Some children grow up playing with dolls. Others lean toward Lego or remote-controlled cars.
But Charissa Fong preferred to preach.
“I was born into a home where I was taught about God and how much He loved me,” said Charissa, a native of Sydney, Australia. “I will always be grateful for my mother’s godly guidance during those early years.”
Around age 6, Charissa developed what would soon become her favorite activity. Each Sabbath, when the family returned home from church, she would go to her bedroom, stand in front of the full-length mirror, and preach her heart out.
“Few theologians would be able to appreciate the depth of those sermons!” she said with a laugh.
But she was missing one thing: an audience.
That all changed when her younger sister, Marleta, found her preaching to the mirror one day.
“What are you doing?” she asked curiously.
“I’m playing church,” Charissa replied.
“Can I play?” her sister said.
Between the two of them, they came up with an entire church service. Marleta would do the welcome, sing the opening hymn, take up the offering and say the prayer. Charissa would preach, sing the final hymn, and then conclude with the benediction. She would then go to the door of their bedroom, shake her sister’s hand, and thank her for coming.
But Marleta wasn’t the only one to stumble upon one of Charissa’s sermons. One day, Neale Schofield, the head elder at the Waitara Adventist Church in Sydney, was visiting her father, David Fong, who had stopped attending church but didn’t mind his wife, Gayl, taking their two daughters to worship.
The door to Charissa’s room was slightly open, and Schofield could clearly see her passionately preaching to the mirror. That memory would remain with him for many years.
At age 14, Charissa was caught off guard when her English teacher asked her to give a speech to the class. The assignment, which she had forgotten about, was to read a book and give a speech from a character’s perspective. Charissa had read Rachel’s Tears, a book about a student who was shot during the Columbine High School shootings in the United States for saying she believed in God.
“Impromptu speeches have never been my thing,” Charissa said. “In my early days, I was so scripted that I would even include a symbol in my notes that told me when to breathe.”
As she was presenting this unprepared speech, an idea suddenly popped into her head. Why not make an appeal like evangelists do?
The idea was intriguing. After all, she had been preaching to a mirror for years. Now she finally had what she had always dreamed of — a captive audience. When Charissa reached the conclusion of her speech, she said, “And now, if you would like to accept Jesus as your personal Savior, would you raise your hands with me?”
Nobody moved. In fact, she had never seen her class so still.
Having grown up in the church, Charissa had witnessed many appeals, but people had always seemed to respond to those. She was determined not to move until someone else did. She stood there for what felt like an eternity until a friend finally raised her hand.
“God bless you, friend,” Charissa said, and sat down thankfully.
That night, she was in tears, pleading with her mother to allow her to switch schools. She was too embarrassed to face her classmates again.
It was with great reluctance that Charissa went to school the next day. When her English teacher approached her, she didn’t know what to expect.
“You gave a really good speech yesterday,” the teacher said. “How would you like to give it in assembly?”
Charissa was astounded. “The whole thing? Even with the hands up?” she said.
“Yes,” the teacher said. “I’ve been talking with the teachers, and we want the whole thing.”
The teacher said Charissa had received a grade of 99 percent for the speech.
Charissa was thrilled by the news but also a little inquisitive. “What did I lose the mark on?” she said.
Her teacher laughed. “It was too long.”
Later that day, Charissa presented the speech to all the students as her teacher had requested. Having learned from her previous experience, she modified the appeal to make it more suitable for a general audience. This time, hands went up everywhere.
As Charissa walked off the stage, a teacher grabbed her arm. Tears glittered in her eyes as she said, “Thank you.” It was Charissa’s first evangelistic appeal — but it was far from being her last.
“My English teacher must’ve seen something in me that could be developed for God’s glory,” Charissa said.
The following year, Charissa was asked to represent the school in a public speaking competition. She was secretly terrified and asked whether she could pray about it. She finally accepted the role on one condition. She wanted to speak about God.
Charissa wondered whether her teacher would tell her that there was no place for God in a secular competition. But instead the teacher smiled and said, “I think that’s the very best thing you could do.”
The night before the competition, Charissa was a nervous wreck. She remembers kneeling beside her bed, quietly dreading what the next day would bring.
“Lord, You and I both know that I can’t do this,” she prayed. “If You get me through tomorrow … no, if You let me win tomorrow, then I promise You that I will speak for You wherever You open the doors.”
The speech was every bit as intimidating as Charissa had feared. She was distracted three times, causing her to forget what she had memorized. However, she managed to keep her composure, leading the audience to believe that she was pausing for effect.
“Each time, by an absolute miracle, I carried on speaking, with God giving me the words,” Charissa said. “I felt like Jeremiah!”
To her surprise, she qualified for the next round of the contest.
“That was an incredible speech,” the adjudicator told her. “Just one thing. For the next round, take God out of it.”
Her teacher had watched the exchange.
“Do you remember why you went into this?” her teacher asked.
“Yes,” Charissa said.
“Then don’t change a thing.”
Charissa went onto the next round, didn’t change her speech, and didn’t win.
She would go on to compete in other public speaking competitions without success. But God apparently had a different calling in mind.
When Charissa was 16, her Waitara church decided to open a teen evangelistic program. Elder Neale Schofield remembered how many years ago he had seen this young girl preaching in front of her bedroom mirror. After much thought and prayer, he and his wife, Coralie, decided that Charissa should be the speaker for the program. Charissa had no idea what to expect. She didn’t have any prior experience in running a campaign. She didn’t have a theology degree. And she didn’t have any evangelistic training.
But she agreed anyway, remembering the promise she had made to God—that she would speak for Him wherever He opened doors.
As a result, 32 people made decisions for baptism. Others committed to keep the Sabbath.
Since that first campaign, the doors have continued to open for Charissa. She has come a long way away from that bedroom mirror, preaching in Canada, Romania, Indonesia, England, the United States, and all around the Pacific region.
“I couldn’t do it without God’s leading and the support of my loving family,” Charissa said.
In 2007, her father was rebaptized into the Adventist Church and is now a Sabbath School teacher and musician at Waitara. Her mother has become a Bible worker. Her sister, Marleta, recently recorded her first album but still sings special music when Charissa preaches.
In 2014, Charissa completed a graduate diploma in theology and ministry at the Adventist-owned Avondale College of Higher Education. Today, she works at HopeChannel, the Adventist world church’s local channel for the international Hope Channel network. She doesn’t know what job she might take next, but she said she is eager to keep evangelizing and sharing her faith.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, there are no limits to what God can do through us when we give our all to Him,” she said.