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Tribute to Kevin Chen

It was early in the afternoon on a Thursday in the middle of January when the text came. I had been staying at my parents’ for the holidays and had planned to return to the Bay Area to restart my community group at church after a month-long hiatus.

I glanced at the message preview, and my stomach sank.

Hi all, You are receiving this because you have been a big part of my life here…

Taking a deep breath, I unlocked my phone and forced myself to read the rest.

“Oh man…,” I responded, not knowing what else to say.

After an exchange of tear emojis, I told him, “I feel so alone now.”

I couldn’t extend my stay at home. Precious little time was left.

I met Kevin three years ago after Good Friday service. I was a reader that day. Having spent a couple hours that afternoon researching and practicing the pronunciation of “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”, I was ready to go home when service let out.

As I exited Haymarket Theater into the cold night, I saw a new face in the dim light, chatting with my friends as if chatting with his friends. Curious, I descended the steps. He introduced himself as Kevin, the new assistant pastor, along with his wife, Stephanie, and their two children. They had recently moved from Michigan.

Our paths barely crossed the first six months, since Kevin had not yet started preaching or doing liturgy, and I was… just doing whatever I had been doing the past n years. I think we first bonded over photography—or more precisely, his fancy Sony α7R IV with some fancy lenses that somehow passed his wife’s approval. (I don’t know how he pulled that off. He insisted it was for work.)

When we finally grabbed brunch that fall so that we could become better acquainted, he invited me to a hot pot potluck (hot potluck?) held at his house that Friday. I was part of an existing community group at the time but thought it would be nice to meet new people for a season, so I went. Most of the attendees were new to Grace. Some attended the Friday group regularly; others came and went. I stayed. When the pandemic hit, a season turned into a year, and a year, two. It became my second community group.

In one sense, Kevin was his own man. As unassuming as his demeanor was, he wasn’t afraid to go against the grain, despite carrying “Assistant” in his job title. Deviating from the generally laissez-faire approach of community building at Grace, he tried something different. Some people do well without structure; others need a little push, especially if their primary group is not at church. Kevin created a space for the latter. He sought people out (there wasn’t a Sunday that went by in which he wasn’t talking to someone new), invited them to come, and asked them to commit for a little while.1 2

From the outside, our CG looked like a bunch of immigrants (along with two—and later, three—kids) congregating at Kevin’s house (and then on Zoom, and then in his backyard). At various points of its existence, we had a Mexican woman, a Brazilian or two, an Irishman, a Japanese person, and quite a few first- and second-generation Chinese. Kevin made himself available to those who were overlooked (to echo another one of our pastors), and it seemed that immigrants felt a kinship with him because he too was an immigrant. We were able to candidly discuss the otherness we felt to one degree or another at an American Presbyterian church. Even I, who had once been skeptical about the necessity of dwelling on such issues, acknowledged that the effect of race and culture on church dynamics was significant (if subtle), and ought not to be trivialized.3

And this was characteristic of Kevin: when I thought I had things figured out, he would offer a deeper, and not infrequently, different, perspective. He would sometimes differ from more senior church leaders, but he also deferred to them, adapting as needed. I admired him for his independence of thought.4 Yet, even while holding to his own convictions, he was always listening, always processing, always experimenting. He wasn’t afraid to let things play out because he trusted that God was working.

And so, in a greater sense, Kevin was a man of God. He took up ministry not because he was born into it or because there’s prestige or money in it, but because it was his calling. He had nothing else to fall back on. He depended on God, and his prayers reflected it. More than anything, he loved the Lord and continually went back to His word. It was ultimately God he was accountable to, and this humility grounded him and, paradoxically, empowered him, rendering him unafraid to express his convictions.

Grace Pres in its short history has been blessed with pastors who not only have a clear vision of the gospel, but who also preach it expressively with insight and depth. Whatever one thought of his confidence in public speaking or the polish of his delivery, Kevin was no less able to teach than the other pastors. As I sat through our CG Bible studies, liturgies, and even my friends’ wedding, his gifting only became more apparent as time went on.

In our Bible studies, I had the privilege of seeing Kevin’s teaching up close (he was a prolific reader). He brought stories to life. When we were studying the Gospel of Matthew, he pointed out how the author’s background as a Galilean outcast influenced his portrayal of the Jewish establishment (an example of Sitz im Leben, or “setting in life,” the sociological context in which a work is written). He shared about the outsider vs. insider dynamic between the Galileans and the Jerusalem crowd, which preachers frequently conflate to make a point about the fickleness of man’s heart, remarking that the same crowd who welcomed Jesus would change their attitude toward him less than a week later. A closer study, however, makes a good case that the two groups were actually different, the Jerusalem “insiders” being skeptical or hostile to Jesus and looking down on Galileans, and the Galilean “outsiders” being Jesus’ supporters.5 6 7 “Just adding color to the story we often read and miss,” Kevin said.

Once, during the call to worship, Kevin recalled one of his vacations in which he was floating in the Dead Sea, at the lowest elevation, looking up at Jerusalem, an imposing fortress, a city on a hill, and likened its might to God’s protective power. With this simple anecdote, he gave fresh perspective to all the psalms hailing God as “my fortress,” and my understanding of God became just a tad more rounded.

In another study, we were discussing the meaning of Jesus’ words, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14). A common interpretation of this teaching is that the temptations of the world are many and it is easy to stray from the “straight and narrow.” Indeed, the colloquial usage of this phrase paints a path of strict morality. But Kevin went further and flipped it on its head: in the context of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was actually calling out the misguided attempts at fulfilling the law, the pious prayers in public, the “righteous” giving before man, the ostentatious fasting, and so on. It is in fact this self-justifying following of the rules that leads people astray and into destruction, for it is much easier to rely on one’s moral achievement before man (not realizing it utterly fails to satisfy God’s standard for righteousness) than to find the narrow gate, the path of life, in which one has to admit weakness, rely on mercy, and depend on another’s work.

At our friends’ wedding, Kevin delivered one of the most succinct yet powerful homilies on marriage that I have ever heard. In seven minutes that was nothing short of inspirational, Kevin skillfully and passionately elevated marriage to its proper magnificence, not by imparting mere platitudinous advice, nor by embarking on a theological discursion, nor by belaboring its obligations, but by situating their marriage covenant in its rightful place in the bigger story of a covenant-making God, by appealing to its wonder and worth, and ultimately by pointing to the example of Christ:

And when you two face hardship and trials during your marriage, look to Christ, look to his life, look to his death and his resurrection. Marriage is wonderful. It is worth all your time and energy, all the tears, and all the heartaches, and you can do this through Christ. Through marriage, you will quickly learn the kind of love that Jesus talks about, in his embodiment, his humility, his caring and joy, and his patience, and even his sacrifice. And that will keep your marriage intact until the end. How do I know? Because the covenant-keeping God will keep you together in a marriage.8

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the 25-minute sermon on Psalm 23 (when he finally did preach), so rich that I wouldn’t do it justice summarizing it here, so just go and have a listen.9

Each lesson, each sermon gave a glimpse of Kevin’s extraordinary ability to draw on his breadth of knowledge and experience to weave disparate elements into a cohesive narrative that was relatable and oftentimes humorous, while never losing sight of or reverence for the greater story of the Savior, the Shepherd, the King.

By the fall of 2021, the community group that Kevin had started two years prior grew large enough to “multiply.”10 Around that time, I had been thinking of volunteering to lead a new group, as I felt that Grace lacked a regular introductory class on Christianity and had heard that the church needed more community group leaders. After eight years of marinating in an ethos of grace, the time seemed ripe for me to give back, and to give CG leading a second chance.11 The multiplication of Kevin’s group seemed like a perfect opportunity for me to help fill a need at Grace.

Paired with Kevin, I became a co-lead of the Mountain View section of the original group, consisting mostly of seekers and young believers, while two others co-led the section at Stanford. As with any transition, there were growing pains. Kevin assured me that he was going to help see it through, that he was not going to leave me by myself. I considered it a high honor and privilege to co-lead with a pastor. I was excited about the opportunity to be mentored by him, to watch how he prepared, to learn to look at things the way he did. And for the first few months, I did indeed benefit from his guidance on leading a study and managing a group, as well as his discernment into individuals’ needs and situations. He wasn’t available to meet often, but when he was, he made sure to give me all the time I needed.

Looking back, I suppose I had already been subconsciously preparing for some kind of change. His responsibilities were increasing both at home and at church. He had left his name out of the bulletin when our group appeared on the community group list. I had to pester him to read my pre-study notes or post-study debriefings. Even his Friday night attendance was tapering off despite my efforts to invite him and keep him updated.

So when I received his text announcing his departure, I was shocked but not surprised. I just hadn’t expected to have my hopes dashed so soon. Despite his seminary education and pastoral experience, he was the first pastor I treated like a peer. His casual demeanor and similarity in age made it hard not to. I had no trouble ribbing him as his friend. At the same time, I deeply respected him, especially when it came to ministry matters. And for his part, he appreciated what I shared; I felt that my contributions were taken to heart. (Of course, this could just be an effect of his humble posture.)

The hole he left was felt not just by me but by the church as well. His love for boba, excitement for new finds, his humor and approachability, his ability to talk about anything and everything (except stocks; he never wanted to talk about stocks; he never wanted to listen to people talking about stocks), his involvement in people’s lives both as a counselor and as a friend, all made him an integral part of Grace.

The very fact that so many will miss him shows that God used him greatly in his three short years here, two of which were during the pandemic. Kevin was able to connect with many through a shared background, whether it was geographical, historical, relational, or cultural, and I imagine many made Grace Pres their home because of his presence and hospitality. But God has allotted times and places for all people, and ministers of the word are especially prone to be called away for the sake of His Kingdom. Though God’s timing is seldom comfortable for us, the Kingdom is greater than any one person; our faith is not in Kevin, but in God. Still, at such junctures, we have a chance to consider how we can carry on the work we inherited and follow the example set for us.

Kevin, you said you’ll come back to visit, but being a pastor will undoubtedly be busier than you imagine. While we would love to see you and your family soon and often, we know that is not possible. Even so, I hope that all of us who benefited from your ministry will continue to honor your legacy by showing others the same hospitality that you showed, by giving away time, space, and comfort, to invite others into Grace, and into grace.


Thanks to C. Chen, I. Lo, and D. Lee for proofreading, and J&J for letting me watch and rewatch their wedding video.

  1. I don’t think Kevin ever intended for his group to be permanently his to lead, but he saw a need that nobody else was filling at the time and acted.
  2. Self-selection is a powerful force. I used to think that it’s largely based on common interests, but have lately become aware of the high correlation between common interests, culture, and race/ethnicity. In some ways, race is just a signal we use to shortcut the decision-making process, because meeting new people takes energy. It doesn’t take many interactions to change one’s calculus when deciding which church to attend or which group to join, and if one isn’t careful, self-selection can lead to self-segregation. Through Kevin and Grace Pres, I have become more convinced that intentional hospitality is critical in a church’s missional pursuits.
  3. Some of the things I learned from Kevin are, in no particular order: 1) geography is correlated with wealth and wealth with race; the Palo Alto crowd is generally whiter and wealthier than the towns further south, so by centering the life of the church in PA, it is unintentionally making it harder for non-white people to participate. 2) People (including my past self) feel compelled to comment on and question the existence of an all-Chinese group in a non-Chinese church, but not bat an eye about an all-white one. 3) Many fellowships in college met on Fridays because students needed to study during the week; for many Asians and international students, a Friday night fellowship encouraged primary group formation with other believers. 4) If our church wants to practice hospitality as the Bible calls us to, then the very existence of a group like ours showed that there was a need that hadn’t been met that was now being met. 5) I often forget that God is actively building His church; rather than discounting what a particular group is doing, it would be better to ask the question, “What is God doing here?”
  4. It is my firm belief that astute analytical skills paired with a willingness to challenge authority are indispensable for the long-term health of any church, and need to be welcomed by its leaders as a tempering force.
  5. A brief summary is given here.
  6. R. T. France. The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text. W.B. Eerdmans, 2002. Pp. 429–430.
  7. Hertig, P. A. “Galilean Christianity.” Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments. Eds. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids. InterVarsity Press, 1997. Pp. 516-520.
  8. I rewatched the homily many times while writing this piece. The music overlay seemed to be divinely coordinated with Kevin’s words. Unfortunately, the video is currently unlisted. Once it’s made public, I will post a link here.
  9. The link to the original Grace Pres sermon is no longer available. The link provided is to the sermon he gave to his new church.
  10. Which ironically means “divide,” as in “cell division.” We use “multiply” because “divide” and “split” carry a negative connotation in the context of church.
  11. I led a small group at a Christian fellowship throughout most of grad school, but I never felt that I was effective at it. I was dissatisfied with the way I led in those early years, and still wonder at the fruits of my labor, worrying that perhaps I had done harm instead of good. So for a long time, I was too discouraged by my past experience to take on any leadership responsibilities.