Dr. Al Hathaway to retire this summer from historic Union Baptist Church

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Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway. (Courtesy Photo)

By Alexis Taylor
Special to the AFRO

Pastor and community activist Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway will be stepping down as leader of West Baltimore’s Union Baptist Church in August, closing out 14 years of service to the historic institution.

At that time, he will hand the reins to an assistant pastor who may advance to lead pastor in the coming years. 

“To be the 10th pastor of this church has been one of the highest honors of my life,” Hathaway said. “Union Baptist Church has always been the birth ground for change. During the time of my ministry we’ve tried to reflect that.”

Born in a segregated Provident Hospital in 1951, Hathaway was raised in the shadow of Union Baptist- literally. He spent his youth growing up on the same block as the church and attended services and community events faithfully. 

He saw first-hand the role of the church in a country still grappling with the “negro problem” left over from slavery, reconstruction, and the Jim Crow Era. 

“Much of my life journey has been woven through the thread and fabric of Union Baptist Church,” Hathaway told the AFRO, recalling a childhood heavily influenced by the mission of the Black church.

“I was there in 1963, giving blankets and food to the people sleeping before going to the March on Washington. I was there when they were strategizing around the election of Black candidates city wide in 1968 and for Congress in 1970,” he said. 

“When you think about any freedom struggle as it relates to people of color, the Black church has always modeled the approach, modeled the solution, and modeled the progress that we need. From there- the Black church- it goes mainstream.”

Hathaway began leading Union Baptist Church in 2004 as assistant pastor. Similar to the process currently being used, he was in that position for more than two years before stepping into the role of lead pastor in 2007. 

He has an earned Ph.D. and during his time as pastor he has fortified programs and partnerships throughout the city with a focus on civil rights, healthy families, education and equal employment opportunities. 

He strengthened the partnership with DRU Mondawmin Healthy Families and bolstered the church’s Head Start Program, which began in 1970. He has also advocated for equal hiring practices regarding major development projects in Baltimore City.

His work to eliminate health and education disparities has landed him on the board of directors for multiple entities and institutions, including the University of Maryland Medical Campus, and the Family League of Baltimore. Hathaway has also been integral in the success of the Promise Heights programming in Baltimore. The organization handles grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhood initiative and provides wrap around services to students at multiple Baltimore City Public Schools.

Over the years, Hathaway has proven that he is a pastor not afraid of changing times. Long before the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the digital divide, Hathaway took action to improve access to internet and digital devices. His move to open up a cyber center more than a decade ago is the type of innovation that keeps him in shape to serve. 

“It’s important to change with the times,” said Hathaway’s mentor, Rev. Alfred Corrigan D. Vaughn, pastor of Sharon Baptist Church. “Al has always been out there fighting. He is a community activist in every respect of the word.” 

Close friend and pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church, Rev. Todd Yeary, praised Hathaway for “recognizing that the church is the vessel, the vehicle, and the voice of those who have no seat at the table.”

“Dr. Hathaway has been very intentional about being a voice for those who don’t get an invitation to the party,” Yeary told the AFRO. “That hasn’t always been met with the appreciation of everybody.”

“Some folks have taken issue with his tactics and his methods, but you would be hard pressed to challenge his motives,” he said.

Union Baptist Church was founded in 1852 and has a history of electing leaders who like to get into “good trouble.” 

According to documents from the U.S. Department of Interior, the construction of the current edifice was astonishing at the time because it was done “without any aid from whites and in a single, fully-funded building campaign.” At the time, there were “fewer than 1,000 African American property owners in the entire city of Baltimore.”

According to church history, the building rectified in the 1200 block of Druid Hill Avenue in 1905 was “the first church in Baltimore City to be built ‘by Negroes for Negroes.’ “

Rev. Harvey Johnson led the congregation from 1872 to 1923 and set the tone for what would be expected of Union Baptist’s leaders in the fight for equality. 

Johnson successfully pulled the church out of the Maryland Baptist Union Association in 1892 due to discrimination. By 1897, Rev. Johnson had established the Colored Baptist Convention. His work in local civil rights groups, such as the  Mutual United Brotherhood of Liberty, laid the foundation for internationally recognized organizations like the NAACP.

Rev. Vernon N. Dobson, legendary member of Baltimore’s Goon Squad, led the church from 1967 to 2007. Dobson was Hathaway’s immediate predecessor and set a high standard for community service and activism.

“It’s natural for it to be in his bloodstream to do the same things,” said Vaughn.  “My advice for him is to keep on doing what he’s been doing.” 

Through this work, Yeary says Hathaway is “broadening the reach of the pulpit” and “pioneering some new ways for us to consider ‘what is the role of the minister- the servant- when it comes to the needs of the community?’”

There isn’t much worry about Hathaway disappearing from the frontlines in retirement. 

“While he may not be at Union in an active pastoral capacity Sunday after Sunday, I don’t think we’re going to miss him,” said Yeary. “He’s of the community, for the community, and I think he’s going to remain active in the community.”

Hathaway already has several endeavours and initiatives waiting for him on the other side of “retirement.” 

He will continue working to close health disparities with the African Ancestry Neuroscience Research Initiative. Hathaway also plans to continue holding politicians accountable through his work with ACT Now, a local organization aiming to improve transparency and credibility between elected officials and the community.

“I’m blessed that I’m still young enough to stay active and stay engaged,” he said. 

Hathaway is also spearheading efforts to preserve Black landmarks in Baltimore. 

He has worked to fund renovations to Public School #103 in West Baltimore, the elementary school of Justice Thurgood Marshall, and the home and law offices of Jaunita Mitchell, former president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP.