Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Early Career: Ministry and Mentors

BOND: Let me lead up to how you became a minister. You talked a moment ago about how you’d been called in by Dr. [Benjamin] Mays and you said that you weren’t in your ministerial period then. How did you come into your — how did you decide this is the way you wanted to go?

BUTTS: I had a very good time at Morehouse College in any number of ways and I changed majors quite frequently. I was psychology, economics, history, and then I realized that I loved them all. What could capture all of them? Philosophy. So I settled in on philosophy with a minor in religion with the expressed goal of teaching philosophy at the undergraduate level. That was going to be my career, but the religion courses taught by Melvin Watson and by Jackson and others and then I remember Lucius Tobin had left by then, but it was Sam Williams in philosophy who was that cross between philosophy and religion, and during my sojourn in these courses, men would come from seminaries to recruit. Henry Mitchell came from Colgate Rochester. Kelly Miller Smith from Vanderbilt and then a student who had graduated a year before me, Bill Sanders, came from Union Seminary and they started talking about seminary.

Well, I was walking across the campus and I was in an altered state of consciousness so I don’t quite remember what, but Bill said, “Hey, Butts. You want to go to seminary?” I said, “You telling me to come to the cemetery? What are you talking about?” He said, “No, come here, come here.” And he brought me into my fraternity house and we sat down and he laid it out. I said I never thought about that, but one thing I had discovered is that every major advance of people of African descent was led by a clergyperson or had the strong overpowering influence of the church and I was certainly one who was strong on social and political justice. What better base to work from? So I said, “I’ll think about it.”

Well, there was a practical side. Henry Mitchell offered me money to come to visit Colgate. He hasn’t forgiven me yet. Lawrence Jones and Union, they said, “Well, we’ll pay your way.” Kelly Miller Smith said, “We’ll take care of you if you come by here,” so I figured I could go to Rochester, come back through New York City, and stop off in Tennessee, you know, and it was all paid for, so I had a little vacation. I decided to go to Union. I still wasn’t sure about this deep religious call, but the doors were certainly opening. I got to New York City. I saw Dean Jones and he said, “What’re you doing?” I said, “I don’t know. I’m going to class.” He said, “You need a job.” He said, “There’s a new minister over at the Abyssinian Church. Adam Powell died in April,” he said, “and they called a man named Sam Proctor.” He said, “Go see him. He’s looking for someone with no experience at all.”

So I walked over and I met Dr. Proctor. He looked at me. He said, “Where’d you go to college?” I said, “Morehouse,” and he said, “You look humble enough.” He said, “Show up Sunday morning.” I showed up Sunday morning. He said, “Show up next Sunday.” I showed up next Sunday. He saw me. He said, “There’s this fellow out there from Morehouse. What’s your name?” I said, “Calvin Butts.” He said, “Come sit up here in the pulpit.” And I’ve been there ever since. I started out as a gofer, became the Youth Minister, stayed Youth Minister for a couple of years, then Assistant Minister. Then I became the Executive Minister. Dr. Proctor was part-time. He was full Professor of Education at Rutgers. He had been President of two colleges — A&T and Virginia Union, and he said, “You run the church,” and he said, “You become the executive head and I’ll stay the spiritual head,” and I stayed with him for seventeen years. When he retired, the church called me to be the pastor and I’ve been the pastor now — I’m in my twentieth year.