his classmates exuded – it naturally caught his attention because so much of his young life was fueled by fear and changeability.

An older student fully explained the gospel and now at the age of 14 or 15 my Dad accepted Christ as his personal Savior and started attending the Malacca Gospel Hall – a church with a vibrant group of young people and a commitment to spreading the gospel. Side note: It was here that he met my mom one night when he had volunteered to go pick up a group of girls for a gospel meeting.
My father’s faith in Christ blossomed into a thriving relationship, and he transformed from a poor student into a top performer. He wanted to honor the Lord in all parts of his life, starting with academics. To emphasize the reason for studying hard, Dad always set aside his first hour of study for that of the Bible.

Every other area of his life became characterized by Christ-driven personal discipline as he pursued his health, his studies, and the practices of prayer and the study of the Word. Eventually, my father became a Fullbright and a Ford Foundation scholar. He and my mom married in 1968 so that they could travel to Harvard University together. He already had a PhD in law from the University of Singapore – now he was going to pursue his Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD), Harvard Law School’s most advanced law degree. I believe the Lord provided the Fullbright and Ford foundation scholarships so that he could pursue his studies with his lovely wife at his side.

After Harvard, my parents returned to Singapore where my father was a law professor and worked for the government. Their firstborn, my brother Ernie, was diagnosed with a complicated heart problem soon after he was born. The doctors predicted that Ernie would require his first valve transplant by the age of five. So, my parents were charged with managing the timeline for getting appropriate medical treatment for him. Meanwhile, my sister Ai Ai (pronounced “I, I”) joined the family a couple of years later.

I have no idea how my father found the right surgeon to take Ernie’s case. Though at first, he thought it more likely that the Lord would lead our family to Australia for treatment, he just started calling people and the patterns he observed pointed to a doctor who had recently been recruited from the Mayo Clinic to a new heart center in Alabama. He now faced the daunting questions of employment and health insurance in another country, and the financial challenge of major medical treatment.

We moved to the Washington, D.C. area when Ernie was four, and Ai Ai was two. My father worked for the World Bank. As their little family settled into American life, my parents had the grief of watching the telltale signs unfold indicating that Ernie would soon need surgery. My brother was losing steam.

Because of my brother’s condition, I grew up thinking it was completely normal to deal with medical complexity. Fast forward to Ernie’s second surgery (performed by the same surgeon in Birmingham as the first one when Ernie was six) – I was five years old and my strongest memory from that period is my father calling down the hall at the top of his voice as they wheeled Ernie away, “Don’t be afraid!”

I had no idea how much that impacted me until I got sick in 2011. I had an AVM rupture and a massive stroke and spent over a month “asleep” (see Cornerstone Magazine – March/April 2018). In my Valley of the Shadow experience, when I was somewhat conscious, scared and confused, the Holy Spirit comforted me by reminding me of the scripture I had hidden in my heart as I had followed my father’s example of study and memorization as a young person.

My mother told me to memorize Psalm 23 when I was four years old so I could recite it for my Dad when he came home from a business trip, and that simple psalm was my bread and butter in the Valley. It still is. When I became slightly more conscious, I just wanted my mom. But when I was fully asleep my mind reverted to my strongest childhood memory – “Don’t be afraid!”

And in the most stressful and terrifying parts of my experience, I imagined that my Dad was coming to help me. Even after over a decade of recovery, I still retained that impression – that my father would fix everything since he knew the Word of the Lord. And he did – as I became a disabled person, my father advocated for me and protected me. Most importantly, he always pointed me to my Heavenly Father, my ultimate protector and defender.

When the prayer request was circulated to pray for my Dad during his final hospitalization, one dear sister wrote, “He is a father to many.” And of the many memories and tributes that flowed in after his homegoing, the sweetest stories were of how Daddy ministered as an under shepherd to families facing the challenges of child-rearing. But I was his daughter. I got to see how he lived every single day. And when it was time to say goodbye in the hospital, I couldn’t do it in spoken English. I signed in American Sign Language (ASL). I just said, “Daddy – thank you. I love you.”

Home Calling of Pheng Theng Tan

Pheng Theng (PT) Tan, one of the five founding members of Cornerstone Magazine went to be with the Lord on November 16, 2023. He had resigned from the committee for health reasons two months prior to his home call. His service to Cornerstone Magazine was invaluable. His legal background, expertise, and tireless work were vital to incorporating the magazine and acquiring tax exempt status. His gentle wisdom and grace were a blessing to all at our board meetings. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife Juio, and the rest of the Tan family.