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The mission trip to Belaga in 2017 that changed Dan (centre, right, in black). All photos courtesy: Annabelle Joy Dan

A miracle in a Sarawak village is leading Joy Dan to missions

NOV 20. 2020: If you go to a coffee outlet in Miri, you’ll find a friendly Annabelle Joy Dan greeting and serving you over the counter. This Miri native recently graduated in civil engineering from Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang and is working as a barista while waiting for her next phase in life to unfold. Not a job, but a visa to USA so she can work as a full-time campus missionary there.

Dan’s desire to serve God started when she least expected it. When a group of four missionaries and six undergraduates from the United States came to Miri in 2017 and she was their designated driver. She was supposed to pick them up from the airport and help organise their travel to the villages where they are to minister – Belaga, which is almost 200km from Miri.

The missionaries were from US-based Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus) and this was the first mission trip jointly organised by them and the Diocese of Miri. There was a need for volunteers to help with the planning and operations. Dan was on a long semester break then and she thought why not. Focus is a ministry that reaches out to college and university students through teaching, prayer, sacred Scripture, evangelisation and discipleship.

God has bigger plans

But pick-ups and drop-offs was not all God wanted Dan to do. After picking up the missionaries from the airport, she started to have a desire to join the team in their mission work and not just watch from the side lines. Just then the coordinator from her parish asked if she wanted to join them and she jumped at it.

“I saw these missionaries from Focus who gave up everything so people may come to know Christ.” And the thought of getting a first-hand mission experience excited the then first-year student. But she did not realise at that time how this three-week experience would open her spiritual eyes to what God was doing and transform her life.

Dan was born into a Catholic family. Her Melanau father who worked in the oil and gas industry as an operations manager and her Filipino stay-home mother have been strict about mass attendance and family rosaries. She and her four siblings grew up knowing who God is and what Jesus Christ did on the cross.

“But we did not talk about all this in a personal way. We had family rosaries, we prayed but we didn’t know why.” This was how it was for Dan during her early years when they were living in Kuala Lumpur. Her father was then working there. When he was transferred back to Miri and the family returned as well, she was 10 then and started becoming more active in sports and was representing the Sarawak state in national-level tennis and softball competitions during her primary and secondary school years.

She also started getting active in church. “After Confirmation, I started getting involved in ministry and served as a musician, playing guitar and drums with the Miri Young Catholic Students (MYCS). We would organise church camps and rallies under the guidance of Christteens (a group of working adults who prep teens for the Sacrament of Confirmation and also organises youth events).  The MYCS is a group of student leaders from secondary schools all over Miri.

“It was during an adoration night at the Life in the Spirit Seminar during my Confirmation that I realised that God is real and not just an ideal. I knew that at that point I had to change my way of life for God.” Then came university. She saw how some of her childhood friends from Miri were started to leave the faith once they were started their tertiary education in universities that were away from home.

“Seeing them not practising the faith is sad. Why was this happening.” There were more questions within her and they centred around the purpose of life. “We are all going to die – is there more to life than studies, family and job?” Dan was speaking to Journey With Us – Asia via video conferencing from Miri.

Something different about them

That was when the missionaries from US came. They were full-time missionaries and also undergraduates like her and they had come to serve God during the summer break. There were also 10 other undergraduates from local universities in the team. All this was new to Dan and all so fascinating. 

“I was not supposed to be part of the mission team. I was supposed to pick them up from the airport and drive them around. But there was something different about them, something that attracted me. I later found out that it’s the personal relationship with God that they had. A day-to-day relationship. Being rooted in God. My conversations with them were different. They were not afraid to share the Gospel or talk about God.”  

They did manual work like clearing up debris from a burnt longhouse and helping to build part of it, and spent time with the youth and children and also other villagers. They spent the nights in sessions where they shared with the villagers, and there was also praise and worship.

The team teaching the children in Belaga how to pray.

The miraculous healing

There was a mishap during the mission trip when Dan was giving one of the students a ride on a motorcycle. “We were going uphill and I forgot to switch to a lower gear. The bike stalled, then tilted and Amanda Weise jumped off to avoid a fall and her hip twisted. She previously had two surgeries on her hip cartilage. She said she felt she tore her hip cartilage again. I felt bad. She couldn’t walk (without being assisted).”

(Left) Minutes before the mishap and after (right). Dan’s on the right.
Photo on the right sourced from Amanda Weise’s blog.

Dan and someone else had to offer their shoulders to Weise each time she needed to move because she could not place her right foot down. Weise kept insisting she would be fine and that she did not need medical care. On the third day after the incident, the group had their daily Mass and Holy Hour as they did every other day during the mission trip. The priest held Confession during Holy Hour and Weise went.

“He also gave her the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick after our Holy Hour. As we were preparing to leave, Amanda stood up and miraculously walked out of the chapel by herself.  I was shaken and I looked to Jesus who was in the Ciborium on the altar and said ‘That was You, right, Jesus?’. It did not came immediately but I had a deep sense that Jesus was asking me to trust in His merciful love and I needed to trust Him with what He can do, not just for me but for others. The miraculous healing was as though Jesus was saying to me, “Would you trust me, now?”. That hit me real hard.” (Weise gives a detailed account of the mishap and the miraculous healing in her blog.)

“When I went back to USM, I did not want what I experienced during the mission trip to end.” That was when she made a decision that would change her. “I’ve encountered Jesus and I want people to know Him.”

“I started taking my relationship with Christ seriously. Prayed daily, try to go for daily mass, and reach out to others.” Dan started a Bible study group with five friends who were all girls. The numbers grew and when she left the university she had led 33 girls and eight boys in three years.

All the while she was in close in contact with Stephanie Shipley, one of the missionaries who came to Miri. “After the mission trip, she invited me into discipleship. It’s a Christ-centered relationship with a student, where they grow in a relationship with Christ, learn how to evangelize, teach others to do the same, and prepare for lifelong Catholic mission. We would meet online, once every two weeks. Steph was among the three missionaries who guided me during my time in university.” Dan met a couple of other Focus missionaries who came in mission trips in the following years when she joined in these missions. She stayed in touch with them. (Dan blogged about her 2018 mission trip here.)

Dan with Shipley

The calling

The call to go into full-time ministry started and it got stronger. “Jesus changed my life and I want nothing else than to share that joy of Christ with others. Besides praying and asking for guidance from those closest to me, the thought of being a missionary and giving myself fully to God never left. Even as a student, I tried brushing it off, to wait until I’m done with my studies. During my final year, I had to give it a try and fill in the application.”

“I accepted the offer in February 2020 to become a full-time campus missionary. To serve with Focus on a campus in the US for at least the next two years. But when I applied, I decided not to tell my parents. I wanted to tell them in person during the Holy Week this year but then Covid happened.” Dan was in Penang then in her final semester and no interstate travel was allowed the Holy Week which fell during the Movement Control Order in Malaysia.

Cyril and Mary Grace Dan with their daughter Annabelle Joy

Then came the father. “He said ‘Ya, go for it. If that’s what God is calling you to do, you go.” She did not expect the reactions of her parents. “That shocked me,” she said, adding “knowing how hard they’ve worked for me, saving for us, and giving us a comfortable life.” 

“I video called them individually. I called my mum first and she said US was pretty far and then said ok. I was surprised with her reaction.” Dan thought her mother would not consent due to the fund-raising component in this mission work. Each Focus missionary raised their own salary. “She was not surprised at all. I was surprised that she was not surprised.”

“About 80% of Catholics who leave the faith, leave when they are between 20 and 23 years old. I have friends who have left the Church. We really need missionaries and we can be missionaries where we are, bring Christ to wherever we are.” 

With her siblings last year

Dan spends the evenings of her off day, which is Tuesday, leading a weekly Bible study group. “I have permission from my Bishop and the support of my priests.” The group has 10 women from different walks of life, Dan said.

She was supposed to have left for US in June this year. “Due to Covid, my visa application got delayed. I now work part-time, six days a week as a barista at Starbucks in Miri while waiting for my visa application to be approved.”

One of the evening sessions with children during another mission trip in 2018. Dan is in the centre, facing camera.