A deeper pursuit of knowledge: Stephen Tam

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

STUDENT STORY: STEPHEN TAM 「未來領袖:結合基督徒世界觀與學問」文憑課程 (class of 2021) Calvin University: Master of Education (class of 2022)

Dental Surgeon, Hope Dental Clinic (盼望牙科診所)

Stephen Tam has had his share of different graduate studies before coming to Lumina College. But after spending time in this academic community, he realized there is more to the pursuit of knowledge than anything he had ever encountered before.

Education from an early age

Early in his life, Stephen was already used to the idea of studying, especially with the prospect of getting a good life by doing well in school. Though he came from a modest family background, his father was keen on making sure his children were well educated, and arranged for Stephen to attend a reputable government secondary school. It was there that Stephen first met a science teacher named Mr. Leung Wing Tai.

Mr. Leung Wing Tai (top, fourth from left) with secondary school students (1979).

Mr. Leung was a lively teacher and a favorite among the students. But when Stephen was in Form Two, Mr. Leung left the school to further his studies in the United States. Still, it would hardly be the last time they saw each other.

Finding God in dental ministry

Stephen was not able to make it into university the first time he applied. Faced with some desperation, Stephen prayed: “If I don’t get into university, I won’t believe in God.” He did not consider himself particularly religious at the time, although he had some idea of Christianity from his primary school, which had been run by a Christian ministry.

A year later, he made it into the University of Hong Kong as a dentistry student. For a while, he forgot about his prayer.

In his second year at university, a friend invited Stephen to an evangelical event that moved him to become a Christian. He felt strongly about evangelism as his new life goal.

This aligned well with a challenge from a group of committed Christians within the HKU medical community. They had been praying earnestly for the dental school even before its beginning in the early 1980s that God would establish a group of dental students who would know and glorify God with their gifts, and Stephen was one of the two dental students at the time who accepted the challenge as a call from God.

Formed from scratch by a small collective of students and professionals, the dental and medical ministry has become an ongoing and important part of Stephen’s life, where he has served for the past few decades.

Stephen (left) at his university graduation (1986).

Crises of identity

The events of June 4, 1989 struck Stephen as traumatic and left many others around him with an identity crisis. What did it mean to be a Hong Konger? Chinese? Christian? He found no answers in the local church—the subject seemed taboo, and even the leadership offered only generic prayers for God to take control. It was clear to him that people felt wildly unprepared for the change in political climate that had come so suddenly.

People felt wildly unprepared for the change in political climate that had come so suddenly.

Despite not getting much clear direction from the local church, Stephen continued to explore these intersections of identity through medical missionary work in Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Myanmar, and Mainland China. Through a Christian-run hospital in Hong Kong, he joined others in using their medical professions to witness for Christ. In all these activities, what he treasured most was a connection to the Motherland of China.

Stephen (center) doing medical ministry work in Northern Thailand (1989).

He had almost completed his (oral surgical) hospital training when, in 1995, he ran into a legal issue that stopped him from training as a surgeon for a few years. When that happened, many people disappeared from his life, and he felt that he lost a lot of emotional support from all but a few close friends. Overwhelmed with the sense that everything he had worked for in his life was gone, he carried deep feelings of loss inside him for a long time.

Then, in 1999, he met the person who would become his wife. She turned out to be former secondary school classmate of his. They decided to get married on September 11, 2001. Little did they know how the world would change that day. After they had retired for the night, terrorist planes struck the World Trade Center in New York City. The newlyweds were in Australia, 14 hours ahead of New York, when they woke up to a world in crisis.

More to learn

After such a tragedy, Stephen shed a mentality he described as “conquering the world.” For much of his life, Stephen had been trained to compete, do more, and keep chasing the next thing. But with such evident crises in the way, he felt that God was instead teaching him patience.

Although he had regained his dentistry practice in 2000, he still felt somehow inadequate in his knowledge. He realized that growing in reason did not necessarily mean growing in faith. Instead, it felt to him like drinking salt water, in that he became thirstier the more he drank and saw how much more there was to learn.

Growing in reason did not necessarily mean growing in faith. Instead, it felt to him like drinking salt water, in that he became thirstier the more he drank and saw how much more there was to learn.

So he continued studying to broaden himself: first law, then business, and finally a PhD in oral and maxillofacial surgery, which was an opportunity for him to continue his dental training in the area he had been interested in for so many years.

Combining faith and reason

At a secondary school alumni reunion in 2008, Stephen’s old favorite teacher Mr. Leung—now Dr. Leung—showed up and shared his perspectives on the problems in society that were being revealed by the 2008 global financial crisis. He also shared a slice of his vision for a better way forward by cultivating people’s connection between the theological and the practical. It was an inkling of what would become Lumina College, its founding catalyzed by the global crisis.

Even after all those years of studies, Stephen still felt God calling him to pursue more. However, he was not too keen on the idea of attending seminary, and although he had an interest in history, he found reading books on the subject boring.

Stephen (fourth from left) at Lumina College in a class taught by Dr. Leung Wing Tai (seventh from left) (2020).

Instead, he found an exact blend of his interests at Lumina College, where history and other disciplines are studied through a lens of faith. Stephen recalled studying about kamikaze suicide bombers and encountering the concept of worldview. Why did they sacrifice their lives? By diving deep into their stories, he developed greater insights that he had missed before.

At Lumina, Stephen found a community that was not only bold enough to ask the hard questions, but also to engage these questions with Christian insight. It was an approach that had been missing from his experiences in both universities and churches, which might have one without the other. For the first time in his life, Stephen was learning to connect his studies with his Christian conviction, which has given him a deeper understanding of both.

At Lumina, Stephen found a community that was not only bold enough to ask the hard questions, but also to engage these questions with Christian insight.

Led by God

Stephen credits many factors for leading him to Lumina and becoming the person he is today. In the 1970s, he often listened to a radio broadcast from Breakthrough called 明心時間. He followed publications and broadcasts from co-founders of Breakthrough So Yan-Pui and Dr. Philemon Choi, a prominent promoter of medical ministry. Stephen’s father was trained as a teacher but did not teach, though Stephen and his wife have experience teaching at the university level. Stephen also felt deeply affected by several teachers in his life, including Dr. Leung Wing Tai. Now, Stephen is studying for a Master of Education with Calvin University through Lumina College.

Stephen (left) with his wife.

“It’s not about gaining knowledge, but about what God is calling me to do,” said Stephen.

Stephen anticipates the hopes and challenges of the times, but does not set his sights on the dramatic visions of 1997, 2047, or any other year. Instead, he waits for Christ’s second coming while living in the kingdom of heaven’s “already but not yet.”

“It’s by God’s grace that I have this Judeo-Christian worldview, and it's God who calls me to do justice, love mercy, and make disciples.”

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