Jason Olson, Deseret News
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."
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