Soon I will be retiring from my position as senior pastor of the Boston Chinese Evangelical Church. I have served in this church for 42 years, the last 19 as its senior pastor. I have seen the Lord bless the church mightily over the years. It was about 150 people in one bilingual service when I started in 1977 as the youth director. Today the church has more than 1,100 adults in seven congregations using three languages.
Pastoring this church has had its challenges. As is the case in many ethnic churches in America, the first-generation immigrants use their mother tongue, while the second generation is much more fluent in English. I am a second-generation immigrant who isn’t fluent in Chinese, and such ministers don’t usually last long in churches with a large first-generation immigrant population. The language, culture, and generational differences make it difficult for young ministers who don’t understand the Chinese language and culture to survive, much less thrive. In fact, after I “survived” for only two years in the church, I was asked to write an article for a national publication for Chinese churches to share my secrets for lasting so long.
Model of Christ
As I reflect on how the Lord brought me through this incredible journey, I thank him for giving me a model of Christ before I entered ministry. Humanly speaking, I wouldn’t be a pastor, much less have served in the same church for all these years, without his influence. Let me share with you about him and how he affected my life.
When I went to college at New York University, I eventually found my way to Chinese Evangel Mission (CEM). It was a small storefront church in Chinatown. But it had an English-speaking congregation composed of 30 to 40 second-generation young people like me.
This small English congregation was led by Lee. Though he has a Chinese-sounding name, Lee was German. (His full name is Alfred Lee Hearn.) From rural eastern Pennsylvania, Lee came to the church through an internship with Nyack Missionary College and served at CEM for more than 38 years. Though he was faithful to the Word of God, Lee wouldn’t be considered an eloquent preacher. He didn’t have advanced theological degrees. He certainly wasn’t the pastor of a large, famous church. Lee was an ordinary person whom God used to profoundly affect me and many others. He showed me the beauty of Christ in three ways.
1. Servant Leadership
Lee showed me what it meant to be a servant leader. I’d grown up thinking that a leader, even a Christian leader, had to be bossy to get things done. To me, ideal leaders were like the heroes I idolized in movies, such as John Wayne.
But Lee was a humble man. He didn’t draw attention to himself; rather, he downplayed his importance. We called him “Lee” because that’s what he preferred—not “Reverend” or “Pastor,” just “Lee.” Lee thought of himself like John the Baptist who, speaking of Jesus said: “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). It wasn’t about Lee. It was about Jesus.
As a servant leader, Lee served the church in whatever capacity was required. CEM’s storefront church building was old. The boiler frequently broke down. I have seen Lee covered in soot from working on the boiler in the dark, dingy basement, trying to save the building a big repair bill.
Lee was single. He never married or had children. But he used his singleness to spend more time serving others. He lived on the fifth floor of the storefront church building and, rather than guarding his privacy, he allowed the teen boys to hang out at his apartment. Many of the boys had fathers who spent little time with them, since they had to work long hours in restaurants. Lee became like a father to many of them, listening to their problems and giving wise counsel even late into the night.
Lee also showed me the beauty of Christ through his endurance. Hebrews 12 tells us that Jesus endured the shame and hostility of the cross. He is our ultimate model for running life’s race with endurance. But Lee reflected the endurance and patience of Christ in a way I could personally observe.
The other half of CEM was Chinese-speaking and Chinese-thinking. They were also older, so many held positions of leadership in the church. Acts 6 tells of conflict that came from different language groups even in the first-century church. Yet Lee was able to navigate the minefield of potential conflicts and misunderstanding for 38 years. It takes extraordinary patience to be a peacemaker.
3. Incarnational Ministry
Finally, Lee showed me the beauty of Christ through his incarnational ministry. Jesus, though he was God, became a human being. He suffered the limitations and pain of having a physical body and living in our world. Lee came from a rural, white environment and chose to live in New York’s Chinatown. His parents weren’t former missionaries in China. Lee had to adapt his whole life for the people God called him to serve. Though he learned to like Chinese food, he never was able to learn to use chopsticks.
After retirement, Lee left New York City and returned to the rural life of eastern Pennsylvania. He bought a small farm, where he continues to live in relative obscurity. He is now 87 with great memories of a fruitful life.
In the parable of the wedding feast (Luke 14), Jesus warned people not to clamor for seats of honor at a wedding. Rather, let the host invite you to sit in the place of honor. I think Jesus will invite Lee to move up closer.
You can read previous installments in this series.