God’s Servant In Harlem

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“We all have our shortcomings, including Cosby. Cosby should have called all the Black thinkers together and voiced his concerns at a separate venue and separate occasion He should have invited folks like Michael Eric Dyson who agree with him so that a lively discussion could ensue between those who agree and those who don’t. I think Cosby may come to regret the aftermath caused by his words. I think that Bill Cosby and others should now come together in a conciliatory fashion, reflect, introspect, and work out our differences and problems together as a united community and people.�

Rev. Calvin Otis Butts III is a man on a mission, one he fulfills each day with application and dedication. He serves God in his role as pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church by serving the Harlem Community, a community he loves and has worked in for 33 years. Even a political seat would not best Calvin Butts’ tremendous outreach and service to his cause, his community, his church and his people. He is not one to rest on his laurels nor is he afraid to confront unpopular issues or steamroll over the outrages he feels pollute and denigrate New York City neighborhoods, minds and economics. Calvin Butts grew up on Houston Street in lower Manhattan in the Lillian Wald Housing Projects where he attended PS 97 directly across the street from the projects. He later went to PS 92 in Queens and then to Russell Sage Jr., High School in Forest Hills, NY.  His father was a chef and his mother a civil servant—they were bullish on education.

They encouraged their son to study so when he graduated from high school he went on to the renowned Morehouse College and eventually to Graduate school. Rev. Butts was a senior in college when he heard God’s call. He was referred to the legendary Samuel Proctor, then minister of Abyssinian, and fellow fraternity brother. Proctor hired Butts on a Kappa handshake and 33 years later, Butts is still with the Church. As pastor of Abyssinian Baptist, Rev. Butts has proven to be a Godsend and facilitator of humane matters that affect his church and the infrastructure of his community. One of the Church’s stellar achievements is The Abyssinian Development Corporation, which Rev. Butts founded back in 1989. “We formed the corporation because we recognized that many of the people who used to live across the street from the church were no longer there because buildings were deteriorating and being abandoned,� Butts explained, in an interview with The Black Star News. “We knew we had to do something and so we got into the housing business.

The Corporation found itself faced with homelessness, deteriorating buildings and the need for affordable housing so we decided to get into residential development. Once we got into residential development, we found there was also commercial development, educational and cultural development so we became involved in all of those aspects of development.  Presently, the corporation is worth roughly $500 million. The big challenge now is to maintain the balance because as everyone knows, property values have skyrocketed.  There is a rush by the gentry, both Black and white, to live in Harlem. Although, we welcome everybody, we still want to make sure we protect those who do not have big money.  We have been successful in saving Section 8 Housing and we hope to do more.  I think we are at the point of seeing lower income Harlem residents forced out by this sweep of gentrification.  We are looking at that great possibility getting ready to move into probability unless organizations fight even harder to preserve affordable housing.â€?

Another umbrella under the Abyssinian Development Corporation is the Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change. “In terms of educational development, we are committed to public education. We are committed to making sure we improve our public schools because most of our children go to public school. I remember when the public schools in New York were excellent. They can be again. First of all, you cannot negate race,â€? Rev. Butts, who is also College President of SUNY at Old Westbury, elaborated. “As the public education system became Browner and Blacker, I think the resources were withdrawn. You can see that in the erosion of sports programs, arts programs and music programs.  Those programs are extremely important to education. I think that many teachers, not all, but far too many of them for us to be comfortable with, demonstrate less interest in the children. A lot of it has to do with the home. Church, school and home must work together.  I am not saying we need prayer in schools or that the churches ought to take over the schools.  I am saying parents need to take more interest in their child’s education and churches need to show parents how to do that. 

I believe Black children don’t see themselves enough in the curriculum. Though we talk about including black history and things that relate to Black people in the curriculum, it hasn’t happened yet. Children need to be excited. When you give them Langston Hughes and County Cullen; when you show them something about our own history and how its wrapped in music like spirituals and blues and jazz, children become enamored and this is not only Black children. One of my strongest programs at the College of Old Westbury is our Teacher’s Ed Program. You can’t take teachers with a fundamental, traditional approach to education and put them in NYC schools today. The entire thinking has to change which means teachers have to be trained properly. We have done this with the help of the Dept of Education at our school, Thurgood Marshall.â€? Rev. Butts is Vice Chairman of the Board of United Way which raises funds to distribute to organizations involved in job training and after school programs. He is also Chairman of the Board of the Black Leadership Commission on AIDS that works to combat AIDS not only in the Community but around the world advocating sex education, hospice care and AIDS awareness. “AIDS is a big killer in our community.  I am still trying to educate folks that you can’t get AIDS by hugging someone,â€? declared the tireless advocate. 

Rev. Butts has also focused on the fact that some rap music sends out a negative message to the youth. “I am not anti-rap but anti-negative rap,â€? he continued. “The type of rap with lyrics offensive to women and that promotes violence.  I had people bring tapes and CDs that were most offensive to them. We had a big rally and took those T-shirts that exploited women and their body parts, the tapes and CDs and put them in the street where I decided to steam roll over them. We also confronted the record company.  My actions started a debate that rages today and I think it helped raise the consciousness of people.â€? Rev. Butts also boycotted The Daily News because of their discriminatory hiring practices. “We picketed in front of the Daily News on Mondays at noon for months. The result of this was the circulation dropped 30% so the Daily News made some changes. We reminded the Daily News and the Post that Black people represent their margin-of-profit so if Blacks decided not to read their papers, they would both go out of business,â€? explained Butts.  “I would love to see more Black ministers involved in these kinds of struggles.  A handful of us can’t do it alone. We need more and more clergy persons to speak out and not just be concerned about building their personal empires. The problem is all these folks -- advertisers, rappers, etc., are only concerned about making money.

The biggest killer of Black people is alcohol and tobacco. These billboard advertisers target the youth with alcohol and tobacco ads on their billboards.  We went after them. Alcohol and tobacco may be legal but they are lethal.â€? A lover of music and poetry, Rev. Calvin Butts enjoys travel.  He has been able to do so via his ministry.  “During my travels I have discovered that many other nations see Americans as a gluttonous, wasteful, arrogant bunch of folks,â€? said the husband of 35 years, father of 3 and grandfather of 2. “These same people want to come to America and get a piece of this opportunity, but they have little regard for Americans. They do want to know about Black people however because they are concerned that Black people carry on a struggle on behalf of people of color all around the world.  They are very interested in what Black people have to say because what they discover when they meet Black people is different from what they hear about us. I also found out that Black people are similar to the Palestinians in the sense they are also an oppressed people.

Also, I found Muslims are just as racist as Christians. I also discovered the European is very similar to the American White in terms of institutionalized racism.� Rev. Butts believes that the challenges facing the Black community require united action. “There are so many complicated issues Black people have to deal with so it was unfortunate that Bill Cosby made the remarks he did. His remarks were a bit arrogant and poorly focused. His comments were said at the wrong time and at the wrong occasion. Mr. Cosby voiced his remarks at the 50th Anniversary of the Board of Education. This was a time to celebrate not dump. Also, Cosby should have done some deep introspection before choosing the poorer segment of our community to ridicule.

All of us are to blame not just the poor,â€? stated Rev. Butts. “We all have our shortcomings, including Cosby. Cosby should have called all the Black thinkers together and voiced his concerns at a separate venue and separate occasion  He should have invited folks like Michael Eric Dyson who agree with him so that a lively discussion could ensue between those who agree and those who don’t. I think Cosby may come to regret the aftermath caused by his words. I think that Bill Cosby and others should now come together in a conciliatory fashion, reflect, introspect, and work out our differences and problems together as a united community and people.â€? 

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