The power of the gospel: Can black churches survive turbulent times?

Published: Sunday, Aug. 28 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

The recession hit Davis' congregation hard. The African American unemployment rate is flirting with 16 percent, recent figures show. Unemployment for Caucasians, in the meantime, is hovering around 8 percent. While white family wealth rose from $22,000 to $100,000 over the past 23 years, black family wealth rose by just $3,000 to $5,000, according to a recent Brandeis University study.

"Many of my people are the last to be hired the first to be fired," Davis said. "A number of them have given up on what society has to offer because it hasn't worked for them."

Across the country, church foreclosures have tripled since 2007, according to filings in the Thomson Reuters Westlaw legal database. Rev. Jesse Jackson, a prominent civil rights activist and Baptist minister, told Reuters he estimated thousands of black churches nationwide battled foreclosure last year.

In light of the financial struggles of many black congregations, the fact that Calvary Baptist has not had to shut down any of its social service programs is "remarkable," said Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Calvary Baptist saw an increase in numbers as the recession humbled many who had turned away and a slight dip in tithing contributions, Davis said. Money is tighter than usual, but the congregation was still able to scrape up enough to help those in need with housing, food, transportation and education assistance.

"We're encouraging people to be at their best no matter their circumstances," he said. "Above all, we share a message of hope. People need to continue to dream."

Scholars trace African Americans' strong faith back to the days of slavery, when church was the only place they could gather uninhibited.

When slavery was abolished, the black church was the only stable institution to emerge intact. Throughout history, church has been instrumental in lifting the black community, not only through traditional alms, but also by lobbying to knock down racial barriers that prohibited African Americans from succeeding, Butler said.

Church produced black leaders such as King and Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who helped countless others to freedom through the Underground Railroad. The first national black organization, a publisher called the A.M.E. Church, was backed by the black churches. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League were founded with the help and support of black church leaders.

"The Black Church is the single most important institution in the black community," said Larry Mamiya, a professor of religion and Africana studies at Vassar College. In his book, "The Black Church in the African American Experience," which compiles 10 years of research at churches such as Calvary Baptist, Mamiya concludes the black church is the "cultural womb" of the black community. "Not only did it give birth to new institutions, such as schools, banks, insurance companies and low income housing, it also provided an academy and an arena for political activities, and it nurtured young talent for musical, dramatic, and artistic development."

The America Davis grew up in didn't allow black kids and white kids to share the same classroom. He rode used school buses, learned from used textbooks and got his training from teachers who didn't graduate from accredited colleges. In 1946, he joined King's famous march on the Washington, D.C. Eventually, he got kicked out of his all-black college for marching too much.

"I brought all that life experience with me," Davis said. There are framed black-and-white photos of King posted on the walls of Calvary Baptist alongside photos of the latest youth activity.

When Davis came to Utah in 1972, he said Utah was "about 10 years behind" the rest of the country in terms of civil rights. As the head of Calvary Baptist, he went to battle against discrimination. He rallied his congregation to fight for the Fair Housing Act and convinced the state to recognize Martin Luther King Day as a holiday.

"When we talk in terms of equality, there's still work to be done," he said. "The big thing that's left to be done is changing attitudes and applications of those laws. In the education system, minorities are still underserved. There is disparate treatment in our health care system. We don't have enough minorities involved in business and government."

Inspiring youth

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