Abyssinian Baptist Church's mission of social justice

The steady voice of the Rev. Calvin Butts has guided countless in New York for decades in a house of worship that defined this city. The Abyssinian Baptist Church we know of sits on West 138th Street. But it has roots all the way down on Worth Street, where the First Baptist Church segregated its congregants, igniting social protest.

"We were segregated in the house of worship and we didn't understand that in a house of God," Butts said. "How do you do that in a Christian church?"

A century ago, Adam Clayton Powell recognized a migration of African Americans from the South and influx of immigrants from the Caribbean. He oversaw the building of a church in Harlem that would become the first megachurch in the country and the world.

Named Abyssinian, the old name of Ethiopia, the church houses a signature cross that was a gift from Emperor Selassie. It is an homage to the belief that the church was partly founded by Ethiopian sea merchants. With a century nearly gone by, its fight sounds dismally familiar.

But as we walked around with the reverend, we found no wistfulness in his mission. As he remembered his first visit to this church. He said he was about 10 years old and had no idea he would one day be its minister.

Laced into the Gothic and Tudor style are details of grandeur and excellence -- one of the distinct features.

What would a Baptist church be without its own baptism pool built into the pulpit? Butts showed us the baptismal fountain, which fills up with water. The stained glass dove opens up as the individual goes into the pool. The reverend described the power of the experience: "They are exhilarated – they've made a decision, they made it public, and they're filled with the spirit of God."

The other distinct feature of this house of worship is the positioning of the pulpit. Its closeness to the pews amplifies the connection between pastor and congregants. Making it less performance, more intuitive, and not every speaker can handle it.

Butts said the architecture may distinguish one house of worship from another, but in the end, their missions are the same: to help those in need.

That calling is echoed down on the opposite end of Manhattan, where under the shadow of the World Trade Center and other skyscrapers sits St. Peter's Church, the first Catholic church of New York.

Also founded because of an influx of immigration, this first Catholic church was only able to exist with the help of a Protestant church nearby. Despite a difference in faith, Trinity Church excused debt and after debt and signed the deed on Barclay Street over to St. Peter's in 1786. Another similarity despite its many differences is a focus on education and the young. It was pressing then and is seen as an imperative now.

"It takes more of a significant role now with children coming in from other countries," Rev. Donald Fussner said.

What guides Butts' work going forward in this time of challenges? The pastor flashed the performer in him and recounted advice from his predecessor.

"He said, 'It ought to do three things,'" Butts said. "He said that, 'One, it ought to be a model institution for people of African descent. Two, it out to improve the relationship between the races. And the next time I see you in Church on a Sunday morning, I will tell you the third.'"

A good cliffhanger is as valued in a house of worship as it is on television.