Salt Lake Tribune religious news reporter Peggy Fletcher-Stack and managing editor David Noyce visited with Rev. Frances Davis in a Dec. 31 Mormon Land podcast. He recently retired as pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City. This column is based on comments from that podcast.
When Rev. Frances Davis set foot in Salt Lake City nearly half a century ago, he faced numerous negative experiences because of the color of his skin.
The retiring Rev. Davis served the people far beyond his job description of pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, the largest Utah black congregation.
He spent 46 years in the trenches of community service as an educator, civic activist, civil rights icon, and a behind-the-scenes shaper of essential legislative changes.
He served his country in Vietnam as a mechanic and a minister while preparing to being formally ordained in 1970.
As a graduating student at the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Utah communications department recruited him to become a teaching fellow, graduate student, and later an instructor.
When he arrived in Salt Lake in 1972 there were no figurative or literal signs proclaiming, “The world is welcome here.”
The young pastor secured an apartment and paid a deposit, but the landlord greeted him with a stern, “Not here!” when they met. The young Davis stood firm and refused to consider other housing options.
Utah was behind the ball in every way, especially in human and civil rights, he observed.
It was during that era that protests were launched against Brigham Young University athletic events because black members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were not allowed to hold the priesthood.
Rev. Davis said that policy transferred to every aspect of the community, including education, work, housing, employment and business opportunities.
On one occasion, he was invited to speak at BYU but was promptly escorted off campus by security because he was “not dressed properly and my hair was not in accordance with what they felt a man’s hair should be.”
He added, “I suspect it was more than that.”
Following the change in policy on blacks and the priesthood in 1978, race relations began to change locally.
When Gordon B. Hinckley became president of the Church in 1995, “I had great experiences with him. He was more open and more inclusive.”
That relationship continued under the leadership of President Thomas S. Monson, Rev. Davis said.
During those years, they talked about bringing about change on housing, feeding the hungry, and homelessness, Rev. Davis said.
In the podcast he shared an experience where Elder James E. Faust of the First Presidency casually remarked, “If you ever need anything, let me know.”
Rev. Davis responded immediately that Calvary Baptist was looking for land for a new church.
With the leadership of Presiding Bishop H. David Burton, Calvary Baptist bought a 2.5-acre spot on 1100 S. Main. Although it was sold at fair market value, it was held while the congregation raised $800,000.
President Russell M. Nelson spoke at the NAACP 110th convention in July and commented on the favorable relationship between Calvary Baptist and LDS Church headquarters in Salt Lake City.
Rev. Davis wants to see that favorable rapport extend to the grassroots of the community.
“The conversation about race needs to be ongoing at all levels. Currently, it seems we are doing a lot at the high level.”
Hopefully, we as a community — especially LDS people — can push forward the agenda where all people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” as envisioned by Martin Luther King and Rev. Davis.
Charlie Roberts previously served as a bishop of the Tooele 6th Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.