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Rev. France Davis: A force for good

The Rev. France Davis is normally as mild and calm as a Sunday morning — but just put him in front of a congregation on Sunday morning. Standing at the podium in the old-new Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, he sounds like a football coach sending his team into a big game.

"You got to run from the things of this world!" he shouts, his fist rising and falling like a hammer striking each word into memory. "You got to run to fight the good fight!!! And when you're done runnin' . . . ruuuunn!!!"

From the congregation come shouts of "Amen!" and "Tell 'em, Reverend!" Many of them are standing with their hands held high, some with their eyes closed, some weeping. The reverend has the whole congregation in his hand.

"You got to fight!!! . . . the gooooood fight! The gooood fight!!"

Reaching his crescendo, the reverend's sentences begin as spoken words but rise into a melody at the end so that the net result is a singing sermon. He leaves the podium at one point and walks down the aisles talking into a microphone, still preaching.

"Thank you," he says finally, "for letting me practice my preachin'."

Rev. Davis loves nothing more than preaching and teaching. Clearly, he is in his element here. "This is his calling," says longtime friend Ronald Coleman, a professor at the University of Utah and a member of the Calvary Baptist congregation.

The Rev. Davis spent a lifetime preparing himself for this calling with a formal education that reaped a half-dozen degrees. Augmenting that education was the experience of 55 years of living — growing up in a crowded farmhouse, picking cotton in the steamy fields of Georgia, enduring the Ku Klux Klan and second-class citizenship, having his face literally burned white, marching with Martin Luther King Jr.

The Rev. Davis has become much more than a preacher in the Salt Lake Community, and, for that matter, throughout the state. The mayor calls him for advice and help. So do the governor, the NAACP, the University of Utah. . . . He's the one reporters call when they need comments on social and African-American issues.

He spearheads welfare programs and works for countless civic organizations. He speaks all over the state at commencements, civic organizations and schools, and he still teaches honors courses at the University of Utah

"He seems to be ubiquitous whenever there are social justice issues and efforts to bring the diverse elements of this community together," says Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson, who was married by the Rev. Davis. "He's well respected among civic leaders and leaders of all religions. He's not only a leader of the black community, but one of the foremost leaders of the community in general. I've called on him more times than I can remember."

The Rev. Davis came to Salt Lake City 28 years ago, and he's never left, despite offers to serve as pastor at bigger churches in areas with fewer challenges, in Sacramento, Las Vegas, Georgia. The predominantly Mormon, Caucasian population presents major challenges for a largely African-American Baptist congregation in Utah. Even after all these years, when the Rev. Davis attends out-of-state events for his church, his colleagues marvel that he survives in Utah.

"They are always surprised and shocked," he says. "We considered leaving, but there was a need for continued leadership in this community, and I thought I could provide that. There are challenges in having a congregation that is not a part of the dominant religion in this community.

"To add to that, the predominantly African-American heritage presented challenges because of the attitudes and beliefs of the predominant religion about us. But it's been rewarding in that I can see the difference that's being made in the lives of our congregation and the larger community."

The Rev. Davis served as chairman of the committee that sponsored the bill to have 600 South named after Martin Luther King Jr. and to establish King's birthday as a Utah holiday. He is now working to support legislation to fight racial profiling

He serves on the community and national boards for the Salt Lake NAACP, the Salt Lake Housing Authority, Career Service Council, and the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau. He has helped build a housing complex for low-income elderly, sponsored education programs and accepted the governor's appointment to become the first African-American on the Utah State Board of Corrections. He was founding chairman of the Opportunity Industrialization Center, which retrained more than 1,000 people who had either dead-end jobs or were unemployed.

And then last year he built a large new Calvary Baptist Church, which celebrated its 110th year anniversary in Utah this month. The church was originally built on what is now the Crossroads Mall parking lot. After several moves, it has now settled on State Street.

The pastor's work in the community has not gone unnoticed. The governor's and mayor's office issued a proclamation declaring April 19, 1999, as Rev. France A. Davis Day to recognize his 25 years as pastor of Calvary Baptist. In 1997, he was named a Father of the Year by the Utah Father's Day Council and that same year received the Humanities Award, presented annually by the governor and Utah Humanities Council to someone who shares the humanities and communicates with people around the community. He has also received honorary degrees from the University of Utah and Salt Lake Community College.

"I see him as one of Utah's human treasures," says Coleman. "He's a bridge builder across all lines — religious, cultural, socio-economic. He is a person of impeccable integrity with extraordinarily good judgment. He's a voice of reason. He's cut out of the same cloth as Martin Luther King."

That's no coincidence, as you'll see.

The Rev. Davis was the eighth of nine children raised on an 83-acre farm near Gough, Ga., 30 miles from Augusta. He was born in the family home and received the name France by accident. His name was supposed to be Frank, but the midwife misspelled the name as France on the birth certificate and the name stuck.

France's mother, Julia, had an eighth-grade education, his father, John, a third-grade education. "Their motto was you have to do better than us," says the Rev. Davis. "They sacrificed. They did the jobs. We went to school. They denied themselves things to ensure we had school clothes and books and transportation to school."

France and his siblings were reared on hard work, education and religion. The children got up early to feed the hogs and mules and to milk the cows, then went to school. When they returned home in the afternoon, they went to work in the fields, where the family raised cotton, corn, wheat and sugar cane.

"My back still hurts just thinking about it," says the reverend.

They chopped cotton, picked cotton, pulled and tied fodder, cut and gathered wheat by hand, plowed fields with mules. When the sun set they ate dinner and did chores around the house.

"There was no TV," he says, "just radio while we did chores."

For the first decade of his life, the reverend also lived without indoor plumbing and electricity. "We had AC — we opened the window," he says. The three-bedroom house was made of unpainted boards and windows that had shutters but no glass. The parents slept in one room and the nine kids crammed into the other two rooms, two or more to a bed.

On Sundays, they went to church in the morning and in the afternoon John read to his children out of the Bible.

"He was a marvelous reader even though he had a third-grade education," recalls Rev. Davis. "He used Proverbs to teach and train us. That was his primary teaching tool. My parents knew the Bible well."

After graduating from high school, young France enrolled at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where his life took a dramatic turn after meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This was at the height of racial tension in the South. The KKK maintained a strong presence in the community. Growing up in Georgia, France regularly saw clan members in their white hoods and gowns, brandishing weapons, jeering at him. It was commonplace to see crosses burning in a yard, and there was the occasional lynching. One of France's aunts was taken from her bed the same night a Baptist church was burned to the ground and was never heard from again.

These were the separate-but-equal days of the South. African-Americans attended segregated schools and lived in segregated communities. There were separate water fountains and bathrooms and black/white sections in restaurants, bus stations and doctor's offices.

"My parents taught us how to live and survive," says Rev. Davis. "It was 'Yes, ma'am,' and 'No, ma'am.' You parked on the back side of a store and entered the back doors of white people's houses. You stepped off the sidewalk when a white man approached."

Asked if he has bitterness toward whites today, The Rev. Davis says, "I try not to. I hope I'm forgiving. It's just the way life was. I didn't think much about it. We were making the most of life, getting our education. It was no big deal. As I got older, in the days of Martin Luther King, I realized there was something wrong about it, that the laws of the land promised equal treatment."

As a reporter for the Tuskegee student newspaper, France met and interviewed Martin Luther King Jr. and soon after began marching with him in civil rights demonstrations. He marched with him from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights. He was there when King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C. in 1963 and his "How Long?" speech in Montgomery in 1965.

"I was right in the middle of it," says Rev. Davis. "I spent a lot of time talking with (Dr. King). His stance regarding nonviolence and love and not hate has to be the trademark of the movement. It was his leadership and his charisma. He was part of the reason I eventually went to the ministry. He was a clergyman and a strong, powerful leader."

France, who had always been an A student, spent so much time on civil rights demonstrations and following King that he flunked out of school. Fearful that he would be drafted into the Army or Marines, he enlisted in the Air Force and spent 18 months of his four-year stint in Thailand as an aircraft mechanic.

When he returned to the United States, he found himself "trying to figure out where to go as a college dropout; what to do with my life. I felt the urge and the call of God to do preaching ministries."

Over the course of the next decade he earned five college degrees — an associate of arts degree in arts and humanities at Laney College, an AA degree in Afro-American studies at Merritt College, a bachelor's of arts in rhetoric at the University of California, a bachelor's of science in religion at Westminster College and a master's of arts in mass communication at the University of Utah. (In 1994, he took a sixth degree, a master's of ministry, at Northwest Nazarene College.)

"All my academic training was designed to enhance my ministry," says the reverend. "After my military service, I realized if I was going to make a difference I had to have formal credentials in education."

He came to Utah after being recruited by the U. as a teaching fellow and graduate student. A year later, he became an instructor in communication and ethnic studies.

Formally ordained while attending Cal-Berkeley in 1971, Davis was hired to serve as assistant pastor at Calvary Baptist while a student at the University of Utah. In 1973, he was made interim pastor of the church and a year later the assignment was made permanent.

He has worked almost nonstop since then, rarely even taking vacations. Earlier this year he embarked on a seven-day cruise, but that was only because his congregation gave him the trip so that he and his wife, Willene, could get away.

The reverend took one other extended break in 1980, and the results were nearly disastrous. He was burning trash at his parents' home in Georgia. After dousing the trash in gasoline, he struck a match and was instantly enveloped in flame. He rolled around on the ground to put out the fire. Severely burned from the chest up, he was admitted to the Augusta burn center for 18 days before returning to Salt Lake City for skin grafts on his hands and arms, but, miraculously, not his face. The grafts and burns are still visible on the back of his hands, but his face is unscarred.

"My face was healed as a result of prayer," he says. "I specifically asked God not to let my face be scarred. And it was burnt as badly as my hands. I was as white as you in the face."

He was unable to preach for several months, but since then he has maintained an exhausting schedule, with speaking requests, church work, civic duties, teaching at the U., and writing. (He has authored four books.)

"I enjoy work," he says. "I'm a workaholic."

The Rev. Davis and Willene have lived in the same house for nearly three decades, the only African-Americans in their Cottonwood neighborhood. They have raised one son and two daughters.

Grace graduated from Grambling and is a police officer at Baylor Medical Center. Carolyn graduated from the U. and is a fraud inspector for Utah. France Jr. graduated from Georgetown University and is doing genetic research at the University of Utah. The Utah high school state record holder in the long jump, he qualified for the 2000 Olympic trials with a personal-best jump of 27 feet, 4 inches. He plans to attend medical school and study the ministry.

Sitting in his office on a weekday afternoon, the Rev. Davis is repeatedly interrupted by phone calls, which cause him to retrieve his PalmPilot from his coat pocket to check his schedule.

The Rev. Davis comes across as serious and reserved, but give him a few minutes and he warms up, occasionally dropping humorous one-liners with a dead-serious face.

"He's funny," says the receptionist, Lucille. "He's kind. I've been a member here 26 years and I've never seen him get mad. People here love him."

"He can be such a gentle, soft-spoken man, and yet when he's behind the podium he can shake the rafters," says Mayor Anderson. "He's very passionate about his work. He is an extraordinary man who can really get to the truth in such a compelling way and articulate it like almost no one else."

"He's wise and old beyond his years," says Coleman. "He follows the tradition of the African-American preacher. He's very much steeped in that, with a twist of the formal education in there. He's nobody's country bumpkin."

"When you say his name you think of the Baptist church and leader of the community," says Jeanetta Williams, president of the local branch of the NAACP. "People look to him for spiritual guidance and help, and he makes himself available."

In his spare time, the reverend rides a bike for exercise and does what he's done since his boyhood — read. "His library is gigantic," says France Jr. "He's got a big library at the house and another one at church."

"I'm a bookworm," says the reverend. "You name it, I read it. Poetry. Novels. Biographies. I got it from my mother, I suppose. She always had books around."

The phone rings again. It's the mayor's office, he says. Duty calls once again, and out comes the PalmPilot.

There are more speeches to make, more causes to enlist in, more souls to teach in a life dedicated to the good fight.