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.
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.
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.
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.2 comments on this story
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.'"