Update: The Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts died on Oct. 28, 2022.
The Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts has been pastor of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church since 1989. In his time at the church, he has been a leader in its Harlem neighborhood and in the city of New York, both as a pastor and as one of the founders of the Abyssinian Development Corporation.
The church was founded in 1808 and has been a center of the Harlem community since it moved in the 1920s to its current location, where under the leadership of Adam Clayton Powell Sr. it grew to become what was then the largest Baptist congregation in the world. Powell was succeeded by his son, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the first black man to be elected to Congress from New York.
Butts worked under Powell’s successor, Samuel Proctor, and in 1989 helped found the Abyssinian Development Corporation (ADC), which has been instrumental in creating $600 million in affordable housing, businesses and schools in Harlem.
Butts is also president of the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Old Westbury.
He spoke to Faith & Leadership while at Duke Divinity School to deliver the Gardner C. Taylor Lecture. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: You’ve been part of an institution with an incredible history and tradition, and yet you’ve pushed that institution to do innovative things in your community. How do you balance that?
Well, I guess I’ve been blessed, because I came to a congregation where everyone -- at least in the 20th century -- before me had been so innovative. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. was the one who convinced the church to move from its 40th Street location in midtown Manhattan to Harlem.
Adam Clayton Powell Sr. built this huge megachurch, which was new. Nobody had ever seen this before, particularly in the African-American community.
His son [Adam Clayton Powell Jr.] came in with fresh vision, big personality, new ideas. He became chairperson of [the U.S. House of Representatives] Education and Labor [Committee]. He was really the architect of the Great Society, or one of them. And he was pastor at the same time.
Then, after he left, Dr. Samuel Proctor came along and had been a premier educator. He brought that energy and thrust of dedication and knowledge. So -- new ideas, concepts, community development -- that’s the nature of Abyssinian.
I was blessed to come to a congregation where people were used to challenges, and they were used to following leadership, and they were used to visionary -- following a vision and building something new. So when I came with the rhetoric of the 60s and the dream of Dr. King and I was going to implement the dream, you know, people said, “OK, let’s go.”
For congregations where those kinds of traditions don’t exist and it’s more staid, I think it’s the ability of the leader to make the ear into an eye. The preacher has to present the word of God so forcefully and dramatically that people can see it. You’ve really got to invest in helping people to see what can happen.
It’s that way about our transition from this life to life everlasting. You’ve got to help people see heaven. They’ve got to see it not only with the eyes in their head but with the eyes of the heart. They’ve got to see streets paved with gold, or water as clear as crystal. You’ve got to see it and sense it. That’s the power of the Word, and that’s -- it’s the preaching of the gospel that exudes love and best wishes for the people.
You know, we want the best for you not only in this life but in life everlasting, life beyond this life. We want the best. We want you to be saved now. We want you to enter into eternal life now, into the kingdom now, but also to see what it can be, and then what you can do here. You can bring beauty out of ashes. You can create a table, you know, in the wilderness.
You can do whatever it is you want to do with God, and so you can take old housing that’s deteriorating and make it into new housing. You can build better educational institutions. You can create businesses so that people can work and eat and make a living, and that’s the role.
So if you’ve got a congregation that’s kind of staid and the tradition says all they do is worship and then close up the church and go home, it becomes the primary responsibility of the person of God who stands in that pulpit, through the proclamation of the Word, who sees the need that’s around him, to begin to move the people, and you must move them with love. You must move them with love.
The language of leadership is the language of love. Love for God, love for themselves and love for their fellow human beings. You know? And you can do everything else -- you can speak with the tongues of men and of angels, you can give your body to be burned, you can give everything to the poor -- but if it’s not motivated by love, it’ll take you nowhere. It profits you nothing.
It’s your responsibility. That’s what God has called you to do, to convince people of the love of God and to show them that their faith, if it does not produce works, is dead. And what are those works?
Well, what’s the need? And the need -- it could be housing, it could be education -- that’s the real responsibility of a leader.
Q: One of your innovations is the creation of the community development corporation. How did you come up with the idea?
As a younger minister, somewhere around 23 years of age, I would gather with the young people of our block, 138th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Malcom X boulevards, to play games, to dance, to have fun. We’d play basketball, stickball, skelly, whatever. We’d dance to the music of James Brown.
Generally on Friday, one of the members of our church, Ernestine Brown, would come to the window. She lived on the first floor of an old tenement, and she’d call the young preacher -- me -- and she’d present me with an aluminum foil package. Inside the package would be some freshly fried whiting fish and some bread pudding. I would take that and I would sit on the steps, the stoop of her building, and I would eat, and the fish and bread was so delicious, so heavenly delicious, that it became a ritual and I would expect it.
One Friday after a year or so, Ernestine was not in her window, and I wondered what had happened. She’d moved. She’d moved because the landlord had stopped caring for her building. No heat, no repairs; plumbing was broken. And then it really hit me -- it was not only her building.
We learned that landlords were abandoning their buildings. Their plan was to let the buildings fall to the tax rolls. Then they would form separate corporations and come and buy them back from the tax rolls under another identity, and then by that time the rent control would have been lifted and they would tear some of the buildings down, build market-rate housing, and gentrification would begin.
Well, when we discovered that, we said, “This is not acceptable.”
Of course -- you have to forgive me -- I was thinking about my fried whiting and bread pudding. But on a much more serious level, we were thinking about the members of our church who were being displaced, and many of them would not be able to find a place as Ernestine did.
So we spoke to our local City Council person, Frederick Samuel. He knew what was happening, because of his position with the city, and he partnered with us. We’d get a building for a dollar, work with a developer, a builder, renovate the building and [create] affordable housing.
We’ve been able to build 2,000 units of affordable housing. We’ve been able to build a supermarket. It’s hard to imagine that people can live in a community in the 20th and 21st century and not have a supermarket.
Most of the people were living in a welfare economy. That is, you pay more for a quart of milk; you pay more for a loaf of bread. And you were stuck, because you couldn’t travel to places where they had supermarkets, fresher foods, lower prices. We built one.
If you build housing where families can move into, you build supermarkets, you have to develop other commercial businesses, because people need pharmacies. They need shoe repair shops. People need hosiery stores. Well, if you’ve got families and commercial establishments, the other thing that you really need for family is schools, and the schools were in bad shape.
Because of our long history, because of the advocacy of one of our pastors, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and the tradition started by Adam Clayton Powell Sr., we were able to work with the teachers union in New York and the Department of Education to develop a new school, a new model, and that’s the Thurgood Marshall Academy. It’s a lower school, middle school and high school. It was the first new high school built in Harlem in over 50 years.
It was the result of a vision of a better community, a community-based, faith-based organization that could implement the vision, and the result of the influence of a community-based, faith-based organization within the city that could negotiate with government and private industry.
Q: What advice would you give to pastors who are interested in community development?
Abyssinian Baptist Church is the world’s first megachurch. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. had built Abyssinian into the largest Protestant congregation in the world. And while it does not rival today the 10,000- and 20,000- and 40,000-member churches that are around the country, it still has a very large congregation.
With a large congregation, you have many talented people -- lawyers, physicians, accountants, developers. The human resources that we have in our congregation allowed us to have a lot of in-kind help. Bringing these educators -- college professors, school teachers -- around the table and discussing some of the problems that faced us in the community also helped to build our development corporation.
The church took the leadership. We implemented the vision, and it has paid off greatly. There have been some challenges along the way, and we’re facing some challenges now as a result of the recession and other things, but we’re still strong, and we’re still negotiating, and we’ve been a model, because before us there really were no faith-based organizations of this size.
Q: What were the challenges as you scaled up?
Make sure that you have within your congregation the human resources that can help you. If you don’t have the human resources at that level, make sure that you have the material resources to afford the people who can help you.
Because once you move from a smaller operation into a more complex operation, once you begin to bring in public dollars and private dollars, you’re going to have to have the accounting, because not every not-for-profit is operating ethically, and the watchdogs are keen.
I am arguing for individual churches to be very careful about going too far, because it is extremely difficult to navigate and maintain a large operation without the resources.
I’ve learned that the hard way. I was looking and talking early on about having revenue streams apart from individual fundraising efforts to support your operation, but if you don’t have those revenue streams, you will discover that you are constantly trying to raise funds to keep in place an ever-growing organization.
It is often better for a number of churches to get together to form a community development organization not run by any pastor. I learned that the hard way.
You will always, in these community development organizations, run into ethical challenges and emotional challenges. [For example,] it’s an affordable housing project, but then one family is still having difficulty paying the rent. What do you do with people who can’t pay rent? Well, they should be evicted till we can find some way. Well, you don’t want the pastor evicting them. You don’t want to be in that kind of dilemma. And there are other kinds of challenges that will come up.
Q: You’ve mentioned learning things the hard way, and you’ve certainly come a long way since you were sitting on the stoop eating fried fish. How have you adjusted as a leader?
First of all, I had to understand more completely the systems of government with which I had to deal. I had to understand how the municipal government or the state government worked, and the federal government. So I had to expand my knowledge.
I had to negotiate my role as a prophet with my role as a statesperson. There’s a little compromise in that. I had to take more seriously the delicate position in terms of the exposure of the faith-based organization, of the faith organization, to potential attacks from the world. In other words, I had to increase the whole armor of God.
One thing that I preached to other ministers in a dogmatic way early on was to say to them, “Don’t become the chairperson of the board. Don’t become the executive director. Leave that to the men and women, laypeople. You leave it alone so that your prophetic voice is not compromised.”
Then around the celebration of our bicentennial at the Abyssinian Church, I was approached and they said, “Well, you know, the church is going to be 200 years old. You’re the founder of the development corporation; why don’t you become chairman of the board just for a year or so?” I said, “OK. For marketing purposes, OK.” And after the year was up, I should have left, and I didn’t.
And what that did was put me in a position whereby the compromises and the negotiation positions that I knew were coming -- because I had said so, so many times -- confronted me. And I became more of a statesman, I guess, than a prophet. I became more susceptible to compromise than putting forth what I considered to be the strong position of the Lord, and all of a sudden I was the one to respond to the cries of the community and questions about why we did this, why we did that.
It put me in an unusual position that did not allow me to exercise the kind of leadership that had brought the development corporation into being in the first place, because it would have threatened revenue streams.
Now, so I would say to the ministers who are -- who need to be in a prophetic position all the time, able to speak truth to power, “You don’t need to be fettered by the restrictions that will come as you have to negotiate the secular world in these situations. You need to be free to exercise your full leadership as inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that’s one of the challenges of community development.”
Q: You’ve been talking about the tension between the secular and the spiritual arenas of leadership, and I know there has been speculation as to whether you would run for office.
Well, there was -- and I guess there still is -- some tension within me about whether or not to run for office. I got as close as calling a church meeting one year to find out what the congregation thought, and it was split right down the middle almost, between young and old.
One of the reasons it was split is because many people had watched the career of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. as he was pastor of Abyssinian, and his last years were very difficult. I still think he was right. He was vindicated by the Congress, though he was never returned to his chairpersonship. But the older folks said, “Look, we don’t need to see another one of our ministers go through something like that.”
The younger folks were saying, “Yes, let’s go; we’re ready.” But when you’ve got a divided congregation like that, you know, the best thing to do is just leave it alone, and I walked away. I said, “No, I won’t run.”
If the U.S. Senate became a possibility, maybe we would look at that. But then, you know, after a certain age, you begin to wonder whether or not you really should. The Congress, not the Senate so much, but particularly the Congress and the City Council and those beg for younger people -- 40, 50. I’m beyond both of those, so I’m not sure …
But a good politician never says “never.”