After a long struggle with cancer, Reverend Doctor Robert J. Johansson passed away on Wednesday evening, October 19th. For 40 days and 40 nights, his church announced, Johansson “fought to the very end and considered it a privilege to share in the sufferings of Christ.” Then, his struggle ceased as “he very peacefully passed over into the Promised Land last night.”
Johansson was one of the most important senior leaders among New York City evangelicals. His Evangel Church seats 1700 congregants. The Evangel Christian School is well-respected for the pre-K to 12th Grade education that it gives to about 500 students. The affiliated New York School of Urban Ministry shepherds thousands of missionaries and students each year through New York City. He had the grit to come to city at its worst, succeed, and do good.
From beginning to end, Robert Johansson was a Queens man through and through. He fought the good fight.
He was born in Queens on January 4, 1936, attended public school in Queens, and graduated from Flushing High School.
He wandered off from Queens for a time to go to Bible school and Roberts Wesleyan College. He went into ministry in 1956 and pastored in Rochester, New York. But God beckoned him back to Queens.
In 1964-1965, the city threw a World’s Fair at Flushing Meadow, Queens. The Reverend Billy Graham put on an exhibit that attracted over 5 million visitors to see the film, “Man in the Fifth Dimension," which used cutting edge Todd-AO technology. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. brought his family up from the South for a publicized event. God told Johansson that He wanted the young pastor to come also. The pastor recalled to A Journey through NYC religions, “I felt the Lord speak to me and tell me to come back to New York to my home church, which my grandfather started.
Johansson’s grandfather was part of the great founding age in the 1920s and 1930s of the Pentecostal and Holiness churches in New York City. After the Holy Ghost came in a rush at Azusa Street in 1906 to 1915, the news spread like fire to New Yorkers. Small groups of Holy Ghosters sprang up in hotels, living rooms, and storefronts. The first church in the city was Glad Tidings Hall founded in 1907. After World War I, the revival fires kindled more. After several summers of street preaching, Johansson’s maternal grandfather, Reverend Evan Williams, founded a storefront church with fifteen members on 42nd Street (then Steinway Street) in Astoria, Queens on June 18, 1933. An African American pastor, who knew Williams at this time, recalled that it was a tough city to start a church. “The city was like granite,” he said. But three years later, the congregation had grown enough to build The Gospel Tabernacle Pentecost on 41st Street (later it became the Community Gospel Church).
In 1965 Johansson came back with his wife Jan and three small children (Brian, Carolyn and, later, Stephen) to continue his grandfather’s legacy. He also also studied for a masters of education from New York University.
The city was still tough and getting rougher by the time Johansson got back, despite the glossy optimism of the World’s Fair. Gotham was in trouble. Johansson recalled, “Everything was hitting the fan. In the late part of the 1960s, whites fled. The Bronx was on fire. There were the shootings of the Kennedys.”
The culture of the city was changing so fast that at times the citizens were caught between excitement and dread. A new sound, psychedelic music pioneered by the 13th Floor Elevators, started a mind-blowing rhythm for tuning in and dropping out. Soon, mega-gatherings celebrated the psychedelic age. “You had the big concert up in New York, Woodstock.” This wasn’t a positive to Johansson. “Everything was going a little bit crazy.”
The pastor said that he had to be honest with himself. The city was in trouble, and all around his church there were disturbances. Astoria residents were meeting to launch a “war on drugs” in light of the local proliferation of "goof balls," pep pills, and amphetamines. The U.S Armed Forces started drafting 19 to 26-year olds, and the first of many draft cards was burned in New York. Astoria veterans ranted against the act. Malcolm X’s home in Queens was firebombed. On October 17th, 1965, the World’s Fair clicked off the Tower of Light, and a local paper headlined, “All the Tomorrows were spent.” The next year some Queens residents reported UFOs hovering over the Fair grounds.
The tasks of rebuilding the little church, much less saving the city, seemed impossible to Johansson. “And I saw that all these families in the neighborhood were leaving the city. But I thought, if God has placed us in a troubled city, and Jesus says, “You are the light of the world…the salt of the earth, that is what you are where you are.” The pastor didn’t think he should turn his lights out.
“On this side street in Long Island City, this is where God had placed us.” Johansson was well-known for his grit when he was convinced that Jesus wanted him to persevere in something, and this was it. He thought, “The city will never bend my neck. Never. Never. The church is going to be a testimony against the darkness.”
Perhaps because of the troubling times, more and more people turned toward Johansson’s church.
Unnoticed by outsiders in the late 1970s and 1980s, the evangelical and Pentecostal churches in the boroughs outside of Manhattan started a rapid growth in the number of churches that they were opening. On the ground by 1973, Johansson could sense a coming need for more room. The congregation dedicated a new building in 1980, but he foresaw further expansion. Some people told A Journey that they thought at the time that Johansson was just letting ambition take hold. Yet, the pastor insisted that he sensed something that almost nobody else could see – a new day for faith was coming into the city. So, he asked his congregation to start looking for the next bigger space, but it wasn’t easy to find an affordable space for a church with a modest budget.
“We looked and looked and looked and looked,” Johansson explained. He tended to show the depth of his emotions by stretching out his repetitions. This was a 4-word stretch of big emotion, big frustration. Finally, the congregation just fell on the altar.
“We went into serious prayer, after seven years of looking.” And then miraculously a building, Public School 4, became available. The church bought the huge structure in 1987. There were even more doubters. “How can you ever refit that structure,” some said. Some admit that they whispered, “This is the Johansson brothers’ folly.” (His brother Paul had come back from missions to be his brother’s partner in the ministry.)
One reason the building was available was that the cost of refitting was so great. But Johansson was something of a visionary, a Holy Ghost man, and had “grit.” So, Johansson started a school too. In 1989 the church changed its name to Evangel Church.
There were building code and zoning issues. The bureaucratic governmental politics added years to the refit schedule. These took time. The pastor liked to tell people, “You can always negotiate the timeline, but you must never negotiate the vision.”
“We worked on it for two years, volunteer labor, and moved in 1999.” Additional space was added to house a congregation of 1800 people, a gym and offices. The whole project was finished in 2001. Subsequent Johansson ministries built upon this foundation.
In such struggles and sixty years of urban ministry, Johansson learned many lessons, which he readily shared. He was blunt, matter of fact, and God-orientated.
One of the basic lessons that he imparted to others was to be in relationships -- first with God, in order to do right while succeeding.
“I think that’s what the Lord wants for us, is to learn relationally,” Johansson told Journey before his sickness and death. “Look at this verse in Proverbs, ‘In all your ways acknowledge me.’”
The pastor had a way of giving a piercing look at you when he gave up a bit of wisdom. He had a relation with the Lord, and he wanted you to know that his relation to you was deep, based on the infinite depths and honesty of the God of the Bible.
“Think of that,” he said. “In all, a-l-l, all. And if you’ll do that, I will direct your paths.” That wasn’t easy for him to do either, he said. ‘”Acknowledge Me.’ ‘Acknowledge Me.’ Acknowledge that I am part of your life. Acknowledge that I rule and overrule everything.” Johansson whooshed out a breathe, then emphatically said, “That’s a long journey.”
The religious leader admitted that one problem for him was that he was a smart-aleck with God. “If there’s a reason why I didn’t want to acknowledge Him, it is because I’m too smart,” he chided himself. “But He says, ‘Lean not on your understanding.’”
Johansson reflected on his thoughts on reading this proverb as a kid. “Wow. Doesn’t that say throw your understanding away and become an idiot?” The elderly leader looked back on the mysterious ways of the city and the way life works out. “You aren’t always so smart to figure it all out,” he admitted.
It took years for him and his fellow leaders to find a new building. They gave it their all, but no results. They weren’t so smart! Then, they just fell on their knees; really, they fell back, Johansson remembered, to paying more attention to God than to their project. It was the relationship with God that needed repair.
They started to pray into their relationship, as he put it. “You don’t become an idiot, but you realize that there is something else at work…It had more to do with a relationship [to God], and that it can get lost in the shuffle.” Johansson flipped out his Bible again to point, “Listen to what He says, ‘Lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways, acknowledge me, and I will direct your paths.’
”See,” Johansson said. “He will bring it to past. This is really interesting stuff on how life makes sense in a relationship with God.”
In such a way, the pastor gave his sermonic wisdom to our young reporter. Then, he added some more.
He recalled another problem, that of mixing up our desires with God’s. He went back to that period of taking the big step toward a big foundation for the church’s future. “In that period of asking the Lord, we had to put our own ideas aside, because it is easy for those ideas to drop into where you think it’s God’s plan. You really have to start with a clean slate.”
Johansson pointed out how his big ideas tended to crowd out the real, honest relationship with God. He acknowledged how hard it was to order his life’s desires with God’s true desires. “Well, we prayed one day, then made it a week, then a whole year of fasting and prayer.” Finally, God brought their desires together with His. It wasn’t easy; God didn’t promise “no struggle.”
As Johansson looked out of the window and reflected upon his life, he exclaimed, “So, here we are. We did not know that this area was going upscale so much. We moved into an area of junk, emptied lots, and prostitutes. Now, there are twenty-one hotels going up around here.” Johansson said the church will face accommodating themselves to new challenges from a new community “that God has dropped us into.”
The church and Johansson’s friends will have time to reflect on Johansson’s legacy and their future at his Memorial service that will be held on Saturday, November 12th at Evangel Church NYC, 39-20 27th Street, Long Island City, Queens. 718-361-5454.
With reporting by Katherine Devorak