In the fall of 1992 I walked into the worship service of a young church plant in New York City. A friend suggested I visit. “There are only a handful of churches left in New York City that are growing and not dying,” he told me. “Redeemer is one of them.”
At the time, New York City was known as the “graveyard of pastors.” Several major churches had closed in the preceding years, with many pastors leaving their positions. I walked into a small congregation of about 60 people (I was told that combined, there were up to 200 “regulars”) in a rented church.
I had just returned from my graduate school study in Japan, following my liberal arts education at Bucknell University. There I had learned from Nihonga (Japanese-style painting) masters to apply traditional Japanese techniques to contemporary art. God brought me to New York City with an ambition to be the best artist that I could be, but it was also clear to me that apart from Jesus, I lacked the courage to pursue such a dream in the greatest art city in the world. From my experience of being involved in evangelism through a parachurch movement as a new Christian, I knew that someone had to be a faithful presence in the art world. I was walking in faith into an impossible dream.
On that autumn day more than 30 years ago when I visited Redeemer Presbyterian, I heard Tim Keller preach the Bible for the first time, sprinkling in quotes from Flannery O’Connor and Shakespeare. I thought to myself, That was just like Bucknell humanities lectures, but it was centered on Jesus! I was riveted. The next week, Tim sent a handwritten letter, welcoming me to New York City as a fellow Bucknellian.
It took several years of sitting under Tim’s teaching and joining the elders’ board for me to decide to move my family into the city. In 1995, we moved into an underdeveloped area of downtown between Wall Street and SoHo that would eventually be known as Tribeca (the shortened form of Triangle Below Canal Street). This area we moved into would also later be known as “Ground Zero.”
Tribeca was then known for daily reports of violence and gang activities, but by the late 90s, NYC in general saw a great reduction of crimes and Tribeca became one of the posh neighborhoods. The typical pattern was true: Young couples living in Battery Park, for example, in units designed for DINKs (“dual income no kids”) decide to have children and stay because of the good new public schools in the neighborhood. Of course, the rent then skyrockets, and artists usually get kicked out, only to move to another pregentrified part of the city, like Williamsburg (which is now quite posh).
If attempting to make it as an artist was an impossible dream as a follower of Christ, then moving my family with three small children into the heart of New York (as friends told us) was ludicrous. But Tim exhorted us as leaders that to truly love the city, we had to be fully incarnate, present to live out our faith in the exilic city of New York: to “love the city” but not to be “of” or “against” the city. This formed the basis for my approach to culture at large, what I later called “culture care.”
Tony Carnes, a sociologist and fellow elder at Redeemer, stated that “it is seldom in history where we can carefully document a city being spiritually transformed as we can for New York City, starting in the early 90s.”
I remember the moment that Tim shared with us elders that we needed to relocate our services to Hunter College auditorium, which holds over 800 people. We looked at each other and asked, “Ok … are we all going to sit in front and huddle up? We’re going to look rather silly, with at most 100 people, with all the empty chairs.” That first service, we put ropes in the aisles of the empty rows, and all 50 of us sat in front.
After helping launch the Village Church (Redeemer’s first daughter church) in the mid-1990s, I often returned to evening services. The empty chairs began to fill up, and soon we (introvert artists) ended up in the balcony, listening to Tim preach from afar.
The rest is, literally, history. Redeemer’s growth corresponded to New York City’s transformation, as if it was an answer to Tim’s prayers to “seek the prosperity” of the exilic city that God called us to. As the city prospered, the Redeemer movement prospered.
Many credit the impact of 9/11 as the inflection point in the growth of Redeemer. I see this inflection point earlier—in the mid-90s when Redeemer chose to plant churches rather than grow exponentially into one huge church. Tim encouraged several leaders (I was the first to volunteer) to begin this process, looking first to Greenwich Village.
I gave Tim a ride home after he spoke to an arts fellowship group at NYU one day. As we drove in my old Camry wagon, looking over the East River on the bridge to Roosevelt Island where he and Kathy lived, he said, “You came to New York to have your ambition be molded. … I have as well. New York is the best place to grow as a Christian leader because the city will challenge you to bring out your best and, at the same time, challenge you to deal with the worst of you.” I found myself thinking about this often, as an extraordinary challenge to follow Christ in the city and realize my own limitations.
He called me one day after an elders’ meeting and mentioned an artist’s name that was on a long list of regulars for each of our elders to follow up with. I was surprised that he even remembered her name. (The congregation had doubled in a span of six months.) He asked me if I was following up with her, and I said “Yes, but after I call the other 20 on my list.” He said to me, “Mako, I know that in a growing church, it feels overwhelming to follow up with everyone. But it’s important to, even if it seems impossible to keep up.”
That was the number one lesson of pastoring: Follow up and do so even if it seems impossible and overwhelming. I did call her the next day. She was quite surprised that I did, and though we did not solve any issues that she wanted to address by the end of the conversation, I got to know her—and her art—better.
After 9/11, Redeemer did end up growing exponentially in terms of numbers. In the greater New York City area, Tim’s teaching and theology had an even more substantial impact. I accompanied Tim to join some serious heavyweights in the art world several times. These were early leaders in the LGBT community, well established outside the church.
I find it fascinating that so much of the pushback Tim received for his stance on marriage and women’s roles in the church came from Christian communities, while these leaders outside the church took to heart many things Tim shared—even issues they vehemently disagreed with.
That was because Tim deeply respected them, and many of them also respected Tim in return, both sides willing to spend time listening and learning from each other. To this day, I count it as my privilege to get to know brothers and sisters in communities that many evangelical leaders have labeled as plagues to avoid. Tim kept on reminding me—especially on days when I found myself frustrated that my artist friends were not seeing God’s love or when our church friends could not see the value in these same artists—“Mako, we have to believe that the gospel can change anybody.”
It was as early as the mid-1990s when the impact of Tim’s ministry to New York City began to be felt internationally. When I returned from my trips to Asia in those years, I would tell Tim about discovering that someone completely unrelated to Redeemer was listening to his sermon tapes. I was a willing accomplice to this growth, bringing a box full of audiotapes with me on
On the day Tim took his last breath, I was on my way to Shanghai for an exhibit at the C3 Museum that pairs my work with exquisite imperial Chinese porcelains in the museum’s remarkable collection. This exhibit was organized by a gallery that began when City to City church planter and Tim’s dear colleague Jay Kyle introduced me to a group of leaders in Taipei. Thus, indirectly, I was in Shanghai because of Tim and the City to City movement that Redeemer spurred.
When we walked into my exhibit at C3 Museum in Shanghai, I was startled to find my painting A Leaf by Niggle there. Of course, this had been planned months before with my approval by my gallery organizing the exhibit, but the painting greeted me unexpectedly like an old friend.
After about a hundred layers of finely pulverized azurite and malachite in thin washes of water, the tree in this painting was almost invisible. For many years, there was very little image there. But now, the subtle watermarks had become a fully embodied image. The leaves and the invisible watermark of the tree had become fully manifested.
This painting, like so many other things in my life, was influenced by Tim. It was Tim that encouraged me to read this little known J.R.R. Tolkien story of the same title: “It’s a fascinating tale, one of my favorites. A must-read for an artist,” he told me. Much of my theology (which I now call “theology of making”) is based in part on those conversations with Tim that highlighted Jesus as our Creator. Niggle came up many times in this context.
Those who know Tolkien’s story will appreciate the similarities to the transformation in my painting. I was startled to find, 22 years later, that the painting is completely whole now. As the watermarks revealed themselves more and more over the years, the tree had generatively become complete.
I suppose new creation is like that. Our efforts of faith, like watermarks, may remain invisible for many eons. And yet God’s indelible grace will eventually reveal the true art of our lives. May Tim now see the forests of Niggle’s leaf, so faithfully and well done.
When we drove into New York City after our trip to Shanghai, I felt my heart sink. There was a huge empty hole in the sky. I realized that I had not experienced the city I had come to love for over 30 years without Tim’s presence.
Perhaps in the decades to come, more sociologists will speak of the catalytic influence that Tim Keller had in New York City’s transformation. Perhaps he will be remembered as one of the greatest preachers of his generation, perhaps even of modern times. What I will remember is the story that Tim gifted me with—and the tenacity of stewardship to love the city and her artists, to follow up, to do the impossible of being a pastor of a growing church and a growing international movement unmatched by any Christian leader in recent memory.
When the elders looked at Tim incredulously after he told us that we should relocate to Hunter College, he said, “We only get one chance to do this.” I am glad I was in the room to hear that, to witness and affirm the conviction of a courageous leader who saw a Kingdom opportunity in front of him and pushed us forward into a whirlwind of grace over Manhattan and beyond.
Makoto Fujimura is a contemporary artist and is the author of several books including Faith and Art: A Theology of Making.
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