“So many young men and women might look at this ministry and say, ‘Well, that’s what I’ll do’,” says Butts. “But baby, I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and it hasn’t been easy.” Succession is something Butts is especially concerned with. Abyssinian has had a long line of magnetic preachers, including Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Samuel DeWitt Proctor. Though he’s nowhere close to ending his tenure, these are the facts: The mandatory retirement age for the pastor at Abyssinian is 71, less than 10 years away. “How do I get a young man— smart, educated, thoughtful,” Butts says. “How do I get him settled?” The question is rhetorical, if only due to the way the media portrays the modern-day preacher. “I’m operating against the culture,”says Butts. “I’m operating against that man’s disillusionment with the slick preacher.”
Butts is also operating against what can only be described as a good problem. Back when he accepted his calling at Abyssinian in 1972, first as a youth minister, then later as the senior pastor, there was no such thing as a black man being president of the United States, or being head of a Fortune 500 company. The result, Butts says, has affected the stature of the church leader among the next generation of young people. “The minister was the leadership in the community,” says Butts. “But people no longer see the church as that key institution.”
Still, he views his work with a purpose. All that he does, he says, is for the benefit of the people who congregate to hear his words.
“Other than family, the most important thing is serving black people,” he says. Teaching, reaching, building, encouraging, inspiring, doing whatever it is I can do to help us overcome the legacy of racism, slavery, bigotry, and our own sense of self-hatred.”