Harriet Ponnappa

In The Hands of The Master Potter

Produced by Our Stories, His Glory Team


Reading Progress:

“I was a marred, broken vessel when the Lord Jesus Christ took and re-shaped me with His refining fire into a vessel He could use for His specific purpose. Someone had told me: “There is a hardness in you.” I had lost my father at a tender age. My hopes to become a doctor were dashed with a prolonged illness, which was a social stigma at that time. I turned away from God every time He called out to me, telling Him I had other more important priorities. However, since God has preordained what each of His children is to do (Ephesians 2:10), He has His ways to see that this is accomplished. I look back with amazement at His love, patience, grace and even chastisement, to see this done in my life.”

Born in 1928, Harriet Ponnappa, the second of four girls, grew up in a Christian home. Her parents, Mary Jacob and Dr S W Ponnappa, both Ceylon Tamils, made sure that the family prayed every night. When she was just 12 years old, her father was killed in a bombing of the government clinic at Bencoolen Street by the Japanese a few months before the British surrender.

After his death, Mary and her four daughters, with the youngest just five or six at that time, were given a house by the Japanese opposite the doctors’ quarters at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Harriet, her elder and younger sister worked during the Japanese occupation for rations, and Mary sold her jewellery pieces to tide them over this period. 

Seeing all the pain and suffering among the people during the Japanese occupation, Harriet had a lot of questions about God. She asked her mother, who told her to pray and ask God. In hindsight, Harriet realised that her mother did not know the answers.

After the war, Harriet attended Methodist Girls’ School. Things were going well, and Harriet was good at her studies, but adversity struck.

Harriet: “Halfway through my senior Cambridge year I came down with tuberculosis (TB).   Doctors put me on bed rest. After two long years the doctors collapsed my lung, and it was another year of bed rest.

“I was angry as my hopes to be a doctor were dashed. My maternal grandmother told me during this bleak period no one would marry my sisters because of the perceived stigma of TB. It was then I was determined to prove to all that I was somebody to take note of.” 

She took her senior Cambridge examination as a private candidate and got a grade one. But she knew she would not be able to pursue her studies. Soon after, Harriet was well enough to apply for a government job and got into the chemistry department as a librarian and storekeeper. 

Harriet was then prompted by her brother-in-law to sit for the Government Competitive Examination for entry into the Higher Services. She passed the exams and had opted for the Social Welfare Services. Instead, she was posted to the Singapore Income Tax Department.

Harriet: “I discovered I had an aptitude particularly for matters relating to the legal aspects of tax law. I enjoyed my work and did well in it. However, I discovered that in spite of this, questions about God kept nagging me.”

Harriet then went on to sit for the Singapore and Malaysia departmental income tax exams. At that point, the Lord said to her: “Come to me.” Harriet told God that her exams were more important to her than He was. She took the exam and excelled in the Law paper. In fact, some years later, when Harriet applied to join Price Waterhouse in 1963, she was hired for her expertise in Singapore law, as most of the British officers in the company then were more familiar with British law.

Harriet: “What I did not know then was how God would deal with this. He caused such a hunger in me for Him that I was prepared to have a relapse of TB to find Him. This, considering that I had spent three years in enforced rest when initially diagnosed.

“However it was my career that was the problem, as it was both my security and identity. He wanted me to hand that over to Him. When I finally did this, the next day the Bible opened up and I understood it in a fresh new way. Also, I knew I was a child of God, a Christian and loved Jesus. He was now Lord of my life and my security.”

Harriet was 38 years old then. Within three months of her conversion, God sent her to Short Street Tamil Methodist Church(TMC), of which she was then a member. God gave her instructions to teach what He taught her.

Harriet: “With these instructions, God also gave me a sharp warning that if I did not teach what He taught me, He would hold me accountable for the blood of those I taught. But if I gave His words and they did not heed them, their blood will be on their own heads (Ezekiel 33: 1–6). I didn’t quite understand it then, but knew it was a stern warning. I had a choice to make— obey Him or compromise.”

At Short Street TMC, the church gave Harriet the most rebellious students—teenagers.  But the Lord gave her a deep love for these young people. The youths sensed this, and asked her, “Why do you love us?” She said to them, “I don’t know. It is not me, it is Jesus.”

Harriet realised then that there was a marked difference between those who accepted Christ as Saviour, and those that made Him Lord and Saviour when responding to the Gospel message.  

Harriet: “Accepting Christ as Saviour would help us come to a point where we can commit ourselves to Him as Lord, and get to really know and trust Him. For me, it was the difference between conception and birth (John 3:3), and I experienced this new birth when I was 38.”

In 1968, Harriet transferred her membership from Short Street TMC to Wesley Methodist Church (WMC). She had an inkling then that the Methodist Church in Singapore was planning to split the General Conference into three Annual Conferences1 to better reflect the languages spoken. 

After her membership transfer to WMC, God told Harriet to remain in Short Street TMC, and the Reverend Christopher Smith, Senior Pastor of WMC agreed to that. Harriet stayed on at Short Street TMC till 1975, when the Tamil church decided that as she was a member of WMC, it would be best for her to return there.

She was reluctant to leave Short Street TMC as she was worried for the youths there, since she was both their Sunday School teacher and counsellor. But she soon realised that God had permitted this, so it was time for her to go.

Harriet: “It was then that I told the Lord, I came to you as an ambitious, hard, impatient woman. Instead of changing me, you filled me with your love and sent me to serve your people. He replied,‘If I had touched you any earlier, you would have been broken.’ It was then I realised the work of the Master Potter. He knew exactly when to turn the heat on so that the marred vessel could be re-shaped and not be broken. I was very contrite as I realised the intensity of God’s patience, grace and love in His dealings with a difficult child.”

Harriet returned to WMC as a quiet observer sitting in the Adult Fellowship and Bible Study groups. She asked the Lord where she was to serve. 

In the meantime, a few of her Christian colleagues in Price Waterhouse started a fellowship group, with Harriet leading the Bible study. By December 1976, after about 16 years at Price Waterhouse, Harriet had a strong urge to resign, as she felt she was not giving her company her best. She was tired from her very busy schedule.

Harriet handed in her resignation on a Saturday to her manager Mr Wong Ha Hee. He said, “Nothing doing, not accepting that!” and gave the letter back to Harriet. 

On Sunday, the day after, Harriet listened to the sermon at WMC. She knew then that God wanted her in full-time Christian service. On Monday, she handed her resignation letter back to her manager and told him the reason. Not surprisingly, he was skeptical as she had not mentioned this when she tendered her resignation two days before.

Harriet returned to her desk, prayed and asked the Lord whether she had heard Him correctly.

Harriet: “God said clearly to me: ‘No man who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 9:62) I said to the Lord, ‘You have never told me you wanted me in full-time service. I have very little savings. How am I to manage?’ His reply to me was very clear: ‘You look after my affairs and I will look after yours.’”      

“His mandate to me was to preach and teach Jesus Christ.

 After leaving Price Waterhouse, Harriet expected to go to Bible college, but God’s words to her were “Sit still, my daughter!”  She did not know this would be for two and a half years! In fact, during this period, many well-meaning Christians advised Harriet to go for mission trips, etc., but she did not, as God’s instructions to her were to ‘sit still’.  

God soon revealed to Harriet His plans and purposes.

Harriet: “My relationship with my mother was bad when I realised she was not a born again believer. God told me clearly after I left my job, ‘I may have called you to serve me, but you have to learn to honour your mother first.’” My mother fell ill soon after, and I became her sole caregiver with no maid to help. My three sisters were all working and two had their families to care for.

“It was then I caught a glimpse of what the Master Potter was doing— one, to correct my wrong attitude towards my mother; two, bring my mother to the point that she was a real child of God. I was awed once more to see the tenacity of God’s love, as He led both of us through the refining fire. As I explained Scripture to my Mum, I soon realised that she began to fully grasp spiritual truths and knew she was a born again believer!

“After her death, within three months I was accepted into Trinity College Bristol, an Anglican College in Great Britain. There, I earned a Diploma in Pastoral Studies, and though I wanted to stay on longer, God sent me home to Singapore.”

Back in Singapore, Harriet applied for full-time service at WMC. Harriet was 48 years old when she started work at WMC in December 1980 with the Rev Dr Tony Chi as pastor-in-charge. After Dr Chi was transferred out to Wesley Central Mission in Australia in 1982, Rev T C Nga, the then President of the Trinity Annual Conference (TRAC) appointed Wesley’s Associate Pastor, 34-year-old Reverend Isaac Lim as pastor-in-charge.

Harriet was well-known for her love of wearing a traditional Indian saree.

Rev Dr Isaac Lim: “We were operating on a very lean basis. All on board had to do almost everything. I ran a tight ship, I expected everyone to be involved in whatever they could do. They gave me 100 per cent of their energy and time as the church was growing rapidly. Because of that, we were able to move the ground despite the fact that we were so few.

“The wonderful thing about Harriet was her commitment — you could not question her call and her love of Jesus. That was something I accepted and admired about her. Yes, she had a strong personality and had views of her own. But her heart was right. I treasured Harriet’s support;  I felt that an additional, committed hand would be very helpful to those who were sick, needed counselling or were in need. We worked well together and were able to accomplish quite a lot. I have a general policy of non-interference when I delegate responsibility. I trusted her as a team member. When I trust someone, I don’t want to show any signs of distrust. That freed me up to do things that only a pastor can do.

First row standing – Rev Isaac Lim, 2nd from left; Harriet, 4th from left; with colleagues and leaders of Wesley Methodist Church.

“Harriet is straightforward, but she is very respectful. She tells it to you as it is. I appreciated her openness. I was able to talk to and encourage her, work alongside her. She knew where she stood in the hierarchy of things. She was experienced enough to know where the lines are drawn.”

At the outset, Harriet took on multiple roles as she was the only Pastoral Staff Member. She visited church members in hospitals, was in attendance at funerals and conducted Bible studies. Many who attended her Bible study classes in those early days remain in close touch with her—  either through continuing with her Bible study classes, or following the example that Harriet has set in teaching and discipling others.

Harriet (seated, third from left) at a fellowship gathering with Wesley ladies in 1986

In 1984, the Wesley Lay Training Institute (LTI)2 was set up. As staff, Harriet was given the topic “the Person and Work of Jesus Christ”.

Harriet: “I had only spent a year at a theological college and was completely out of my depth. I had nobody to go to for help. That is when I learnt that if the Lord wants you to do something, He creates the opportunity and enables you to do the impossible as you trust Him.

“At the bookshop I noticed I was drawn to certain books. There were many liberal works on this topic, but the Holy Spirit gave me insight to avoid them.

“It was very, very challenging but also, so very enriching personally. I used my sabbatical in 1990 to go to London Bible College to check that my course was on the right lines. It was. I am awed at God’s amazing grace as we trust and obey His leadings.”

Harriet served 13 years at Wesley before retiring in 1993. Since then, her focus has been very much on discipling others through her Bible study classes.

Many view Harriet’s Bible study classes as too “cheem” (Hokkien for deep and complex), and too black and white, without any compromise. God put the onus on her to take this approach, and on those whom she has taught and discipled. To those who view her teaching in this way, she invites them to “Come, but only if you mean business with Jesus.”

Rev Dr Isaac Lim: “Her black-and-white stance is a significant stance. Sometimes we try to present the grey side of things, which can be unclear and confusing.  I would rather hear somebody say “This is my stance; this is what the Bible says.” Not “Maybe this, maybe that.” This gives clarity. I appreciate Harriet for the clear stance she always took.”

In an appreciation note written to Harriet, one of her students said: “When I first joined Wesley, I was told there were the ‘comfortable, low-stress’ Bible study classes, and there was the ‘no-nonsense approach’ class led by Harriet Ponnappa, where Harriet would teach about all aspects of true discipleship (including the uncomfortable parts!), and about the nature and person of God (again, inclusive of some of the more uncomfortable aspects for the believer). What a blessing it was to be in your Bible study class, and how well ‘fed’ we all were.”

A member who has been attending her Bible study classes since his varsity days in the 1970s recounts: “I was a disillusioned Christian, and I asked Harriet all sorts of difficult, awkward questions at the start. Harriet was very patient. She always pointed me to God’s character and His Word   her teaching was different from the charismatic and hallelujah approach’. It was clear that Harriet had a deep, personal relationship with God, and she talked as if she was in love with Jesus.

“There was an opening in an organisation that was offered to me. For various reasons, I told the Lord “no”, unless He was able to fulfill three conditions. At that time, Harriet was on sabbatical in England, and so I wrote to her about my situation. She wrote back, and in no uncertain terms,  severely chastised me. Her letter, which I have kept till today, said: “How dare you, how dare you when the Lord has been so gracious to you, that you can impose conditions? Have you not read Psalm 8?”  When I read these verses in the Psalm “what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them…”(verse 4)— I broke down, went on my knees and went before the Lord to say sorry.

“Harriet has played a big part in my life to trust in Him alone. The Lord has provided me more than I ever asked for. In many ways, He has ‘poured into [my] lap a good measure— pressed down, shaken together, and running over.’ (Luke 6:38, NASB).”

In many ways, Harriet has been a catalyst and a conscience. For those who attend Harriet’s Bible study groups, she first introduces them to the person of Jesus. She talks about the encounters that Jesus had with ordinary people — the prostitute, the woman who had bled for decades and so forth. Jesus  is real and as He related to people then, He also relates to us now.  The students come to appreciate these encounters and get to really know Jesus.

Harriet has discipled generations of believers through her Bible study classes.

Harriet does not believe in merely giving information as this is available in good commentaries. What she does is to give the truth embedded in Scripture and asks students to put it into practice. They will then experience its reality.

Another student wrote: “Because you’ve taught me the importance of doing good, not because I have to, but because of what Jesus had done for me on the cross, the works should flow out naturally as a result of my love and eternal gratitude for God and Jesus dying for me on the cross.”

Too often, the church emphasises the importance of service. To this, Harriet reminds us to be still and let the Lord first work in us. He will then send us packing to where He wants us to go.

At her advanced age of 95 (as of 2023), Harriet said to God: “Lord, I am very, very tired. But the Lord just had one word for me — work.”

Indeed, perhaps this reflects the very sentiment of her long-time Bible study student when Harriet asked him why on earth he was still attending her class. He said, “I learn.”

Harriet: “I know that the Master Potter has a lot more refining work to do in me before I become that which He originally planned when He created me in my mother’s womb. My prayer is for His enabling grace to see me through to that point.”

End notes:

1 In 1976, the three Annual Conferences of the Methodist Church in Singapore were set up: Emmanuel Tamil Annual Conference (ETAC); Chinese Annual Conference (CAC); and the Trinity Annual Conference (TRAC).

2 The Wesley Lay Training Institute (LTI) was part of the Christian Education Committee. It offered discipleship and training programmes for church members. The Committee became Discipleship & Nurture in 1999 when the main committees were re-organised.

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