When Silas Cheuk thinks about his life, and the many twists and turns it has taken, he thinks about the New Testament story of Matthew 21 when Jesus sends his disciples on ahead of him to find him a donkey and a colt.
If anyone asks what they’re doing, Jesus tells the disciples, they are to simply say that the Lord needs it.
So, too, says Cheuk, he has tried to live a life of obedience to God’s call.
“Whenever God needs me, I do it,” he said. That faithful response led Cheuk from a childhood in Vietnam (he is three-quarters Chinese and one-quarter Vietnamese) to Hong Kong to upstate New York to Calvin College and eventually to a 40-year career in medicine in Detroit.
It also led to a life that recently was honored by Calvin as worthy of the college’s Distinguished Alumni Award, presented annually since 1966 to alumni “who have made significant contributions to their field of endeavor and manifest a Christian commitment, thus honoring Calvin.”
Cheuk chuckled when asked about the award.
“When I first heard about it,” he recalled, “it was a surprise. Why me? I just tried to be available.”
That posture began already as a Missionary Alliance middle school student in Vietnam. He was 14 when he converted to Christianity and afterwards was given the name Silas by one of the missionary instructors.
His Chinese name had been Chew, but at school he then went by Silas, and he brought that name with him when he left Asia for North America to attend Nyack College (Nyack was affiliated with the Missionary Alliance).
At Nyack he met the one other Chinese student who was there: Helen Huang. She would become his wife and life partner for 52 years before her death in 2012. She also worked for 36 years as a kindergarten teacher in suburban Detroit.
And she was the reason Silas became a Calvin graduate. Her brother-in-law was a Christian Reformed pastor in New York, and he suggested that Silas and Helen should transfer from Nyack to Calvin. So they did.
A half century later Cheuk remains nonplussed about that change of plans. “I had already moved from Hong Kong to America,” he said. “What was a little further?”
He added: “God is humorous sometimes.”
God’s humor, and Cheuk is quick to note, also God’s grace was evident during his time at Calvin and in the decades since.
Although he wanted to be a medical missionary, he didn’t think he could afford med school so he studied pre-engineering at Calvin and planned to pursue that as a career. But, after he graduated a relative, knowing of his desire to serve the Lord via medicine, offered to pay for his medical school, so he returned to Calvin to complete the pre-med requirements and then he was off to medical school.
But even after finishing medical school (working the whole way and not needing outside financial help) Cheuk said, with a shake of his head, that he never really did medical missions, at least not the type he had envisioned as a 20-year-old.
Instead he set up shop in the Detroit area, and he remained there for four decades, including regular volunteering at a free medical clinic in the city of Detroit's Chinatown district. He was also a leader in the Chinese Church of Detroit, serving as a translator in worship services for a quarter century.
He laughs about that now and said that though he was never a medical missionary in the proper sense of the term, he did get to practice the medical part, and he did play a role in bringing people to Christ.
“I was a doctor,” he said, “and I got to treat the sick, to deliver babies to help the less fortunate. And I was in the pulpit almost every Sunday for 25 years. I preached almost every Sunday. Only thing is I didn’t have to prepare a sermon. So it was great. God’s humor.”
Cheuk also was a choir conductor for three decades or so though, as he said, “I never went to music school.” And for the last 15 years he has led teams to China to teach and do short-term missions trips. More medical missionary work.
Those who nominated Cheuk for the Distinguished Alumni Award noted his and Helen’s quiet determination to get things done on behalf of the God they served throughout their life and across continents.
One wrote about a school cafeteria the pair helped get built in Helen’s home village in a remote part of Guangxi Province. They planned it and raised the funds and in doing so they ensured that the physical needs of that school’s children would be met, but also provided “a visible yet-tangible symbol of Christian love-in-action.”
Another wrote that “Silas’ life-long commitment to Christ and His church wherever he lives set a great example for us all.”
For his part, Cheuk said that all he has tried to do over the years was to keep an open mind and be willing to be led by his Lord, even when he had his doubts.
Indeed when he received his Distinguished Alumni Award, during Homecoming and Family Weekend on Calvin’s campus, he noted that the donkey in Matthew was no special animal.
“That donkey didn’t have much training,” he said, “but the Lord needs it. And it carried our Lord into Jerusalem to finish His mission on earth to die on the cross to redeem all our sins.”
And then to finish his remarks he sang a song, Andrae Crouch’s “My Tribute,” that included these words: “Just let me live my life and let it be pleasing Lord to thee. And if I gain any praise, let it go to Calvary. With His blood He has saved me. With His power He has raised me. To God be the glory for the things He has done.”