NYC megachurch sued by women turned down for pastor job after Calvin O. Butts’ death

Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem, New York, a historically African American congregation whose history goes back to the early 19th century.
Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem, New York, a historically African American congregation whose history goes back to the early 19th century. | Facebook/The Abyssinian Baptist Church in the City of New York, Inc.

A landmark lawsuit has been filed against the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City for alleged gender discrimination in its selection process for a new senior pastor following the death of Calvin O. Butts III in 2022.

Eboni Marshall Turman, a former pastor at Abyssinian and a current Yale Divinity School professor, initiated the legal action after being excluded as a finalist for the role, The Associated Press reported.

Marshall Turman, who made history in 2007 as the youngest pastor ordained in Abyssinian’s 215-year history, alleges that sexism played a significant role in the decision, as stated in her lawsuit filed on Dec. 29, according to the newswire, which said the lawsuit names both the church and the search committee chair, Valerie S. Grant, accusing them of gender discrimination.

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The lawsuit seeks monetary damages for “lost wages, lost benefits, other economic damages, shame, humiliation, embarrassment, and mental distress,” and an injunction against hiring-related gender discrimination.

The church and Grant have denied these allegations. Abyssinian spokesperson LaToya Evans was quoted as saying that while Marshall Turman’s impressive background was considered, she did not meet certain key requirements. Grant described the selection process as rigorous, noting that Marshall Turman was one of 11 candidates shortlisted from 47 applicants but did not receive enough votes to advance.

The remaining candidates for the senior pastor role are all men, including the Rev. Kevin Johnson and Derrick Harkins.

Marshall Turman, whose research focuses on gender politics in black churches, has been vocal about the “theological erasure” and “violence” against black women in these institutions. Her forthcoming book, Black Women’s Burden: Male Power, Gender Violence, and the Scandal of African American Social Christianity, delves into these issues.

Marshall Turman’s lawsuit details her qualifications and the support she received from Butts, her ministry mentor.

The lawsuit comes in the wake of Butts’ death in October 2022, a loss mourned by a diverse community. Butts, who led the church for three decades, was celebrated for his commitment to social and racial justice. His memorial service saw tributes from figures like former President Bill Clinton and New York City Mayor Eric Adams, highlighting Butts’ influence in both religious and civic spheres.

“I talked to Reverend Butts, not long before he passed and by then we had been friends a long time,” Clinton said at the time, as reported by The Christian Post.

“I came here seeking his support, in this hallowed place, and I didn't get it the first time. And then when I won, he said, 'You know, you must remember this is an active church, and I have an active faith, and the book of James says that faith is fine, but without works, it's dead. So, I will know your faith by your works,'” the former president recalled. “And he said that in so many words to a lot of us. And in the power of his living example, he demonstrated his faith, by his wonderful words from this sacred pulpit, but also by his works.”

Adams said: “I remember studying to become a lieutenant and someone pulled up next to my car and … shot out my car windows after calling out my name. And I remember speaking to Reverend Butts. And he said, 'Now it's time for you not just to read but to believe,'” he said.

“I remember going to testify in federal court to stop police misconduct and overproliferation of stop and frisk and hearing Dr. Butts. I remember when music was demonizing black women in our community, and he came with that big construction roller and rolled over the CDs,” he recalled. “Long before people were talking about don't advertise alcohol and cigarettes in our community to harm our community, he had a white roller brush painting over the posters and said, ‘lock me up if you want to because I'm going to stand on truth.’”

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