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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.

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What other kinds of racially motivated opposition have you faced?

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On one occasion we were protesting the MX missile coming to Utah [in the late 1970s], my office got shot up, with bullet holes riddling the wall. I was not there at the time or they would have been in my lap. I received letters from somebody purporting to belong to the KKK [Ku Klux Klan]. It claimed the Klan was 7,000 strong in Utah and they would pour gasoline on me and burn me alive. I still have that letter. Our congregation, which is mostly black, has endured cross burnings and threats. People have been beaten up because of their race. (The FBI has been involved in most of these cases.) Name-calling is really common. And these incidents continue to this day.

What has it been like for your wife, Willene, and three children?

My oldest daughter was told she couldn’t walk on the same side of the street as whites. She became student body vice president in her public high school (our kids went to school in the Jordan and Granite school districts) but was not allowed to have music based on her culture during cultural activities. She left for college and didn’t want to come back here. She lives in Dallas.

How have you helped members of your congregation adapt to such a white-dominated community?

I tell them that we are all in this world together and ought to be able to live peacefully. We are the target of lots of inappropriate behavior, but should consider the source of the attacks. We are not what other people define us as; we must define ourselves. As a congregation, we continue to try to provide education, scholarships, tutoring, early-childhood development and other programs to help our people prepare for what they face in society.

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Can you describe some of your memorable spiritual experiences?

We’ve been separate and apart from the dominant religious group, which has been a positive thing. Having our own place has given us a real sense of community to be ourselves spiritually. It’s been important to be the people God created us to be.

How has Utah changed in these past 40 years?

We’ve become more accepting. We’ve overridden English-only legislation, worked for fair housing, established a Martin Luther King holiday. I’m hopeful that the community will continue to change in the right direction. We have a major religious organization [the LDS Church] that has admitted to its wrong attitude toward people of African descent.

Do you remember where you were in June 1978, when the LDS Church announced that it was ending its ban on black males in its priesthood?

Yes. I was at our church when all the press came to find out my reaction. I was surprised that it happened but delighted that no longer would a whole group of people be seen as cursed because of African heritage.

What’s your view of the LDS Church?

Initially, it was negative, but down through the years, I’ve developed good relationships with Mormon people and leaders at the Church Office Building. We agree to disagree on theological issues and work together on social issues.

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