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My teenage faith in Jesus was tied to Joseph – my mentor

Leslie Herman/The Globe and Mail

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I don't recall exactly when I met Joseph Chan, but I couldn't have been more than 15. He was in his early 30s. I can remember him sitting in a corner of the room by himself, not saying a word to anyone.

We were at the North West Vancouver Alliance Church in North Vancouver. A friend of mine attended that church, so I did too. For a recent immigrant from Northern China, the predominantly Asian church was a good place to get a sense of community.

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Later, when Joseph and I became fast friends, we liked to say that we met through faith. It sounds corny now, but I probably meant it back then. The young people at that church had their own fellowship, and Joseph was our informal pastor.

I took an immediate liking to him. Short and portly with big eye-glasses, he didn't really act his age. He was nerdy, relatively liberal and watched the same television shows we watched. He joked that these qualities were why he couldn't get married and didn't even have a girlfriend. He was probably right.

Joseph was also a gifted pianist who graduated from McGill University, even though it took him seven years. He liked to explain scripture with references to Lord of the Rings, and he laughed much more easily than most preachers we knew.

Though the young men at the church didn't admit it, a lot of us were yearning for a mentor. As Asian teenagers, we often found our homes at odds with the outer environment.

My parents tried very hard to make things work, but at times it seemed there was no way to reconcile my Chinese upbringing with what I saw and learned on "the outside."

Joseph was someone I could talk to. I had grown up without any religion, but since Joseph was a Christian, along with the rest of my friends, I became one as well.

I remember inviting him over for dinner once, hoping to explain Christianity to my family by showing them Joseph. Instead, he talked about the latest episode of Crime Scene Investigation the whole time.

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Despite his qualities (or maybe because of them), most of the churches Joseph applied to did not want to give him a job. They didn't want to ordain him – he wasn't conservative enough and didn't show enough seriousness, they said.

He struggled for a decade to find anything permanent in the evangelical denomination. But in March, 2005, he finally landed his first permanent position. The head pastor of our congregation saw something in him (probably the rapport he had with us) and gave him an assistant position. He was hired on a Sunday, and gave a speech.

I remember that day well. It was March 27, 2005. Easter Sunday.

"Jesus wants the key to your hearts," he said. "That's the most important thing." I thought so, too.

I was having problems with my family at the time, and he probably sensed it. Right after the speech, he tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Let's do lunch soon."

I remember it so well because I soon realized that those were his last words to me.

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I was at home on Easter Monday night when I got the call. Actually, my mother picked up the phone. It was Pastor Wong from our church.

"Here," she said, "Pastor Wong wants to speak to you."

I took the phone expecting an invitation to a meal or something. Instead, I got the bad news.

"Joseph's been in an accident," the pastor said in Mandarin. His next few sentences were garbled by background noise.

I asked him whether Joseph was all right.

"He already passed away," was the response.

Joseph had been in a pretty good mood that weekend. In addition to landing his new job, he had recently found out that his father was going to survive the lymphoma cancer that nearly killed him three months earlier.

But on the afternoon of March 28, 2005, Joseph's Mazda Protégé was T-boned by a stolen SUV. The driver was a 23-year-old who was looking for ways to get money for his drug habit. According to the RCMP, this driver was experiencing the paranoia and nausea common to crack addicts after their high. I saw him days later on the evening news saying "I'm sorry" repeatedly.

But it didn't really matter to me. To this day, I don't know what to make of Joseph's death. What I do know is that my faith died along with him.

I soon realized that, at least for me, it wasn't ultimately about what the scripture said. I had little patience for it. The person explaining it to me mattered a lot more. I remained a nominal Christian for one more year, but soon gave it up.

Had Joseph survived, I would probably be in a very different place in life. Perhaps I would have even joined him in the ministry. That's all gone now. The memories I have of my friend have receded, and are not easily conjured up.

If he found out about my departure, would he count it as betrayal?

I'd like to think that his passion for friendship won't allow him to.

Steven Zhou lives in Ottawa.

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