Calvin O. Butts III, Legendary NYC Pastor, Dies at 73 – NBC New York

Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, senior pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and one of New York City’s most influential religious and community leaders, died Friday at 73.

“It is with profound sadness, we announce the passing of our beloved pastor, Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, lll, who peacefully transitioned in the early morning of October 28, 2022. The Butts Family & entire Abyssinian Baptist Church membership solicit your prayers,” the church tweeted. No cause of death was given.

Butts was celebrating 50 years with the famed church this year. In the 1980s, he founded the Abyssinian Development Corp. to redevelop the areas around the church with retail and residential buildings. Its stated mission was to “rebuild Harlem, brick by brick, block by block.”

In the 1990s, Butts garnered national attention for a campaign against what he condemned as the misogyny of rap music. In 1993, he famously had a steamroller crush hundreds of rap CDs outside the church.

“Rap is an extremely powerful art form,” Butts said at a debate with rapper Ice-T. “It comes from the creativity of African people. And anything that comes from our creativity is powerful, and it grabs. And therefore we want to make sure that as it grabs it also shapes in a constructive and redemptive way our young people to continue our progress against the evils that try to crush us.”

In addition to his religious work, he was also an academic, serving as president of SUNY Old Westbury for more than two decades, from 1999 to 2020. He also worked with political leaders across the ideological spectrum.

In 1995, Republican Gov. George Pataki appointed Butts to two state boards that controlled economic development grants to businesses. That same year, Butts hosted then-Cuban leader Fidel Castro at Abyssinian, where the fatigues-wearing communist received a hero’s welcome.

Butts surprised many by endorsing Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, saying the endorsement “was not and is not and will not become a race-based decision for me.” Butts later said he was “overjoyed” when Obama was Elected as the first Black president of the United States that November.

Butts’ impact extended far beyond his church’s walls. In 1989, he established the nonprofit Abyssinian Development Corp. to develop moderate-income housing, retail, schools and other projects in the surrounding neighborhood.

Butts helped mobilize church leaders to support programs for AIDS patients in the 1980s and more recently set up a COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Abyssinian to encourage community residents to get immunized against the virus.

Tributes to Butts poured in Friday.

“Rev. Butts was a major pillar in the Harlem community and is irreplaceable. He was a dominant faith and academic leader for decades,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a statement. “We spoke as late as a couple of weeks ago about this work, as he was still fighting cancer. He will be tremendously missed.”

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul called Butts “a force for moral clarity, a voice for his Harlem community, a counselor to so many of us in public service” and said she was proud to call him a friend.

The man Hochul succeeded last year, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, called Butts “a man of substance and of values ​​to whom the term ‘public service’ doesn’t begin to describe the impact he had on this city and this state.”

Butts was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and grew up in the New York City borough of Queens. He graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta, then returned to the New York area and earned a master’s degree from Union Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Drew University. He began his ministry at Abyssinian while in graduate school.

Like other churches, Abyssinian was forced to go online-only in the first months of the coronavirus pandemic and then gradually reopened.

The church hosted a private memorial service for the pioneering Black actor Cicely Tyson last year, with Bill and Hillary Clinton and Tyler Perry in attendance. Butts praised Tyson as an example of “an example of how we all might live.”

Butts’ survivors include his wife, Patricia, three children and six grandchildren.

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