Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News
Rev. France A. Davis

ST. GEORGE — Democratic presidential hopeful Illinois Sen. Barack Obama should not be asked to sever his relationship with his former spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Rev. France Davis said during a visit to Dixie State College on Tuesday.

"For Mr. Obama to be told you have to disown that part of your life, that would be a serious mistake," said Davis, who is pastor of Salt Lake City's Calvary Mission Baptist Church. "It is impossible to do that."

Davis was the guest speaker at a weekly forum on campus and centered most of his speech on the history of black churches in Utah, although he also touched on contemporary topics. Davis is the author of the 1997 book "Light in the Midst of Zion. A History of Black Baptists in Utah, 1892-1996."

In his speech, which was attended by about 40 people, Davis described black churches as more than a religious setting for their members.

"African-American churches are, for African-Americans, the center of our community. It is where we can go for a sense of freedom and refuge," said Davis.

The pastor's comments about Wright, whose controversial views toward America and race have been well publicized, came in the context of explaining to a mostly Caucasian audience the role black churches have in the lives of their members.

"Rev. Jeremiah Wright delivered a message of challenge," said Davis. "I don't agree with everything he said, but he delivered a message of challenge if you listen to the whole of his sermon, not the loop that we keep hearing on television."

Black churches in Utah contribute economically, spiritually and educationally to not only their members, but to the community as a whole, Davis said.

"We are not just in the religion business, we're in the leadership development business and we're also in the economic development business," he said. "Ninety percent of what African-Americans are doing outside of their private homes are things related to or connected to their church."

Black churches tackle another role, that of political activist, Davis said.

"We are not among those who believe in separation of church and state. We are not convinced that was ever the intent," he said. "Whatever issue there is where people hurt, we are involved. African-American churches are engaged in and are active in politics."

Davis reviewed numerous projects he has tackled through the years, including starting the first preschool reading program at Calvary Mission Baptist Church using a music-based approach.

"We have children reading at the fourth grade level by the time they enter the first grade," Davis said. Students who graduate high school and want to go to college are guaranteed financial help if needed, he added.

"We believe people who are going to be their best spiritually must also have the best education," he said, reminding his college audience to search for knowledge throughout their lives. "Words can really make a difference in the quality of one's life."

E-mail: nperkins@desnews.com