The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, Dynamic Harlem Pastor, Dies at 73

Oct 28, 2022 · 75 comments
Carl Ian Schwartz (Paterson, NJ)
Some years ago, in the cold of winter, my late French client (and friend) visited New York and asked me to suggest which Black church to visit. I checked with my Eastside Park neighbors who were originally from New York, and they all suggested the Abyssinian Baptist Church. It was a very cold Sunday when we drove there and entered for services. What awaited me I didn't know. But Dr. Butts made EVERYONE attending feel welcome, and the service was a revelation to both me and my friend, who was an observant Muslim originally from Mauretania. With Dr. Butts in the pulpit, God was truly in that house, and all who attended felt at home. My client died prematurely from complications of malaria. I'm now 71. And death claimed Dr. Butts at 73. I can feel mortality all around me, but a faith leader like Dr. Butts made all present feel that something better was ahead.
Linda Burke, M.D. (Orlando, Florida)
Long before I became a physician, I would go to Abyssinian on Sunday mornings, listen to Dr. Butts preach and pray to God to allow me to become a physician. I honestly believe that his prayers helped me get accepted into med school. Although he gave many speeches, the one most memorable for me was the Post 9/11 rally. Please listen to it and be inspired. Fly high, dear Angel. You have earned your wings. Your physical presence will be greatly missed but your legacy is eternal.
Carol Frances Johnston (Indianapolis)
At Union Seminary in the mid-seventies there was a cohort of Black students who all stood out as extraordinarily gifted, including Calvin Butts. Dr. James Cone mentored them all with a caring passion that propelled them (and not a few white students like myself).
Eric S (Vancouver WA)
Rev. Butts lived through a very tumultuous period of US Black history, which I observed as a young adult. The assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King was a particularly shocking and provocative moment, that shaped future attitudes about racial relations. The similar death of Malcom X, a more radical Black leader, had a different but polarizing impact. Butts seems to have been affected by both of these events, but came away with a positive message eventually for his members and other followers. We must all learn to get along, a matter which needs to be considered, even more emphatically today. Rev. Butts leaves us, at a time, when he continuing influence could have been most useful.
kkm (NYC)
Sincere condolences to Reverend Butts’ family, friends and faith community. Very much in the tradition of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the Reverend Calvin Butts was a powerful inspiration of social justice advocacy. May he rest in the light of eternal peace.
Harlem (NY)
Forgotten in the obit that the "Abyssinian Baptist Church's real estate and social services arm stopped filing mandatory federal financial disclosure forms. In 2014, it sold two buildings — the Renaissance Ballroom and the Pathmark Building — for more than $50 million in two separate deals" Today sits an empty lot which once was the Pathmark Supermarket and the Ballroom was destroyed due to neglect.
Nadine (NYC)
I will never forget how the brilliant respected reverend showed up at a small street rally in front of the Argentine embassy in Midtown NYC soon after the car bombing by Iranian terrorists of Jewish community center in 1994 in Buenos Aires where 85 died were attending a wedding. The protest was about the Argentine police and government inaction to warn the center when it knew of the threat by Hezbollah. Also the terrorists and the leaders were never arrested and flew out given sanctuary in Iran. No one was arrested in the 1992 car bombing of the Israeli embassy there either. Calvin Butts was a true humanitarian and fought against hate wherever in the world it took root. Many of the churches along adam clayton boulevard were formerly syngagogues with the star of david still displayed in the masonry. Ties with Jews from the African American community run deep. The brilliant W.E.B Dubois was supported financially by Jews like Helen Wald and Schiff upstate in the formation of the NAACP early in the 20th century.. I was at the rally because I have relatives in Buenos Aires and was asked to take over from another attendee and hold up her plackard. It was an honor. The media was not present Things have gone downhill against Jews worldwide than in 1994. 60% of religious hate crimes is targeting Jews in US according to the FBI and almost 50% in Canada in 2021. Reverend Butt's voice is needed more than ever.
Brenda S. Williams (New Jersey)
My first thought upon hearing of Reverend Dr. Butts' passing was one of extreme sadness. I began livestreaming Abyssinian Baptist Church Services approximately two-plus years ago, and always found meaning in Rev. Dr. Butts' sermons, ruminations, and his folksy-style as he recognized certain members of his congregation. It follows that I was delighted to see him at the Church Homecoming Service on September 11,2022; and found myself watching it again tonight on YouTube. My second thought was one of disgust, as the journalist who wrote his obituary never referred to him as Dr. Butts but continued, throughout the article, to refer to him as Mr. Butts even after acknowledging that a Doctorate was earned at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.
math365 (CA)
He died with a net worth of $5 million.
Paul (Brooklyn)
I did not agree with him on everything but compared to the demagogue, grand stander, Sharpton he looked like MLK. We need more voices like him in the Black community or any community. RIP Rev. and condolences to the family.
Lilah K (Atlanta, GA)
Rest in heavenly peace.
Pieter Mostert (Dorchester, UK)
And then there were the tourists, visitors from all over the world who gathered on W 138 St. We waited till we were ushered inside. It was 2011-2012. I can still visualise where I sat and where reverend Butts stood and delivered a sermon as I had never heard it done before. For me he was the first pastor who spoke to all of us, white and black, local and foreign, young and old. He addressed all of us in our own language. From that day I have been studying the art of oracy and changed my style of teaching radically.
john curious (hell’s kitchen)
Does anyone else remember the piece by Graham Rayman about the late pastor that appeared in the Village Voice on April 17, 2013?
Brian R (Brooklyn)
Rev. Butts was fantastic. I heard him preach a few times and marveled at his oratory skills. He impacted tens of thousands of lives. The best part was that he was a man of God who put people over politics and fame. Have to love and respect his legacy. He will be missed.
Wyn Birkenthal (Brevard NC)
My previous knowledge about Rev. Butts was sketchy and incomplete. I knew he was accomplished as an activist and an orator. On the other side of the ledger I carried a vague memory of his refusal to categorically condemn Louis Farrakhan. Sam Roberts article did an outstanding job of providing context for that incident and shedding light on the life, times and the voluminous good works of Reverend Calvin O. Butts.
A (WI)
Dear Old Morehouse...
Blackmamba (IL)
Reverend.Calvin Butts was a real articulate clever cunning consistent btilliant effective civil rights leader. Revrrenf Butts was also a great scholarly insightful intlellectual wise humble humane empathetic pastor preacher . In one of America's greatest Black African American Churches and most famous neighborhoods he was a nstionsl figure. ' We are such stuff as dreams are made on. And our little life is riunded with a sleep'. .from " The Tempest' by William Shakespeare Act IV Scene I 'To speak the name of the dead is to make them live again' Ancient Egyptian proverb
Quoth the Raven (Michigan)
Reverend Butts reminded us that men of God can, indeed, be Godly. He set an example for the rest of those who only purport to be, and in the process, left a lasting impact by bettering lives, his community, and beyond.
farhorizons (philadelphia)
As usual, Al Sharpton will try to muscle in on Rev. Butts's achievements and try to claim him. Calvin Butts is/was head and shoulders, in integrity, character and true efficacy, than the phony self-ambitious Sharpton.
reaylward (st simons island, ga)
Blacks and Jews marching and dying together in the racist South in the 1960s continues to be an inspiration to me, the comity between them contrasting sharply with the animosity between people with differences today. We need people like Rev. Butts to show us the way.
Jack OCONNELL (Brooklyn)
I am saddened and surprised. Dr Butts was President of SUNY Old Westbury for 20 years and it is never mentioned in the obit.
Bret (Brooklyn)
I’m glad to have called Reverend Butts my fraternity brother. I met him on a couple of occasions. The brothers of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Incorporated morn the loss of a great brother!
BillBiely (Illinois)
NYC made quite an impression on a kid from the country when I went to graduate school there in the 90s. A sermon by Reverend Butts was one of the greater of the lot.
Lorenzo Jones (Bronx, NY)
Reverend Butts was such a wonderful man of vision. I have worked with and met most civil rights leaders over the past sixty years, and Rev. Butts combined all the best elements that brought love and God to his neighborhoods.
Killoran (Lancaster)
Rev. Butts' approach to affordable housing was just one. Another one--built around "citizen power"-- was the work of the East Brooklyn Congregations and the similar IAF affiliate in the Bronx. Those "Nehemiah Houses" avoided the top-down model built around a single powerful (usually) pastor such as Rev. Butts.
J Duncan (Detroit)
I was pleased to meet Rev. Dr. Butts in 1999 when Drew University Theological School recognized his powerful ministry. He was among many Drew alumni who served as an inspiration to my own advocacy of faith-based community development. I'll remember him as a great saint.
Stilwyn (North Carolina)
A giant has fallen! A great loss. Condolences to his family and parishioners.
Vesuviano (Altadena, California)
He was a great man, and I'm sorry he is gone. We will need his kind in the coming months and years. Rest in Peace.
Keith Greenough (Dedham, MA)
Thank you for this very inspiring obituary! The amount he accomplished, his generosity of time and spirit, and the good will he created among so many is such an extraordinary legacy. Plus, I notice in every photo he is always beautifully dressed!
WeWantPie (New York, NY)
I vividly recall Rev. Butts' visiting our Conservative synagogue on the Upper West Side, not long after he had been pilloried for a supposed agreement with Louis Farrakhan. He did NOT agree with Farrakhan about my faith community, and my beloved rabbi, Marshall T. Meyer (may his memory be a blessing forever) welcomed him warmly to our shul. I will also never forget the beautiful Pesach Seder our shul shared with the Abyssinian Baptist community. Many, many years ago, but still a clear and wonderful memory of community and caring.
Chris (New York)
A man of faith, a spiritual leader, a poet, an orator, an educator, a counselor, and a cool and inspiring brother. He is gone, but his legacy will live on for the ages.
Sunwatcher (San Diego)
I man of great intellect who didn't so much create a "bully pulpit" as a gathering of minds and differing opinions. You didn't go to his sermons to be yelled at or for cheap oratorical flourishes but to learn. A true man of God.
Kevin (Colorado)
I am glad Mr. Roberts thoroughly fleshed out Rev. Butts huge impact in so many aspects of society over the decades. It was fortunate that he never ended up choosing politics and becoming a politician, because when you stack up what he managed to get accomplished, he had weeks where he got more accomplished for the least fortunate than most politicians do in a lifetime and more often than not it was outside of the spotlight.
DCKwood (Bronxville, New York)
May his memory be a blessing.
jaxcat (florida)
The good die way too young.
George S. (NYC)
The many homes he built and the people housed in them will be a lasting legacy in his honor. Anyone passing by on MNR south of 125th Street can see the blocks of homes the Reverend reaped from what had been barren blocks for decades. NYC lost a true leader today.
Jack (Long island)
A truly significant loss for Harlem. Losses like these create moral and leadership vacuums. At a time we certainly don't need one.
Andrew (Naples)
God bless him. He called abortion a sin.
Ahuva (10504 since 1989)
@Andrew Nobody's perfect. For that, he was entirely mistaken.
Darrell Diggins (New Orleans)
He called racism a sin, too. Many times.
JamesG (New York, NY)
I was at work on a book about the Scottsboro Case when the news came that Clarence Norris, the last known living Scottsboro defendant had died. I called the NYC NAACP to find out what people there knew about the funeral and they told me the day and time, at the ABC, with Rev. Calvin O. Butts III presiding. He gave a glorious eulogy, mixing history and current events and scripture. I describe the funeral and the eulogy in the very last chapter of my book. Too short, but a wonderful life. May his memory be a blessing.
Paula (Seattle)
I wish children all over the country could read about him in history books.
Guy Wiggins (NYC)
Wow. What a life. What a leader!
FarealDoe (brooklyn)
RIP
Sophocles (USA)
The Rev. Dr. Sen. Raphael Warnock was a protégé of the Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts III.
WeWantPie (New York, NY)
@Sophocles - Yes, and yet another reason to urge all of your friends and acquaintances in Georgia to VOTE BLUE!!!
Martha (NYC)
@Sophocles And is also a great man and faithful servant.
Miss B (Atlanta)
@Sophocles And how blessed we Georgians are to have him as our Senator!
David (Bx)
Huge loss. A true Servant of the Lord. Dr. Butts always had a quick-witted joke too. Remember to send in your tithes and offerings from vacation! God bless his family and Abyssinian. They are really hurting.
Dan (Brooklyn)
RIP Rev. Butts. He was a pillar of New York.
Denise (NYC)
Oh, when I come To the end of my journey Weary of life And the battle is won Carrying the staff And the cross of redemption He'll understand, And say "Well done" Well done Rev Butts, well done!
jeff saperstein (mill valley, california)
Calvin Otis Butts was a fellow student in some of my classes at Flushing High School I knew him casually. He was an outstanding student and president of our senior class (in an almost all-white high school) in 1967. He attained greatness for the Black community in NY and was a major power in raising funds for his community. I regret not knowing him better, but he rose from humble beginnings and seemed to have a well-lived life.
Damfino (NYC)
Some old guy died recently and all the obits told me how many billions he was worth. “What a waste,” I thought, “how absurd that anyone should have ten-thousand times the wealth of a merely rich man, and here we celebrate it?” But today I read of a man who I knew of but little of and I read that he “raised $1 billion to remake America’s most storied and influential Black neighborhoods.” And I thought, “Now there is a real billionaire!”
Blackmamba (IL)
@Damfino In the beginning there was the separate and equal African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania born and led by Richard Allen at Bethel. The Black African American Christian Protestant Church was the most powerful institution defending, protecting and defending their congregation and community divinely naturally created equal person with certain unalienable rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Sse Matthew 24; 31-46
Guy Wiggins (NYC)
No kidding. My brain boggles at what he achieved.
farhorizons (philadelphia)
@Damfino Thank you for this.
MOL (New York)
At a time NYC and the nation can use so many leaders like Rev. Butts, it seems they are leaving us. May his life serve as a model for future generations. His life also shows how one person can make a difference. May he rest in peace knowing he made a difference in Harlem, the City of NY, and at SUNY Old Westbury and other educational institutions. A life well-lived.
Juan (Columbus)
A great man gone too early. My condolences to the family, and may he Rest In Peace!
Ignatius (NY)
I think many of his parishioners would say that he was a light unto the world. He followed in Martin Luther King's tradition. He also and importantly followed the Gospel and preaching justice and love. I will pray for the repose of his soul. Condolences to his family.
michjas (Phoenix)
As a man of the cloth, he surely had views that would clash with secular upscale whites. Not speaking of these views is a means of avoiding inconvenient truths. However, inconvenient truths should be acknowledged, not avoided.
GY (NYC)
@michjas One truth is that he was about getting it done for Harlem, in a way that was participatory for the community and respectful of their experience, history and priorities. And he used influence, money, power, networks and yes, politics to make inroads.
Kindnest (Newark)
Whose inconvenient truths? I love- ‘Don’t treat me like a boy and tell me what to do.’
Maryrose (New York)
I have a kind story about him told to me from another. Too long to post. But it warmed my heart today. May he rest in peace.
Sophocles (USA)
@Maryrose ahhh...please share it.
Arlene Heyman (New York)
@Maryrose Come on, Maryrose, please tell us the story. I like long stories. And a heartwarming story in this dreadful political atmosphere in which someone thinks it's ok to go looking for Nancy Pelosi with a hammer--a heartwarming story would do us all good. And Butts sounds like an extraordinary fellow. And may another extraordinary fellow, another pastor win in Georgia!
David (Bx)
@Maryrose He was a very nice man. Pure class through and through.
Randy Snow (Chicago)
I got to hear him speak when I was a college student. Definitely a powerfully inspirational figure. I respected that he was his own man who put words into action.
Kathrine (Austin)
This is the kind of person we need in leadership roles in this country. May his memory be a blessing.
left coast finch (L.A.)
@Kathrine Amen, Kathrine, like as described below: “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.”
Tony (New York City)
Rev. Butts lll has been our leader not just in NYC but across this country for so many year's .His words did matter and he was our connection all the time to the pass and how long the struggle has bee. It is hard to think of all of the tomorrow's without his voice , his determination to bring justice , to right the wrong's. We will neer have the chance to reflect on his words again. We all know we have a very limited time on earth it doesn't make the passing any easier for all of the rest of us who are left behind. We know that God will hold your family in the palm of his hands forever. No words can ever Thank you Rev. Butts lll for everything you did for the people of NYC and this country. Rev. Butts lll we will carry on because you gave us the words to describe our struggles and showed us over and over again how we have to overcome. You showed us the way and now it is up to us to be the light for other's. As President Biden said " Failure is not an Option" Thank you NYT for capturing the essence of Rev. Butts lll
Jeff (Northern California)
@Tony A fine eulogy, Tony.
K.W. Roberts (dukealumvandy)
An absolute king and emphatically one of the most influential Black thought leaders and civil rights leaders of this era. Easter 2018 saw a very pregnant me, my husband, and our older child in the highest stands at Abyssinian for the Easter service to hear from Rev. Butts. We got there late (hence the balcony only seats) because I was heavily pregnant with our baby, who would be born about a week later. The loss of breath and sweatiness from me was worth it to hear a word from this man of God. He will be very much missed—praying and hoping for a new pastor that is such a dynamo with a very deep and wide ranging impact.
Guy Wiggins (NYC)
Huge shoes to fill
DocC (CT)
He was his own man.
Arlene Heyman (New York)
@DocC Sam Roberts writes excellent obituaries. A question: why no mention of Rev Butts's 50 years long marriage and his three children? People like to know about the personal life of heroes.
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