When Alvin C. Hathaway Sr. says he “grew up in the womb” of Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore, he is not speaking metaphorically.
Rev. Dr. Hathaway’s family lived at 1211 Druid Hill Ave. as he was growing up, and the historic church stands at 1219 Druid Hill.
Even as a teenager, Rev. Dr. Hathaway says, he was involved in the spiritual, political and social justice lives of its ministries, particularly that of the Rev. Vernon Dobson, who served as senior pastor from 1967 until Rev. Dr. Hathaway took over in 2007 after serving three years as assistant pastor.
“I was involved with Reverend Dobson in every stage of his political career of activism from political involvement and civil rights involvement to organizing BUILD, Baltimore United in Leadership Development. I was involved in all of it. And so, I understood the responsibility of the church and then I understood the sense of history,” he says.
“But I also had a sense of the continuum of United Baptist Church,” he added. “Many people don’t realize my doctoral degree was literally in studying Union Baptist Church.”
Rev. Dr. Hathaway earned a Doctor of Ministry degree from the United Theological Seminary with a dissertation titled “Servant Church: Preaching and Teaching Servant Theology to African American leaders in Union Baptist of Baltimore.”
While his studies have taken him from Ohio to England, and his community organizing efforts have taken him deep into neighborhood and civic life in Richmond, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., the remarkable thing about his career as a faith leader is the almost all of it has taken place in the West Baltimore neighborhood in which he was born.
“I can only say it was divine. I studied at Harvard. I studied at Oxford. I trained at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, and St. Mary’s Seminary here. I’ve been blessed with a rich education,” he says. “But the bulk of my ministry has been literally in a four-square-block area from where I was born. That’s phenomenal. Now that I reflect on that, I think, ‘How could you design something like that?’”
Rev. Dr. Hathaway says he has tried to be part of he calls a “walk-around gospel” in that neighborhood.
“So, what happens is that inside the neighborhood of Pennsylvania Avenue and Upton and McCullough Homes, those are people who I’ve fed, provided assistance to with gas and electric bills. I’ve trained their children,” he says.
“So, I walk around and I have everybody like waiving at me and yelling at me and I’m yelling at them and waiving at them. You know, maybe a family member had experienced some difficulty and they came to me and I’m the one saying the last words over that. It’s been a fruitful ministry for me because it’s been in the neighborhood of my birth.”
Sandy Hillman, founder of Sandy Hillman Communications and a former aide to President Lyndon Johnson and Mayor William Donald Schaefer, says whether it is economic development or spiritual care, Rev. Dr. Hathaway’s core goal has always been service to his community.
“I have known and admired Al Hathaway for decades,” Ms. Hillman says. “Over the years, I have watched him deftly use his idealism fueled by pragmatism to affect tangible change and engage a broad swath of allies as advocates and supporters of whatever it is he is championing. And he has never lost sight of his focus on his congregants, his neighborhood and his city. Every program he has started, every cause he has promoted, every ask he has made ties back to creating opportunities for the people to whom he is committed.”
And while he stepped down this summer as senior pastor at Union Baptist, he is as engaged as ever in the community at age 70.
“I find I’m more busy than ever when I’m supposed to be retired,” he says sounding pleased that his leadership is still in such demand.
“These vacant buildings in West Baltimore are really part of my story,” he says. “So, when I go to P.S. 103, which is the school that Justice Thurgood Marshall attended, well, that was an active community center when I was young. Many of the people I know went there for school. So, for me it’s kind of tragic to see this school vacant for the past 20 years.”
“So my community development side says, ‘Let’s organize the finances and all of the team necessary to put this building back in service to a productive use.”
The building is now on track to undergo an $8.2 million renovation with the Beloved Community Services Corp. a nonprofit Rev. Dr. Hathaway founded, leading the renovation.
“Al is kind of what we would call maybe a throwback of the Black preacher, who was shepherd to the flock, businessperson in the community and a voice, a civic leader in terms of speaking to the issues that were affecting everybody not just the congregation … In his mind, there isn’t any issue that affects the experiences of people that ought be off limits to the participation of clergy,” says the Rev. S. Todd Yeary, senior pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church.
“If I were to sum Al up in two words, he’s visionary, but he is also a collaborator,” Rev. Yeary adds. “He not only sees big ideas, but he figures out ways to invite people in to be partners in the realization of those big ideas.”
Alvin C. Hathaway Sr.
Hometown: Baltimore City
Current residence: Baltimore City
Education: Baltimore City College High School; B.A., McKendree University School of Religion; M.A., Saint Mary’s Seminary and University; Doctor of Ministry, United Theological Seminary
Career highlights: Retired this summer as senior pastor at Union Baptist Church; founder African Ancestry Neuroscience Research Initiative
Civic and charitable activities: On the boards of directors for: University of Maryland Medical Center, Family League, The Ecumenical Institute, The Greater Baltimore Committee and Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. Co-chairs Promise Heights, a partnership with University of Maryland School of Social Work to improve outcomes in five Upton Community Schools. Inducted into the Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preachers at Morehouse College; received the Judge Alexander Williams Award for Educational Excellence. Founder of ACT Now Baltimore network
Family: Wife, Kathleen; two children