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The life of the Rev. Dr. Eugene Callender celebrated at memorial service

Craig D. Frazier | 12/19/2013, 4:10 p.m.
A fixture in the Harlem community, the beloved Presbyterian minister died on Nov. 2 at the age of 87.
Mayor David Dinkins (Craig D. Frazier photo)

Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem was filled to capacity with family and friends who gathered to celebrate the life of the Rev. Dr. Eugene Callender on Saturday Dec. 7. A fixture in the Harlem community, the beloved Presbyterian minister died on Nov. 2 at the age of 87.

During the ceremony, the sanctuary reverberated with prayer, songs of praise and a sermon that touched the hearts and souls of everyone in attendance.

The Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, served as the presiding minister of the service. The Rev. Dr. Duane E. VanderBurg from the Christian Reformed Church gave the opening remarks. “Dr. Callender has served God’s purpose in his generation and now has fallen asleep,” he said. “Gene’s Christian social thinking propelled all of his actions, and he became a man ahead of his time.”

Callender, a Massachusetts native, came to Harlem in 1950. In the 1960s, he accompanied the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on civil rights marches in the South. He was probably best known for starting an innovative series of “street academies” for disadvantaged New York City youth with educator Dr. Kenneth Clark. These academies became a model for nontraditional educational programs nationwide. He also served as executive director of the Urban League.

“A brother, a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather. He was also a father to the Harlem community. My brother wore all those hats and many more,” said his sister, Thelma Burns. “To me, he was my big brother and uncle to my children. Family was his foundation, and no matter how committed he was to church and community, he always made time for us.”

Harlem’s most prominent leaders reflected on a man who they said touched thousands of lives across every imaginable divide and would be most remembered for dedicating his life to the church and the community.

“I am honored to be here to say goodbye to a remarkable man. I don’t know where to start when it comes time to talk about the impact he had on the Harlem community,” said former Mayor David Dinkins. “The first thing that comes to mind was his unparalleled dedication to helping the most marginalized members in our society. Harlem is a better place because of the Rev. Dr. Eugene Callender. His impact on public policy was immeasurable.”

Colleagues remembered his innate ability to represent the voices of those who went unheard and said Callender wore his heart on his sleeve. Friends made references to his unique baritone voice and his ability to volunteer himself as well as the services of others, which drew laughter.

Actress Felicia Rashad also thanked Butts for hosting the memorial. She shared a love of Siddha Yoga meditation with Callender. “Dr. Callender was everything to everyone. To those who knew him personally, to those who knew him through his legacy, he was a man of God and offered invaluable support,” said Rashad.

The Rev. Al Sharpton added to the list of distinguished faith leaders that included the Revs. James Bell, Herbert Oliver and Ronald E. Sullivan. “Dr. Callender was there for me throughout my life … we will meet again at the exchange counter in heaven, when we hand in our crosses to pick up our crowns.”

The Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr. elegantly delivered the eulogy. Dr. Callender is survived by his daughter, Renée Callender Williams; sister, Thelma Burns; brother, Leland Callender; grandson, Roshon Martin; great-granddaughter, Shanice Jackson; and a host of nieces, nephews, friends and loved ones.