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(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rev. France Davis Davis is escorted up aisle by Sister Leslie Henderson as members of the Calvary Baptist Church celebrate Pastor France Davis's 40th anniversary as pastor Sunday April 27 in Salt Lake City.
France Davis: Utah preacher reflects on 40 years of service

A congregation looks to him as its cleric and a state looks to him as its conscience.

First Published Apr 28 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Apr 28 2014 01:36 pm

The Rev. France Davis has been a fixture on Utah’s faith front for decades.

Leading the state’s most prominent black church, the slight, soft-spoken pastor carries himself with dignity, rarely raising his voice. But his words carry an unmistakable moral authority that reaches across government, civic and religious boundaries.

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And Davis’ quiet, steady efforts have built a vast empire of social services for Salt Lake City’s black community.

On Sunday, the 67-year-old former civil-rights activist celebrated 40 years of leading Calvary Baptist Church. His hair has a little more gray in it than when the Georgia native arrived in the Beehive State in 1972, but his view of the future is no less passionate or optimistic.

Were you religious as a child?

Absolutely. I grew up attending a Baptist church in Georgia every Sunday morning and reading the Bible every Sunday afternoon. Even in our school, we had prayer each day before schoolwork and closed the day with a devotion.

I never imagined being a pastor, but I did see myself as a serious and committed person. I made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ when I was 12 years old. I figured I needed a balanced life and a part of that was to be spiritually balanced.

When I was 19 years old, I decided that the ministry would be my life work, based on my sense of my calling from God. I was living in Fort Lauderdale at the time, after going to college at Tuskegee [in Alabama]. It was in the middle of my civil-rights involvement, right after the March on Washington in 1963, and the Selma [Ala.] march in 1965.

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What did Martin Luther King mean to you?

I saw him as a role model in terms of the application of spirituality. When you say you believe something, then you need to apply it to your daily life.

What brought you to Utah?

I was recruited from the University of California at Berkeley in 1972 by the University of Utah’s communication department. I had a one-year appointment to teach news writing and radio.

It was an odd call to get. I didn’t know anything about Utah. I saw it as a great challenge and wondered what I could do in a year’s time.

In terms of civil rights, Utah was 10 to 20 years behind the rest of the country. When I arrived, I was denied a place to stay initially, which I believe was based on my race. The university took some responsibility for that and worked with me to resolve the issue. I was single at the time, but got married a year later.

At the end of the year, the U. offered me a full-time teaching position. A year after that, the church [Calvary Baptist in Salt Lake City] invited me to become their pastor. I already had seminary training and had received my certificate of ordination in Oakland. I had joined the church [Calvary] as soon as I arrived in Utah in 1972, and then became its associate — or interim — pastor when the pastor left in 1973. By 1974, I was teaching at the U. full time and also serving as Calvary’s pastor.

How were you received in Utah?

Not too long after I arrived, I was at BYU [LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University] and some official decided that my Afro hair and dress were not appropriate and escorted me off the campus. It added to my conviction that Utah was behind the times and that serious changes needed to be made. One of the reasons I have stayed as long as I have is because I thought I could bring about some of those changes.

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