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“No such thing as retirement” – Dr Julian and Vimala Selvanayagam reflect on five decades of ministry

“I’m sorry, did you say 1915?” we asked disbelievingly. “Yes,” said Vimala with a laugh. Next to her, Dr Julian smiled quietly as they squeezed their faces into the frame of the Whatsapp video call. They were chatting from their home in Kulim, a small town in Kedah, Malaysia.  

Dr Julian and Vimala (known as Vim) Selvanayagam are both in their eighties. They live quietly surrounded by flowers and vegetable plants, both avid gardeners and lovers of nature. 

It is a different pace from the life they have lived for decades. Up until several years ago when health issues cropped up, both were still globe-trotting with Fatherheart Ministries, teaching and ministering the love of God the Father. Before that, they ministered in the Discipleship Training School (DTS) of Youth With A Mission (YWAM) for nearly 30 years. 

Now, their ministry is largely at home where they welcome family, friends and strangers alike; some stay for a meal and others for days. Over coffee, cendol or steaming rice with chicken curry, they share God’s faithfulness and show His love to anyone who walks through their doors. 

Dr Julian and Vim with their granddaughter.

Finding Jesus 

Dr Julian and Vim have walked with Jesus for more years than most of us have been alive.

When Vim mentioned 1915, she was recounting how her family had come to know the Lord. Her maternal grandparents had migrated from China to Kuala Lumpur and were introduced to Jesus by British missionaries in 1915. 

“My remembrance of my grandmother was of a lady who really loved the Lord, she was illiterate but the missionaries taught her to read and write so she could sing hymns and read God’s Word. It was a wonderful heritage for our family,” said Vim, who accepted the Lord at 14 years old.

Dr Julian, on the other hand, came to know Christ as a young man through the ‘Singing Missionary’ from India, the late Rev Dr Sam Kamaleson who was also a veterinarian. He had come to Malaysia and was conducting tent meetings in Temerloh, Pahang, sharing the gospel through word and song. 

He invited Dr Julian to attend his meetings, but the young man was sceptical. At the time, there was a cattle disease outbreak and Dr Julian finished work late every day. 

“But miraculously for those three days, I finished work early. I was the first to run up to the altar and give my life to the Lord after being deeply convicted at one of his meetings in 1965,” he said. 

A divine connection

Dr Julian and Vim first met in Temerloh in 1964, when Vim was posted to the health clinic as a nurse. She was trained in midwifery and public health. She remembers delivering babies, working with mothers and conducting health awareness sessions in schools. 

“The health matron introduced us to one another in 1964, but when he wanted to start dating I said no because he wasn’t a Christian then,” Vim said. A year later, Dr Julian accepted Christ but by then, Vim had been posted to a hospital in Kuala Lumpur. 

“I started attending Gospel Hall in Temerloh, which is where Vim worshipped when she was there. A mutual friend then informed her that I was now a Christian, and the next time I went down to KL, we met and she said, “Why didn’t you tell me!” So we started courting in August 1965 and got married three years later,” Dr Julian reminisced.

Dr Julian and Vim in the early years of their marriage.

Years of preparation and growth

Transferred to Raub, Pahang after their wedding, Dr Julian and Vim quickly planted themselves in a local church and soon discovered a passion to support singles. 

“We decided to reach out to singles and welcome them into our home because as singles we had been blessed by couples and families who opened their homes to us. So we opened our home to missionaries, school kids and anyone who missed a feeling of home,” Vim explained. 

But as they were giving, God was imparting into their lives as well. The couple both agreed that their season in Raub was significant; they found four other young couples who became lifelong friends. As Dr Julian said, they were five young couples in their twenties on fire for the Lord. 

Soon, they started leaving their careers to pursue full-time ministry. All the other couples made the transition into full-time, and finally Dr Julian and Vim were the only ones who hadn’t. 

The ‘Pahang Group’ who became close friends in life and ministry to Dr Julian and Vim in the 1970s; they met and worshipped at Gospel Hall Raub, Pahang

“Julian, will you follow Me?” 

Dr Julian’s eyes light up at the memory of the Holy Spirit’s first whisper to go into full-time ministry. 

“I was doing my quiet time and suddenly I heard someone telling me to go full-time. I immediately said, “I bind you in the name of Jesus, get out,” he said with a sheepish grin.

The exchange happened a few times, until one day in 1977 when Dr Julian travelled to Penang for a family workshop. A lady he did not know suddenly said, “Julian, I believe the Lord is asking you to go into ministry.” And another woman chimed in, “Me too!” 

Startled by the strangers’ remarks, Dr Julian went outside and sat under a tree. There, he felt God ask, “Julian, will you follow Me?”

“I said, “Yes,” but I was wrestling with my future. But God led me to Nehemiah 9 and said, “I took care of them, I will take care of you.” And I saw evidence of God’s provision. The Israelites had sandals of leather (a conductor of heat) but still, it says their feet were not swollen,” he said. 

Vim remembers Dr Julian calling her immediately after the encounter to ask her thoughts on going full-time. “I replied, “If the Lord calls, we have to go,” she said firmly. “For me, it was as simple as that.”

They shared their decision with the other four couples and found out their friends had been praying and wondering what was taking them so long. 

And to cap it off, another friend in Penang (who had been a camp speaker in Raub) burst out laughing at the news. Apparently, God had been leading her to pray for “one of the couples from the Raub group” for three months, but He had never revealed who. 

On an ordinary day in 1977, Dr Julian obeyed the Lord’s call into full-time ministry.

Taking it one step at a time

Saying yes was the first step, but what came next required faith. “I didn’t have the gift of teaching or preaching, so how could I serve the Lord? He would have to show me the way,” Dr Julian remembers thinking. 

And God did. In 1979, an open door led him to join Scripture Union as staff and the family (by then, they were parents of three children: Jason, Jeremy and Joanne) moved to Penang. 

A year later, they moved to Johor Bahru so Dr Julian could pursue his Diploma in Theology at OMF’s Discipleship Training Centre in Singapore. During that time, he also underwent counsellor training. 

Then in 1982, family friend Dr Joy Sivaratnam suggested that they consider a YWAM DTS in Hawaii to be further equipped in ministerial counselling. He wrote a check for RM5,000 (a lot of money at the time) to support us and their JB church raised the rest of the funds for them.

The Selvanayagams in the 90s.

So many miracles

“We had no extra money when we went, we only had enough for the fares and part of the fees. But the money came in little by little, and every little bit we received would go to our fees,” Vim said. 

And God didn’t forget the little things. One day, Vim was strolling around the swimming pool in the YWAM base when she found a cili padi tree just sitting there. “It had likely been planted by the birds, but it gave us the taste of home we really needed,” she said. 

From Hawaii, the family headed to California for the outreach phase in 1983 and again, God proved himself faithful. Their church had a community food bank: near-expiry products from nearby supermarkets. It was often a feast. 

“Our kids had tons of ice cream, cheese, and fruits and miraculously the vegetables that came were bok choy, beansprouts, chilli, and tofu. The church members had never heard of these foods before, but we knew! Our leader said, “God prepared all of this for you.” 

And as only a good Father would, God gave them wonderful experiences through generous friends. In those short months, the Selvanayagams visited SeaWorld, Disney World, Santa Catalina Island and the mountains, where they saw snow for the first time. 

Experiencing the Father’s heart

At the YWAM Counselling School, the ‘Father Heart’ week impacted Dr Julian very deeply. His own father had been a teacher and strict perfectionist who spoke with a cane. And Dr Julian carried that into his own parenting. 

“Vim and the children really suffered. I would cane [the children] liberally; it was very harsh. So Father Heart week really impacted me. For the first time, I could ask my children to forgive me for the harsh treatment. Before this, I couldn’t even hug them or tell them I loved them, that was the first time I ever did.” 

The revelation was the start of the ministry that God had ordained for the couple. 

Upon their return to Malaysia, Dr Julian worked as a counsellor at a Penang clinic for three years. And for the next 17 years, they would preach and teach the revelation of the Father’s Heart and trauma counselling in colleges, churches and YWAM schools.

In 2006, they attended a school on the Father Heart by Jack Frost and felt inclined to be a part of that ministry. Thus began a season of teaching and ministering the Father’s love through Fatherheart Ministries under James Jordan; they had a great team, travelled widely and stayed active until 2017. 

Trainee nurses from FGA Penang learning how to make lap cheong (Chinese sausage) in Dr Julian and Vim’s back garden of their Penang home in the early 2000s. Many of these nurses spent the long holidays in their home, cooking, worshipping and being ministered to.

“We see life as it really is.”

“The best part of this journey has been seeing people have their breakthrough. It’s also been a joy to minister to different nations, immerse in their culture and bond with communities there. When we travel to minister, we aren’t tourists. We see life as it really is,” Vim said. 

Julian pointed out that seeing lives transformed by the Lord’s love truly encouraged him. The couple would visit some communities on a yearly basis, so they were able to witness individuals’ progress over the years. 

“We’ve seen YWAM students, so broken with incredibly painful pasts, be healed, serve God, get married, build whole families and all the way, just be loving Jesus,” he said.

Of course, the ministry is not without its challenges. Some counselees would refuse to respond, and other times they would have to minister to 40-50 students one by one. It would take them into the wee hours of the morning; it was physically and mentally strenuous. 

But surprisingly, Dr Julian stated firmly that in their over 50 years in ministry, they have never experienced burnout. The couple learned very early that after each ministry school, they needed to schedule a break and would take two to three days of complete rest before ministering again. 

“You have to set boundaries and limits, take the time to rest and recharge. We have to realise it is actually God’s work, we’re just a part of it. It is God who is at work, not us. We also realised that if a breakthrough doesn’t come, it’s not our failure,” he explained. 

Today, Dr Julian and Vim are known and loved across the world. Many young people call them ‘Dad’ and ‘Mum’, whether in English or their native language. A town especially close to their hearts is Bandung, Indonesia, where they walked with many young Indonesians and hope to visit one more time.

When asked how many spiritual children they have, Vim said, “Aiyoh. Countless. At least several hundred, some are closer than others but we try to keep in touch. Our times with each have been very precious and special.” 

Ministry took its toll on the family

Looking back, however, there are things they wish they’d done better. When asked what the low points were in their ministry journey, they unflinchingly state that it is their children who paid the biggest price. 

“The Lord disciplined me and told me to spend more time with the family. I did make some changes, but it wasn’t enough. Both husband and wife need to be involved in parenting,” Dr Julian said upon reflection. 

There were often struggles in the home and looking back, they know they could have done more. “Our children felt neglected with Julian travelling so much. There has been some reconciliation and for the most part, things have resolved and forgiveness has been extended,” Vim said. 

A saving grace is that God kept their marriage strong and secure. Over the years, they have become almost one, finishing each other’s sentences and anticipating the other’s needs. Having each other through the ups and downs of life has been a true blessing. 

In hard times, remember God

In 2017, Vim was diagnosed with cancer and underwent an operation, while Dr Julian developed cataract issues. They returned to Kulim and travelled to Penang for treatment and God brought some of their spiritual children to care for them in that season.

“We were old-school, all these years we rarely asked for support and trusted the Lord to provide for us. Sometimes the money just went right down, but it would be replenished. We functioned like that for many years, living by faith. The Lord never failed us. We always had food on the table, money for rent, were able to take care of the children’s needs, friends who loved us and blessed us, and a church community that was supportive. God has always looked after us. He did then and He does now,” Vim said.

After the health issues surfaced, they have been in Kulim. 

“This season has been a time of receiving from people; an outpouring of Father’s love for us through people. Providing food, finances, and medical support; it’s just been amazing. It’s been a season of rest, but I don’t think it’s the end of the story,” Dr Julian said. 

Dr Julian and Vim enjoying a game of Scrabble with friends in their Kulim home

Whether you’re full-time or not, you have to know that you can trust God with your life, he added. Once Dr Julian receives a word from the Lord, he is not easily shaken — hard or good times, I hold on to God’s Word. 

“You need to have your own personal experience with God. These powerful experiences of God’s reality assure you of His faithfulness. Every one of us, we have to put this to the test. We have to experience God doing something in our lives, small or big. They become stepping stones in our journey of faith. And recounting these experiences, to tell your children and children’s children, is a legacy of encouragement and builds up a spiritual heritage for your family,” he stated firmly. 

A legacy of love

Dr Julian and Vim both mulled a little when asked how they would like to be remembered. 

“That we loved people and that our home was always open to people, that we lived simple lives and enjoyed the simple things of life,” Vim said after some thought. 

The couple made a conscious decision early in their ministry to live at a level where anyone who walked into our home would immediately feel comfortable and safe. 

They fondly remember a time when their Penang garden was taken over by 20 East Malaysian nurses. “They roasted a pig and just talked through the night under the stars,” Dr Julian said with a jovial laugh. 

The gentle giant (he’s a six-footer) would simply like to be remembered for sharing God’s love with people, adding “We hope it is for the best, that God will turn it around for good.”

He also encouraged young people with a full-time calling to pray it through and not dismiss it early, having observed that many Christian parents and churches discourage the full-time call these days. 

A reminder, he said, is that God is the only One who can open doors to our full potential and we can grow so much when we learn to trust God wholeheartedly. 

Like her husband, Vim enjoys gardening and seeing things spring to life.

Looking ahead with hope

“As we grow older, I yearn to experience Him even more on this side of heaven knowing that when I finally meet Him, my joy will be complete,” Vim shared. She recounted Hannah’s prayer after having Samuel and observed that Hannah never mentioned Samuel at all. She loved the Giver more than the gift. 

“God has been so good in taking care of us, but in the end I want Him to know that I love Him more than anything He can give me,” she said quietly, her voice breaking. 

In this season, God has told them that they will be going through the wilderness, it will be a season of struggle and difficulties. 

And indeed, it has not been easy. In 2021, Dr Julian was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, underwent surgery and radioactive iodine treatment is still ongoing. 

Then in November 2022, Dr Julian was rushed to the hospital by ambulance after feeling very weak. There, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 COVID. Miraculously, he recovered fully and was discharged after several days. 

The battle has not just been on the health front. In early 2022, their Kulim home was also broken into while they were in Penang and they lost a number of valuables. 

“He has assured us that He will take us through, and so we hold on tight because our time on earth is not yet over. We were feeling low and discouraged for a time having been plagued by health issues, especially amid a pandemic, but our spirits have picked up. God has sent people to encourage us,” Julian said.

Everyone is welcome at the Selvanayams, whose hearts yearn to bless and encourage others.

“We have a heart for hospitality, but our bodies don’t have the energy. Friendship, love and companionship; that we can offer. It’s the Lord’s gift to us — we gave ourselves to people and time is never a big deal for us. We are always available. That’s who we are,” Vim finished saying. 

The couple is looking forward to a ministry of giving and receiving once again. They firmly believe it is not the final chapter. As they seek and pray, they know another season is ahead. 

“No such thing as retirement, go with His flow until He takes you home,” Dr Julian said. “When you enjoy something, how do you retire?”

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