Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, remembered as man of faith and truth at memorial
A diverse community of grieving family, politicians and Christian disciples packed the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem Friday to celebrate the life of the church’s longtime pastor and community leader, Calvin O. Butts III, who was remembered as a man of faith, truth and conviction.
Butts, who was also known as a force for both social and racial justice, died on Oct. 28, at the age of 73, from pancreatic cancer after leading Abyssinian Baptist Church for three decades. He was celebrated with song, prayers for his family and an unending recollection of memories from the people whose lives he touched.
“Our pastor died in the faith, the Lord is worthy to be praised,” the Rev. Darrell Griffin, who officiated the memorial service, declared in the early moments of the service that lasted for several hours before acknowledging the weight of the task he had ahead of him. “I am one of the sons of this church. Pastor has assigned me to keep this train running.”
Former President Bill Clinton was among the first to share poignant thoughts on the beloved leader’s passing after the church’s choir delivered a moving rendition of “Come Thou Fount.”
“I talked to Reverend Butts, not long before he passed and by then we had been friends a long time,” Clinton said.
“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.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who is also a former NYPD police captain, recalled his time fighting to end police abuse and the support he received from Butts in that work.
“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.’”
To highlight the reach of Butts’ influence, Adams pointed out how many of his disciples have gone on to serve in powerful positions in government.
“You might as well call my administration Abyssinian,” he quipped.
“I love him and I'm going to miss him. I'm going to miss him. There's a hole in my heart,” he said, offering prayers for Butts’ widow, Patricia Reed Butts, to whom he was married for 51 years.
“You know how challenging this moment is. It is for all of us. But nowhere in the contract of life does it say immortality is part of the deal. We're all mortal,” he said before joking that he was Butts’ favorite elected official.
“I can rest assured in all my heart, all of the elected officials in this room he loved. But he adored me,” Adams quipped as the church erupted in laughter.
Other elected officials who spoke included Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and a number of Baptist leaders.
Along with his widow, Butts is survived by his children, Calvin IV (Tiffany), Alexander and Patricia, his grandchildren, Kyla, Alexander Jr., Calvin V, Arthur, Reed and Ethan, many aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.
“To most people he was Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts but to us, he was just poppa,” Alex Butts II, his grandson, said. “Talking about what I wanted to say with my dad, he told me, this is what is always said. ‘To us, he was just poppa.’ So, I thought some more and realized this is still true. He was an amazing grandfather.”