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Dignitaries, family and friends pack the pews as Rev. France Davis delivers his final sermon on friendship

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, church leaders, Frank Layden and Ron McBride among those in attendance

Pastor France A. Davis greets people as he walks down the aisle after giving his final sermon at Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019.
Pastor France A. Davis greets people as he walks down the aisle after giving his final sermon at Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — On a day of tender tributes, standing ovations and packed pews at Calvary Baptist Church, it was fitting for retiring Rev. France A. Davis to deliver his final sermon Sunday on the meaning of friendship.

Not only did the message convey the 73-year-old pastor’s love and genuine attachment to Utah and its people, but it represented all he’s worked for over the past 45 years.

“Jesus explained that believers ought to have a right relationship one with the other,” Rev. Davis said. “That’s been the secret that I’ve tried to promote for 46-plus years in this community, that we ought to have a right relationship one with the other.”

Of the countless friendships Rev. Davis has developed in those years, several hundred attended worship services on his final Sunday as a full-time minister. In addition to his immediate family and many longtime friends, fellow faith leaders traveled from as far away as Maryland, Florida and Georgia to support him on this special day.

Former U.S. Ambassador and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., his wife, Mary Kaye, and their daughter, sat on the front row.

Elder Jack N. Gerard, a General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, attended and later presented the reverend a “Tree of Life” decorative gift with a personal, handwritten note from President Russell M. Nelson.

Sister Jean B. Bingham, the church’s Relief Society general president, and her husband, Bruce Bingham, came to the 8 a.m. service.

Also in attendance was new Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, former Utah Jazz coach Frank Layden, former University of Utah football coach Ron McBride, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, and Capt. Jeffrey Thomas, battalion chief of the Salt Lake Fire Department, among others.

Pastor France A. Davis gives his final sermon at Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019.
Pastor France A. Davis gives his final sermon at Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

At the conclusion of both services, well wishers formed long lines to hug and honor Rev. Davis and his wife, Sister Willene Davis, one more time.

“I’ve supported Rev. Davis over the years and I’ve attended his sermons numerous times,” Huntsman said. “I have great respect for the unique sense of diversity he has brought to our community, that speaks to tolerance, that speaks to justice, that speaks to civil rights. So all of that is enough to celebrate today and a whole lot more.”

Layden praised Rev. Davis as a “saint.”

“We don’t get opportunities every day to go to visit with saints, do we?” Layden said. “Pastor Davis has been a longtime friend. He’s made me cry. He’s made me laugh. He saved my job by helping me with the players. He’s just a wonderful man. One of the rewards we have of being in the business I was in is that I met a lot of giants ... and he’s right at the top of the list. He’s something special and I couldn’t miss it.”

Elder Gerard called Rev. Davis a “remarkable” individual and community leader for many years.

“He’s been a great ally with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and we’re privileged to pay respects today as he gives his last sermon,” Elder Gerard said. “President Nelson wanted to make sure we came and honored the reverend with a gift of our appreciation for his contribution to the community. And we hope this isn’t the end. He’s got a long life ahead of him and we hope to continue to act with Rev. Davis, the NAACP and others closely affiliated with the broader movement across the United States.”

Thomas, the first African-American to achieve the rank of battalion chief in the history of the Salt Lake Fire Department, said Rev. Davis was the “most influential” and “most positive” person in his life.

“He’s been with me every step of the way throughout my process and upward mobility throughout the fire department, from the time I was promoted to captain to battalion chief, he’s always been that person there supporting me,” Thomas said. “Today was my turn to support him.”

When Brown took over the Salt Lake City Police Department in 2015, police relations with the African-American communities were strained. Brown turned to Rev. Davis for help. He remembers Rev. Davis lowering his glasses and saying, “Chief, we’ve been here for 40 years. Where have you been?”

“I thought, ‘Hmm, point taken.’ Since that day we have tried very hard to be engaged with the community and Calvary Baptist because it’s an important part of our community,” Brown said. “He’s been such a pillar in this community for so many years. It’s an amazing accomplishment.”

Many in Utah’s African-American community, including the Calvary Baptist congregation, adore Rev. Davis for what he’s meant to their family for decades. He’s performed marriages, baptisms, and often come to the rescue at odd hours.

Lucille Council traveled all the way from Atlanta to attend the service. She was baptized by Rev. Davis shortly before he performed her marriage in 1977, his first as pastor.

Andre Hill, who attended with his 9-year-old son, JaShawn, said Rev. Davis inspired him as a young man to make something of his life.

“He told me to be the man God wants me to be — a successful husband and father,” Hill said. “I couldn’t ask for a better pastor or preacher. I had to hear him one more time. He’s still the best, at least in my eyes. I hope the new one can fill his shoes.”

For Dennis Herndon and Kevin Holly, who both work up in the church’s sound booth, orchestrating the pastor’s last Sunday “pulled at the heartstrings,” Herndon said.

“I’ve been around for eight years of his ministry and been touched by so many of his sermons. Sometimes you would think that when he’s preaching, he’s doing it just for you,” Herndon said. “He affects so many people in such a positive way.”

Over the years, Rev. Davis has been a mentor and friend to men like Stanley Ellington, an associate minister at True Vine Baptist Church in Kaysville.

“He has set an example as to how a preacher and minister should conduct themselves,” Ellington said. “I consider him a mentor and a great living example.”

How did the pastor feel on his final Sunday?

“Relief, no longer responsible, burden’s lifted and ready to go,” he said with a smile.

Rev. Davis was humbled by the big turnout and all the well-wishes.

“It means that something I’ve done has made a difference in somebody else’s life,” he said. “That was my goal.”

Congregants listen as Pastor France A. Davis gives his final sermon at Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019.
Congregants listen as Pastor France A. Davis gives his final sermon at Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Before giving his final sermon, Rev. Davis baptized his grandson, France Davis III, and presented him and other new members with “new birth certificates.”

His final sermon centered on being a friend and knowing that Jesus Christ is your best friend, drawing upon examples of true and loyal friendship from the Old and New Testament.

First he thanked people for coming, gave shoutouts to special guests, and talked about how excited he was to leave Sunday night for the Dec. 31 Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, where he will join the University of Utah football team as its team chaplain.

During his remarks, Rev. Davis reviewed the timeline of his career, starting with the day he found God and continuing to his arrival in Utah in 1972. The congregation laughed when he said people he knew back home honestly asked if Salt Lake City was in the United States.

Rev. Davis didn’t know anyone at first, and recalled that people didn’t talk to him, only looked at him “as if he was from Mars.” But one older woman at church was kind to him. From her example he came to appreciate the power and importance of friendship, he told the congregation.

“God made us not to be loners, but social beings,” Rev. Davis said. “We need to learn about other people, appreciate other people and celebrate them, then we can become friends.”

In his parting words, the pastor reminded the congregation that he is retiring but still plans to occasionally preach, teach and write, as well as help where needed, because “I love the people,” he said.

He invited those with his phone number to “put it on the shelf.”

“You and I are friends. You can call me anytime between 8 (a.m.) and 5 (p.m.),” he said as the room laughed. “After that, call your pastor!”

The new pastor at Calvary Baptist will be Rev. Oscar T. Moses, from Chicago. He and his wife are expected in Utah this week, and he is expected to give his first sermon Jan. 5. Rev. Davis said Rev. Moses was selected from a group of 50 candidates over a six-month process. More than 170 members of the Calvary Baptist congregation voted as part of the decision, Rev. Davis said.