Philadelphia pastor elected to lead historic Black church in New York City

Black Church New Pastor
Rev. Dr. Kevin R. Johnson is pictured in this undated photo provided by Brian Communications.
AP via Karim Muhammad/Brian Communications

By DARREN SANDS Associated Press

New York’s historic Abyssinian Baptist Church has elected its new senior pastor, likely bringing an end to a national search to replace the late Rev. Calvin O. Butts, who had served the church for a half-century before his death in 2022.

The Rev. Kevin R. Johnson, the founder of the independent Dare to Imagine Church in Philadelphia, was elected Sunday and will assume the new post in mid-July, Abyssinian said in a statement. He had served as an intern and assistant pastor under Butts, who had started searching for his successor before his death.

The announcement comes one week after the congregation considered halting the pastoral search process and disbanding the search committee over transparency and gender discrimination concerns. One candidate and former Abyssinian assistant pastor, the Rev. Eboni Marshall Turman, had filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the church.

Founded in 1808, Abyssinian – considered by many to be the flagship of the Black church in America – became a famous megachurch with the political rise of the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. He leveraged the power of his pulpit to get elected to the New York City Council, and later the Congress, representing Harlem.

Johnson, 50, described his new appointment as a sacred responsibility and a homecoming.

“Abyssinian is not just a church – it’s our spiritual home, and I’m honored to build upon its rich legacy,” Johnson said in a video message shared on Abyssinian’s website. “Together, we will advance God’s kingdom, serve our community by God’s grace, impact the world, and shape Abyssinian’s next glorious chapter.

Johnson is a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta and earned his Master of Divinity at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He served as an intern at Abyssinian until 1999, and then began another stint in 2002 as the assistant pastor, serving in that role for five years until he was called to Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

He founded Dare to Imagine with 20 people in his home after a contentious resignation and split with the Bright Hope in 2014. Today, Dare to Imagine has 1,500 members.