Calvin Butts and the Abyssinian Baptist Church

Question: What is the history of the Abyssinian Baptist Church?

Rev. Butts:       The Abyssinian Baptist Church was established in 1808.  It was founded as a result of racial segregation in the first Baptist Church located on Gold Street in Lower Manhattan.  Several Ethiopian merchants visited the church to worship and they were told that they had to sit in the segregated section of the church were they refused because they did not understand segregation in the House of God and walked out.  Several African-Americans who are worshipping there, [free] African-Americans in New York saw that and walked out with them and they got together and decided to establish a church where all people can worship and they named it for the Ethiopians, the Abyssinians, they named it the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Abyssinian being an ancient name for Ethiopia.  And since then, the church has been located in New York.  And this year, 2008, we celebrate our bicentennial and we celebrated with a number of great activities last September ‘07, we took 165 pilgrims to Ethiopia and we’ve visited with the largest group ever to visit Ethiopia and it was a marvelous visit.  We visited all the ancient cities, we saw the religious artifacts.  Wynton Marsalis, the Musical Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Wynton wrote a piece for our celebration, it was performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center and two performances at the church.  We had a large health walk where we visited the various sites were Abyssinians was located because we walked out of Gold Street, we were located on Anthony Street which is now Worth Street, we were located on Waverly Place, and then, finally 40th street… I’m sorry… 40th street and then finally the congregation moved north to Harlem located on West 138th Street.  We’ve had many distinguished pastors.  The best known would be Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. who built the church at 138th street, Gospel giant and grew it to the largest protestant congregation in America.  Actually, Abyssinian was the first mega church.  Then he was followed by his son, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., not only a dynamic pastor but, of course, a distinguished gentleman, server in the United States Congress for nearly 30 years.  And finally… well, not finally, Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor, an esteemed educator followed him and I followed Dr. Proctor.

Question: Do you plan to revive the church’s legacy of social activism?

Rev. Butts:    The church, Abyssinian especially, in the tradition of the Black Church particularly should be a gadfly, should be the conscience of the community or state or nation, and Abyssinian has been that.  Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. was one of the founders of the NAACP.  Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. produced more pieces of domestic legislation for the benefit of all Americans than any other person that I know of who served in the Congress.  Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor was an ardent arguer for racial justice, equality and especially education particularly for those who were not as well endowed in terms of material things as others.  And I want Abyssinian to continue on that tradition.  We’ve done so, in our own form of protest, if you will, by the rebuilding of the Harlem Community.  We found that the Abyssinian Development Corporation, we watched these housing was deteriorating, schools were falling apart.  The educational quality was in at all time low.  Commercial businesses were fleeing and so our development corporation began by reestablishing a housing [stock], affordable housing for working families.  We have built three schools, a lower school, a middle school and a high school.  Two of those schools and a brand new building, the first brand new high school built in Harlem in 50 years or more.  We have established commercial businesses.  We’ve built a shop, a vertical office building and mall in 125th street in Lenox Avenue.  We’ve built the first Pathmark Supermarket in Harlem, the first supermarket in Harlem.  We have the largest supermarket on Manhattan either.  We have… Oh, my goodness.  Well, you get the idea.  I mean, I can’t think of all… there are several other things, but that in a real sense for me is a protest against the kind of forces that would have allowed for deterioration, and then moved in and reestablished a bank here for market rate housing and gentrification.  Now, when I talked about gentrification, I’m not talking about whites displacing blacks, what I’m taking about more so is the wealthy… it’s a [class war] where the wealthy misplaced the poor.  Harlem happens to be predominantly a black community and the people who lived there are poor, and it just so happens that many times in the gentrification process, the poor blacks are pushed out by more well endowed whites, but the real issue is to make sure that poor people whatever race they are have an opportunity to live and prosper in this city, and our form of protest is to build the kind of housing and community resources or create the community resources that will allow poor people to exist with dignity in a city like New York as well as argue that model for the nation.

Calvin Butts discusses the history of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and its legacy of social activism.

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  • Scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) devised a method for trapping dark matter particles.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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