Goodbye, Pastor Chen
Thoughts After Memorial Service *
When my mom told me about Pastor Chen’s passing over the phone, I expressed my sadness but carried on with my work day. Surrounded by fellow twenty-somethings in bustling SoMa, San Francisco, I was at the place where people are machines that churn out mobile apps and wearable hacks. It is not the place to stop, let alone to mourn someone so far away.
That was last week. Today, the Saturday before Mother’s Day, I happen to fly home and had the opportunity to attend Pastor Chen’s memorial service, mainly because I felt a small obligation to say goodbye.
Pastor Chen was the main pastor of the small Chinese Christian church where I spent my middle and high school years. I have always known of the pastor as a friendly old man with eyes that always smiled, who sometimes wrapped up sermons with the same bible verse, recited in Mandarin. He was one of those figures who was always around, and always happy to see how I was doing.
That’s why it was strange to walk into church today and see him lying in front, his face ashen from death, eyes shut and no longer smiling. My head told me he went to heaven to join his wife. The transient happiness from that thought was immediately drowned by a huge wave of regret as the reality of mortality sank in. Despite my limited interactions with him in the past, I realized that the possibility of any future conversations with him just decreased to null. My heart ached because, as head of my home church, his wisdom could have guided me so much. Today, of all days, was when I thought of the perfect questions that I could ask him. Did you have doubts about your faith? What kept your eyes on God all these years? What would you say is the meaning of life?
The service went on as church and family members went up one by one to share their stories of Pastor Chen. Each story widened my perspective of him beyond my personal interactions. I realized the depth of his dedication to the Lord and to his church, and how his humility and grace impacted every member who attended. As I have ingrained myself in tech, where switching jobs every two years is the norm, I could not fathom how anyone can spend a lifetime pouring out love into the same community. Someone on stage shared that recently our church gave Paster Chen a huge group photo of everyone, taken just for him. He loved the photo so much that he placed it at the center of his desk and gazed at each face almost on a daily basis. This church was his family and his sheep, and I admired the depth of love he reserved for every individual.
People lined up during the last portion of the memorial service to walk by his body and say goodbye. I shuffled up behind others, smelled the surrounding flower wreaths, and wondered what I was suppose to say to his family that lined up beside the coffin to shake hands with each person who walked by. Best wishes? He was a good man? Hope you are feeling okay?
Turns out I could not even speak one word.
As I shuffled rather quickly past the pastor’s body, I first shook hands with his oldest son, whom I had only heard about but had never seen nor met. I met his gaze with a sad smile, and to my surprise, he told me, “He asked about you all the time, you know.”
I burst into tears. Me, just one member at this church of hundreds. Me, who was two generations away from Pastor Chen and had barely anything in common with him. Me, who have been away from school and only visited during holidays. I was suddenly reminded that my mom regularly told me the same thing over the phone, that Pastor Chen asked her how I was doing and when I was coming home. At that moment, I felt the weight of love and was grateful for it.
I sobbed through the entire line of Pastor Chen’s family members. I don’t know how many I hugged or shook hands with. All I knew was that what his son said to me opened a floodgate of memories. The memory of Pastor Chen pulling an awkward teenage me out of the baptism water, supporting my first few steps as a Christian. The memory of Paster Chen facing the congregation, eyes closed and hand raised, praying for us to continue receiving God’s blessings throughout the week. The memory of Pastor Chen beaming through his frail frame during each of my infrequent visits in recent years, saying “Nancy, you are back!” and grasping my hands with surprising strength. The memory of my mom sharing her story of miracle when my grandpa, an adamant agnostic for decades, suddenly prayed the Lord’s prayer with Paster Chen by his side.
For every beautiful memory that Paster Chen left behind with me, I am grateful.
Today was the first time I gazed into the face of someone who passed away. I was reminded that life is so much deeper than how much information my brain could retain, which had been my pursuit and the pursuit of many other career-driven peers.
Life is also about the heart and how many memories it can hold — memories of people we are blessed to have been in contact with, each of whom changed our lives for the better. The hard part is that, oftentimes, these memories lay dormant during our day-to-day striving and only burst forth when we become painfully aware of the eternal absence of those who wove together these memories into the fabric of our lives.
It took the entire emotional roller coaster ride during the memorial service today for me to truly appreciate what Pastor Chen meant to me. I eventually reached the same conclusion as the beginning of the service, that he is now smiling down from heaven, next to his beloved wife. The next time I step foot in church, Pastor Chen will not be there to greet me, but memories of him always will. This gives me the strength to finally say — goodbye for now, Pastor Chen.
*This post was written in May 2014