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A Storied Harlem Church Has a New Leader. Its Members Have Questions.

LocalA Storied Harlem Church Has a New Leader. Its Members Have Questions.

Ever since Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s reign, beginning in the late 1930s, Abyssinian Baptist has been one of the most influential Black churchs in the country, a force in the political life of New York and an economic and social engine in Harlem, where it has stood for a century. When the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, who presided over the church for three decades, died two years ago at the age of 73, his legacy was felt both at the level of spiritual inspiration and material advantage. As chairman of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, he delivered roughly $1 billion to residential and commercial projects in Harlem, brought a new high school to the neighborhood and worked to blunt the sharpest edges of gentrification.

As former Mayor Michael Bloomberg put it when the pastor died, “Reverend Butts took the idea of building the kingdom of God literally.”

Perhaps because of this outsize imprint, the process of naming his successor has been divisive, raising questions among some congregants around transparency and bias and whether the church, with a congregation of a few thousand, can sustain its prominence, or even stability. Over the past two years, the search for a new leader has been consuming. On Sunday, it resulted in the controversial election of a Philadelphia pastor named Kevin R. Johnson, who is described on the website for his current congregation — Dare to Imagine Inc. — less in the language of liturgy than in the parlance of LinkedIn: “a proven executive in transforming organizations into innovative, high-performing, fiscally sound and pioneering institutions.”

In a statement issued right after the election, the Rev. Dr. C. Vernon Mason, a longtime Abyssinian deacon and a well-known former civil rights lawyer, said that the past two years had sent him on a “heartbreaking journey.” According to institutional rules, he explained, a viable candidate needed “a proven record of at least 12 to 15-plus years of successful leadership over a large Black Baptist church.” He went on: “The relentless pursuit to advance a particular candidate who did not meet the most basic requirement defies me.”

The first public sign of tension around the hiring process came six months ago, when one jettisoned candidate, the Rev. Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman, an associate professor at the Yale Divinity School, filed a civil rights suit against the church, claiming that she did not advance to a final round of interviews because she was a woman. She had also never held the chief role in a major Baptist church. But having served at Abyssinian for more than 10 years — she was the youngest woman ever to be named an assistant minister — Dr. Turman, the suit claims, had been told by Mr. Butts that she was the “smartest minister” he ever had but that she had no hope of becoming senior pastor because of her sex. In a statement made when the suit was filed, the church denied the discrimination charge, maintaining that it put “faith, fairness, integrity and inclusivity at the center” of everything it did.

Throughout the spring those virtues were cast in doubt as accusations and counter-accusations about how thoroughly the search committee of 27 had stuck to bylaws and protocols and deep-dive vetting, in making its selection, circled the congregation. In contentious meetings and in petitions, letters and declarations, members of the church questioned, for example, why a leader of a nondenominational church had been elevated. (A spokeswoman for Abyssinian, LaToya Evans, said that Dr. Johnson was not available to be interviewed.)

A graduate of Morehouse College with a master’s degree from the Union Theological Seminary and a doctorate in education from Columbia, Dr. Johnson worked at Abyssinian as a young pastor in the 1990s. Later, he ran Bright Hope, a well-known Baptist church in North Philadelphia but resigned after seven years following concerns about church finances, criticism of his apparent wish to run for mayor and a broken promise to include a charter school in a community development project.

All of this had been reported in the local press when he left the church in 2014. Two months ago, in a letter to Abyssinian trustees and deacons, 12 church members, writing that they represented a group of hundreds, asked how Dr. Johnson had become the leading contender out of a field of more than 40, given his tenure at Bright Hope.

When I asked Ms. Evans about Bright Hope, she responded by email to say: “We’re focused on facts, continuing the legacy of Abyssinian and beginning this new chapter for the church.” She confirmed that Dr. Johnson had not undergone a psychological evaluation even though that had been discussed as part of the hiring procedures no matter who would ultimately be chosen. “Rev. Dr. Johnson was recommended to the congregation by the Pastoral Search Committee following a rigorous interview and committee voting process where he emerged as the top candidate,” she added.

A May letter from that committee to church members attempted to appease skeptics. It praised Dr. Johnson as “a proven fund-raiser” and the mood at his current church, Dare to Imagine, as uplifting for “the Christian love and warmth that first started in the parking lot.” He founded it out of his house and grew the church to a congregation of 1,500 that now occupies a seven-acre campus. Committee members were impressed by what he had achieved: “College students participating in service, young families joining and men not only working but worshiping.” They also singled out his engagement with “virtual members” hundreds of miles away.

When Samuel DeWitt Proctor, a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., succeeded the towering Adam Clayton Powell Jr. as senior pastor at Abyssinian in 1972, he was elected in a four-way race. At some point during the past half-century the rules changed. Now congregants were simply voting yes or no on the final candidate chosen by a committee. Some congregants hoped for a broader field. Earlier this month, 115 signed a petition to try to stop last Sunday’s vote. It proceeded regardless and Dr. Johnson, who will start his new role in a few weeks, won in a count that the church says is confidential.

“I don’t think people are really against Johnson per se, but they’re against the process,” Barbara Lescouflair, a member of Abyssinian for 25 years told me the day after the election.

“We’re fighting within the church,” she continued. “We’re not talking to one another. We’re angry. I have seen a lot of things in Abyssinian but nothing like this.”

On May 10, a senior deacon sent a memorandum to the search committee and the board of trustees with the subject heading: “Tainted, Flawed, Tarnished Pastor Search That Favored One Candidate.” The deacon was met with a cease-and-desist letter from Abyssinian’s lawyers, claiming that he had “impermissibly disclosed confidential information” and made “potentially defamatory statements” regarding the church.

The anger and friction aside, at heart are questions about how hierarchical institutions should govern themselves as they pursue progressive social and political agendas in a modern world. Since its founding in Lower Manhattan in 1808 and move to Harlem in the 1920s, Abyssinian has become a kind of global brand. How can community and corporate initiative coexist?

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