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

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

Calvary's growth meant relocating several times from a "little colored house of worship" at 37 1/2 S. West Temple in the 1890s to larger and larger church buildings. When Davis arrived in Salt Lake City as a graduate student at the University of Utah, one of the first things he did was find the Calvary Baptist Church, then housed at 532 E. 700 South — its fourth location since it was founded.

Meeting needs

Although Davis was studying and teaching broadcast journalism, his passion was in the ministry. He was put to work by his predecessor, who had an eye toward training the Georgia native to take over. Within two years of arriving, Davis was asked to be pastor.

The calling interrupted his plans to finish his teaching fellowship at the U. and return to Atlanta "to teach and preach back home."

"Calvary Baptist kept me here. The (gave me) opportunity to serve God and these people at the same time, and make a significant difference in the lives of these people," Davis said. "It's important that every person feels like they have something to contribute — that they have worth and value."

Flake said Davis was the first pastor she remembers visiting her in her home. "When he first came here I wasn't going to church like I was supposed to," she said. "After I met him, I went back."

The new pastor, who had worked as a civil rights activist in the South, had an ambitious plan to make Calvary a player in the local community in a way that would create opportunities for the congregation as well as contribute to the community.

But he got some pushback from followers who weren't so eager to step out of their comfort zone.

"People here were content to make do with where they were. My sense was they were not going to rock the boat, not push for things," Davis recalls.

They were also reluctant to take on the causes of a pastor who might follow the pattern of his predecessors by leaving in a couple of years. "They didn't want to have to finish up something I had started," Davis said.

But Davis broke with tradition and has pastored here for 18 years, spearheading programs for his church and the African American community at large.

Among the first needs he recognized was housing for the aging members of his congregation. "I saw lots of elderly women being widowed and as a result having difficulty keeping up a house and needing a safe, affordable place to live," he said.

The effort to meet those housing needs began with the purchase of a few apartments and culminated with the construction of Calvary Tower, a 30-unit low-income senior citizen housing complex that serves the larger Salt Lake City community.

A college education was another necessity that many attending Calvary Baptist believed was out of reach for their children when Davis arrived. But Davis helped the congregation initiate the 10/36 Scholarship Plan, in which members contributed $10 per month for 36 months to endow a scholarship account for financial assistance.

Among those who contributed were Diane Matthews and her husband. The fund helped cover the costs of books and expenses for their daughter who graduated from college in 2008 and now works as an admissions adviser for Chamberlain College of Nursing in Columbus, Ohio.

"Our other alternatives were loans, and because of the scholarship (our daughter) graduated debt-free," Matthews said.

Building community

Meeting the needs of youth is the most pressing challenge for Davis and most of the 33,000 other churches in the National Baptist Convention, USA. Teens and younger children have basic spiritual needs, Davis said, but they communicate differently and the church is also exploring ways to send the gospel message through interactive media that youth use.

That message also needs to be relevant to the challenges youth face. "We need to make sure (the message) speaks to issues of life on the streets, such as bullying and abuse," he said.

Today, walking through the upper floor of Calvary's new church completed in 2001, Davis opens the doors to rooms that house social service counseling, tutoring and continuing education for children and adults, a community meeting space and a senior citizen center. The large kitchen is where members cook weekly meals for seniors, children and the homeless. The full-court gym is also used by the neighboring Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, the alternative high school for the Salt Lake City School District. The sanctuary can accommodate as many as 1,800, about 30 percent of whom are white or have other racial or ethnic backgrounds.

Davis counts building the huge brick church set back from a busy six-lane street as among the church's great milestones. But it is the myriad of spiritual and secular services taking place within the church that are the legacy Davis wants Calvary Baptist Church to be known for.

"It's the building of a community among the people," he said. "Not a physical facility, but a building of community among the people who say, 'We can sign on, cooperate and work together to do this.'"

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