One of New York City’s revered religious and community leaders The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III died on Oct. 28. The faith leader led Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York City. He was 73.
His son Calvin O. Butts IV said the cause was pancreatic cancer, The New York Times reported.
Butts served at the Abyssinian Baptist Church for more than 30 years. The Abyssinian Baptist Church is considered the first Black Baptist congregation in the state of New York, CNN reported.
Political candidates, from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama, always made a visit with Butts and a stop to the Abyssinian Baptist Church as part of their campaign strategies.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a statement that Butts “embodied true spiritual leadership — with a commitment to faith, community, & mentorship that [she] was honored to witness in [their] work together.”
Born on July 19, 1949, in Bridgeport, Conn., he learned to read in a one-room schoolhouse in Georgia and visited his grandparents there during the summer. He was raised until he was 8 in the Lillian Wald Houses, a public-housing project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, according to the church’s website.
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His family moved to a private home in Queens. Graduating from a predominantly white high school, he was elected president of the senior class, in 1967, The New York Times reported. He was admitted to Trinity College in Hartford. Unable to afford the tuition at Trinity, he attended the historically Black Morehouse College in Atlanta on a partial scholarship.
He majored in philosophy and minored in religion, graduating in 1972. Although he originally planned to pursue a career in industrial psychology or to teach philosophy to undergraduates, but a recruiter urged him to Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan.
Butts earned a master of divinity degree there in 1975 and a doctor of ministry in church and public policy from Drew University.
It was in 1808 when the Abyssinian Baptist Church was established as the first African-American Baptist church in New York state by a group of people who refused to accept segregated seating in the First Baptist Church of New York City,” according to its website. The church moved to Harlem.
Butts was hired by the church when he was a 22-year-old seminarian, and became known for his soaring sermons. He used his role to spearhead change in the Black community, helping revive Harlem with housing, a supermarket and other commercial development, and a high school, The New York Times reported.
He also worked with local hip-hop artists to promote anti-violent messages in their lyrics.
Butts also helped create the Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change, a public intermediate and high school in Harlem.
He was the president of the State University of New York College of Old Westbury on Long Island from 1999 to 2020. He was also the president of the Council of Churches of the City of New York from 1998 to 2008; the chairman of the Harlem Y.M.C.A.; the president of Africare NYC, which sought to improve life in rural Africa; and a member of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS.
Rev. Butts was the chairman of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, “a community based, not-for-profit organization responsible for over $1 billion in housing and commercial development in Harlem,” his official church biography says.
“Reverend Butts worked more effectively than any other leader at the intersection of power, politics and faith in New York,” Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation and former chief operating officer of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, told The New York Times. “He understood the role of faith in our lives, especially in the Black community.
“But he also understood power and how to wield it and how to demand power from those who often sought to hoard it. And so he was a pragmatist, he was a realist, but he was also a dreamer.”
FILE – From left, Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Rev. Calvin O. Butts of the Abyssinian Church, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, and New York Knicks Steve Francis pose for a photograph in New York, Dec. 21, 2006. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)