By: Sydney Jorgensen
It was Sunday morning in February on the west side of Salt Lake City. Hundreds of people shuffled through the front doors of Calvary Baptist Church, greeted by friendly faces and warm smiles. Ushers stood at the entrance of the sanctuary as people came through to take their seats. Hugs and handshakes went all around as the music began in preparation for the service.
Rows filled, people stood and sang as worship begun. After devotion and selections of praise music, this time performed by the children’s choir, Pastor France A. Davis preached about the importance of serving and following the Lord.
“We believe that when one comes to church, one comes to meet God, and that you ought to come offering and being your very best,” Davis said.
Following the sermon and benediction, the members of the congregation exited the sanctuary. Pastor Davis stood by the door with an individual handshake or hug for each person who left.
“All people have multiple needs, including a spiritual need,” Davis said. “Regardless of where a person comes from, meeting those spiritual needs is essential.”
A “state treasure”
“He is a very articulate person,” said Ronald Coleman, a member of Calvary Baptist. “He communicates with people from a variety of walks of life. We are very fortunate to have him as a resident in the state of Utah. He is a state treasure.”
Coleman, an expert on African-Americans in Utah, met Davis in 1973. As professors at the University of Utah in the ethnic studies program, Coleman and Davis began a lifelong friendship.
“I’ve grown some in terms of my faith, I know I have, as a result of my association with him,” Coleman said.
It wasn’t long after the two met that Coleman started attending Calvary.
“I had been away from church membership for a number of years and I started attending Calvary, primarily because I had young children and I was a single parent,” Coleman said. “Sitting in the service one Sunday, it just resonated with me personally. I found myself accepting the invitation to become a member.”
Coleman described Davis as not just his pastor and colleague, but an older-brother figure, even though Coleman is older than him. Davis even married Coleman and his wife, also a member of Calvary, after Davis successfully “put in a good word for him.”
As the longest-running pastor of what was established in 1892 as Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, Davis has been helping members of his congregation for nearly 43 years.
But when Calvary’s 23rd pastor came to Salt Lake over 40 years ago, he didn’t intend to stay longer than a year.
“I had no idea I’d still be here,” Davis said. “I’ve stayed because I’ve sensed there is a need and I, with my training and preparation, came help meet those needs. People trust me to be their leader.”
Born and raised in Georgia, Davis finished high school and went to college at Tuskegee University in Montgomery, Alabama. He then moved to Florida and served four years in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War.
Davis returned to school and earned degrees from several institutions, including the University of California, Berkeley, Westminster College, Northwest Nazarene University, Salt Lake Community College and Dixie State College. He went to the University of Utah in 1972 and began teaching soon after. In 1974, he became pastor of Calvary Baptist Church.
“All of my nine degrees were preparatory for ministry,” Davis said.
Davis taught communications courses in news writing, radio and television as well as ethnic studies and African-American studies. He retired from the U in 2014.
As Davis has become a “bridge between various religious and social entities,” Coleman doesn’t know of any place where the pastor can’t go to listen and express his opinions.
“He being a resident in the state of Utah is invaluable to individuals who do not live in this state and have certain perceptions of Utah and Utahns,” Coleman said.
Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch & NAACP Tri-State Conference of Idaho, Nevada and Utah, has known Davis for more than 20 years.
“He’s a man of integrity and good character,” Williams said. “He is a person who is concerned about what’s going on in the country as well as the state of Utah.”
Davis was appointed to Utah’s Board of Regents in 2008. A large part of Davis’ involvement in the community is his focus on education, what he calls “the tool to help with mobility.”
“Education is essential. It is the pathway to a better way of life. Without thorough preparation, you are not ready to take on the tasks that are before you, no matter what they are,” he said.
For the last 125 years, Calvary has been providing reading and writing programs as well as scholarships for youth to attend college, David said. Today, Calvary additionally offers several educational programs ranging from tutoring to computer and finance classes.
“We encourage students to get as high as a formal education as they can and to get on-the-job training in every area they possibly can,” Davis said.
Williams said Davis has always emphasized education, not just in word, but in action.
“Not only does he talk about people needing to get an education, he makes sure he raises funds for scholarships,” Williams said. “He makes sure students see him as a role model. He even went back and got his doctorate degree.”
Williams said involvement in legislative issues is just one way Davis helps the community as a whole.
“When you say ‘Calvary,’ most people will always think of Pastor Davis and his accomplishments in the community,” Williams said. “People will think of his willingness to not only serve as pastor of Calvary, but be a spokesperson for different issues in the community.”
The future of Calvary
“In spite of invitations to go and have larger congregations in more metropolitan areas, we’re a better community because he has been here for 43 years,” Coleman said.
Coleman has witnessed firsthand how Calvary has brought the community together despite different political, social, economic and cultural backgrounds.
“Calvary will continue to be a light in the midst of darkness, in the midst of an area and community where there is much need, where there are many hurts people are experiencing,” Davis said. “We will continue to feed the sick and the homeless and the hungry. We will continue to provide housing for the elderly and physically handicap. We will continue to provide educational programs as well as meet spiritual needs.”
“Whatever causes people to hurt, Calvary, now and in the future, will be in the heart of whatever those problems are.”