The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III’s chair was left empty during a Sunday service dedicated to his memory at Abyssinian Baptist Church. His Bible was placed on the seat and his robe draped over the chair.Credit…Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times
Community Mourns the Rev. Calvin Butts III, an Institution in Harlem
As reported by Corey Kilgannon & Lauren McCarthy, The New York Times
Congregants and neighbors remembered a pastor who they said was determined to fight racism and lift up the Black community.
Sitting in the front row of the Abyssinian Baptist Church’s upstairs pews on Sunday for the first service since the Harlem church’s beloved pastor died, Lisa White-Tingling began to tear up.
“I’m not ready for this,” she said. “I’m not ready for him not to be here.”
The church gathered for a special service to honor the pastor, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, who died on Friday at age 73. The news of his death hit hard in Harlem, especially among the church’s mostly Black congregation, and the sermon addressed congregants’ collective grief.
Preaching to rows of fully packed pews, the Rev. Marvin A. McMickle, a lifelong friend of the pastor, shared a message of resilience in the face of sudden loss and reminded the congregation of one of Mr. Butts’s favorite phrases: “Keep the faith”— originally associated with his predecessor at the church, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
Mr. Butts was an influential figure in New York, a shrewd and occasionally controversial practitioner of politics. He sometimes worked with Republicans, despite Harlem’s deep Democratic ties. He sometimes sparred with other Black leaders, like the Rev. Al Sharpton.
“We were his ‘beloved,’ we were his family, this was his community,” said Roslyn Scott on Friday as she left Abyssinian, where she’s been a member since 1991. “He embraced the community wholeheartedly.”
Through the Abyssinian Development Corporation, the nonprofit that he helped form, he funneled some $1 billion into local residential and commercial projects. The corporation created schools, commercial development and affordable housing and provided social services, a model that helped transform the neighborhood and that other development companies created by religious institutions sought to copy.
Mr. Butts fought against the proliferation of billboards for advertising liquor and cigarettes in the neighborhood, Ms. Scott, a retired social worker, recalled. “Pastor Butts would speak against it, march against it, because he cared,” she said. “The ads came down, we started getting more necessary businesses.”
While Mr. Butts embraced compromise when necessary, he was forceful in criticizing racism and police brutality.
As a young pastor, he was quick to condemn the police shootings of several Black New Yorkers, said former Gov. David Paterson, who got to know Mr. Butts while Mr. Paterson was a state senator representing Harlem beginning in the 1980s.
Like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Mr. Butts hated complacency, Mr. Paterson said in a phone interview Friday evening.
While some Black church leaders would preach that “Jesus is going to come around and everything’s going to be OK, people like Dr. King didn’t want to wait around, and neither did Butts,” Mr. Paterson said.
He added that Mr. Butts was not hesitant to publicly criticize senior Black leaders from Harlem who he thought were not standing up to City Hall and Albany.
Mr. Butts derided them as “the old guard,” Mr. Paterson said, adding, “He changed the atmosphere and community around him.”
Mr. Butts grew up in public housing in Manhattan and later in a house in Queens and graduated from the predominantly white Flushing High School. After attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, he earned a master of divinity degree at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan in 1975.
After coming to Abyssinian at age 22, he spent decades pushing housing initiatives in Harlem that helped shield residents in danger of being pushed out by gentrification.
On Friday evening, as news of his death spread, church members and neighbors stopped by to pay their respects and lay down flowers.
“That was his church right there,” a mother said to her young son as they walked by.
“He was an institution,” a man said as he and his daughter stopped briefly.
Keith L.T. Wright, a former assemblyman from Harlem, called Mr. Butts’s death “a great loss for Harlem, for the Abyssinian Baptist Church and for me.”
A political endorsement from Mr. Butts “carried its weight in gold,” Mr. Wright said in a statement. He also praised Mr. Butts’s work “on so many of the issues that mattered to the people of Harlem, from health care to police brutality to affordable housing.”
Mayor Eric Adams, at an unrelated news conference on Friday, called Mr. Butts a mentor and “a real giant in our city.”
“Speaking with him recently as we dealt with the issues around the migrant crisis and other crises, he has been a constant leader,” Mr. Adams said.
Not everyone praised Mr. Butts. Michael Henry Adams, a Harlem-based preservationist and writer, criticized him as “a first-class opportunist” who waffled on issues and political allegiances in exchange for handouts and favors for his church. Numerous development projects that Mr. Butts supported wound up destroying historical Harlem buildings, Mr. Adams said.
But to his congregants and others who benefited from his work in the neighborhood he loved, it was a time of mourning for a great figure of Harlem.
A row behind Ms. White-Tingling, Desireé Laster Hayes, a member of the church for a decade, settled into her regular pew. “It’s a major loss,” said Ms. Laster Hayes. “The wisdom, his taste in music, his depth of Black excellence, it’s the whole reason I came to this church.”
It was her first time returning to Abyssinian in person since the beginning of the pandemic, but it was an occasion she could not miss.
Mr. Butts’s son, Calvin O. Butts IV, addressed the crowded church during the service on Sunday, which was uncharacteristically closed to tourists. “As we were coming out of the pandemic, this is the sight that my father wanted to see most: the Abyssinian church filled with worshipers ready to serve and praise God,” he said.
He added: “He’d probably also joke and say ‘What took y’all so long?’”