It’s the church of choice for Bieber and Durant. It’s where the cool kids spend Sunday morning after Saturday night at the club. For ye of little faith, it’s hard to make sense out of Hillsong. Is it legit? Is it a hipster cult? And why’s everyone wearing Saint Laurent? GQ’s Taffy Brodesser-Akner joins the flock to find out if Christianity can really be this cool and still be Christian.
What if I told you I had a Justin Bieber story that would break your heart? Or at the very least, put an asterisk on what you think of him? No, listen: About five years ago, Pastor Carl got a phone call. Carl is one of the lead pastors at Hillsong NYC, a mega-church so reputedly, mystifyingly cool that cable-news outlets cover its services like they’re Kardashian birthday bashes at 1 Oak. On the other end of the line was one of Carl’s best friends, Judah Smith, another mega-pastor who also happens to be the chaplain for the Seattle Seahawks. “I need you to help me with a young man,” Pastor Judah said, and Pastor Carl rushed to agree, because helping is Carl’s thing, and the young man was, yes, Justin Bieber.
In general, people are critical of Justin Bieber for his many alleged human-rights abuses—I heard he once used a wheelchair to cut in line at Disneyland—and this upsets Pastor Carl, because Justin “lives his life on Front Street,” which is a southern way of saying that we can see all that he does, while we get to conduct our sins in relative anonymity. But no Christian, no person, could live under the scrutiny that Justin faces, says Pastor Carl. “This boy is 21. He’s in a horribly toxic world. He is trying to do his best to figure this out. He has never been anybody but who he has professed to be, which is a work in progress.”
Last year, Justin moved in with Carl and his family for a month and a half, and they worked through stuff. During that time, Carl says, he saw tabloid reports about horrible things Justin was supposedly doing, when meanwhile Justin had been sitting there in his kitchen the whole time.
It is helpful to think of Justin Bieber here, at this point in his life, as a biblical character at the very bottom of a Jobian well of his own making. He had been caught being monstrous to just about everyone around him. He seemed to be spending more time with drugs than with Jesus. His music was bad. There was a petition circulating online to deport him back to Canada. I may have signed it. But one day, according to Carl, Justin looked in the mirror and he was ravaged by feelings of loss. He got on his knees and he cried. “I want to know Jesus,” Justin Bieber sobbed to Pastor Carl. And so together they prayed. Suddenly, Justin was overcome by the Gospel, and he said, “Baptize me.” And Pastor Carl said, “Yes, buckaroo”—he really does call Bieber buckaroo, and now you should, too—“let’s do this. Let’s schedule a time.” But Justin Bieber couldn’t be Justin Bieber for one minute longer. “No, I want to do it now.” And Pastor Carl saw salvation in Justin’s eyes, and knew that his baptism couldn’t come quickly enough.
Hillsong, which began in Australia, has outposts all over the globe, from Kiev to Paris to Buenos Aires. The church landed in New York City in 2010, with a branch at the Manhattan nightclub Irving Plaza, a branch at a theater in Times Square, and a branch in an auditorium at Montclair State University. On any given Sunday, Hillsong NYC salves the souls of 8,000 people, and what souls: Justin Bieber, yes, but also Kendall Jenner and Selena Gomez and Kevin Durant and Bono. “People say we cater to celebrities,” Pastor Carl tells me. “And I say, yes, we do. Celebrities deserve a relationship with God. Celebrities deserve a place to pray.” So do all of God’s children, he says. And so they save seats in a special section for celebrities, but also for people in wheelchairs and single mothers who were running late. But it’s easier for God’s children to find a peaceful home in which to pray than it is for, say, Damon Dash.
Anyway, I wasn’t done with the Justin Bieber story. So Justin wanted/needed a baptism posthaste, and Pastor Carl and Pastor Judah and Justin Bieber got into a car, and one of the church’s body men drove them in one of the church’s Suburbans to the Manhattan hotel where Hillsong rents the pool for baptisms. But when they got there, hundreds of people stood waiting—someone had tipped off the tabloids. Pastor Carl called a friend whose apartment complex has a pool, but when they arrived, dozens of people were waiting there, too.
“So I called my boy,” Carl says. Carl has many boys, but in this case his boy was Tyson Chandler, who was then on the New York Knicks. It was 2 A.M. by now. The Knicks had beaten the Miami Heat earlier that night. He knew Tyson lived in a fancy Upper West Side building with a pool. “I said, ‘Bro, I’m in a jam here. I have JB with me, he wants to get baptized.’ He’s like, ‘Done. Easy.’ ” But they arrive and there’s no access to the pool; it’s too late. Then Tyson realizes he might have another solution. He reminds Carl that he’s seven feet tall and that his bathtub was built to spec. Justin Bieber is slightly tinier than that, and so they go upstairs to Tyson’s place, and Tyson’s wife makes some food and lays down some towels and Justin gets into the tub, and down Justin Bieber goes, and he comes out of the water, and he is reborn.
And that is an image that will stick with you, let me tell you: Justin Bieber, on his knees in Tyson Chandler’s bathtub, wet and sobbing against Pastor Carl’s chest, so unable to cope with being himself that he has to be born anew, he has to be declared someone entirely different, in order to make it through the night.
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