Revival: Calvary Baptist Church celebrates 120 years of worship and reaching out

Published: Saturday, Nov. 10 2012 11:00 a.m. MST

Deacons and deaconess give a scripture reading at the start of the Calvary Baptist Church 120th Anniversary celebration revival service with Rev. France Davis conducting and Rev. L.K. Curry giving the sermon, Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Curry is pastor emeritus of the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Chicago, Ill., and was a pastor in Ogden years ago.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The carefully crafted sermon by Rev. L.K. Curry had reached a crescendo.

"Don't depend or put hope in your provisions, but in the provider," roared the 86-year-old guest preacher from Chicago's Emmanuel Baptist Church, as the congregation of more than 200 stood and shouted in agreement.

The loud and lively Monday night revival service at the Calvary Baptist Church was a stark to contrast to the more sedate worship services observed by Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Catholics and many other Protestants in the valley.

And that distinction is a big reason Calvary Baptist was formed 120 years ago by a small group of African American women who were marginalized in the strictly segregated society of the late 19th century. They had to sit in segregated pews, be the last to participate in Sunday sacraments and didn't hold any positions of responsibility or leadership.

"The ladies felt a need to worship and express themselves freely," said Rev. France Davis, Calvary's current pastor. "They formed a Bible study band and worshipped in their homes."

Today, Calvary Baptist is 900-strong in a 47,000 square-foot church that also serves as an educational, social and recreational hub for the community at large. The evening revival services celebrating the anniversary during the past week culminate Sunday when a capacity congregation of up to 1,800 is expected to give thanks through music, prayer and sermons for a place that has met the unique spiritual and secular needs of its members for decades.

Lighthouse in Zion

Calvary's beginnings and role in the community are not unlike those of other African American churches in the United States. University of Utah history professor Ron Coleman said the mainstream churches were no refuge from the segregation and racism that existed throughout the 19th century and much of the 20th century.

"They (African Americans) were generally treated as subordinate to the larger church membership, and out of that blacks created their own institutions of which the most powerful and influential was independent black religious denominations, primarily Baptist and Methodist," Coleman said. Meeting among themselves, African Americans could take charge of their affairs, feel free to express themselves and find the spiritual and temporal support that religious institutions traditionally provided.

African Americans fleeing the South for economic opportunities found jobs in Utah in mining, the railroad, hospitality and housekeeping. Military installations at Forts Duchesne and Douglas also brought black families to the state.

Despite the predominantly white population belonging to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which until 1978 banned blacks from the church's priesthood, African American churches like Calvary and Trinity AME sprang up and flourished.

"Calvary was lighthouse in Zion," Coleman said. "It was a place that visitors to the community knew they could go could go to observe religious services familiar with them, sing the songs they knew and loved, worship God as they chose."

One of those visitors was Lula Flake, who moved to Utah from Louisiana in 1953 with her husband Willard Flake, a native Utahn whose great-grandfather Green Flake was a Mormon pioneer. She joined Calvary Baptist, an oasis of familiarity in her new hometown.

"It was a small church. Kind of hard to get into. But it had beautiful stained-glass windows," recalls Flake, 91, of Calvary's third location.

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