Reverend France Davis

Three Lessons From a Lifetime of Service

Jake Wilhelmsen | Photo by Kevin Kiernan Nov 14, 2019

Gough, Georgia, is 2,000 miles from Salt Lake City. It’s a 30-hour drive with no traffic. Gough is hot and rainy, a predominantly Protestant rural town outside of Augusta. Salt Lake City is none of those things. The only thing the two places have in common, really, is the Rev. France Davis.

“I didn’t expect to stay but I’m glad I did,” says Davis, who was born on a farm outside Gough and made his way to Salt Lake City for graduate school in 1972. When the University of Utah offered him a teaching position and Calvary Baptist Church offered him a job as pastor, he and his wife, Willene, put down roots. “It’s been a great place to make a home and rear a family.”

On the occasion of his retirement from Calvary Baptist Church at the end of this year, Davis shares a few things he’s learned.

Nobody Is a Nobody

“My philosophy, and that of the Calvary Baptist Church, is that everyone has worth,” Davis says. “Nobody is a nobody.” And that means something, coming from a definite somebody.

Davis has lived a life that doesn’t fit on one side of a résumé. He was at the March on Washington in 1963 and walked with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. He served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in rhetoric from UC Berkeley, a Bachelor of Science in religion from Westminster College, a Master of Fine Arts in mass communication from the University of Utah and a Master of Fine Arts in ministry from Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho.

He attended Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and Laney College in California and was awarded honorary degrees from a handful of colleges. He taught at the University of Utah for 45 years and is now an emeritus adjunct associate professor. Four scholarships were established in his name, and he’s been honored by everyone from the U and the National Baptist Congress to the State of Utah and the FBI for a lifetime of teaching, activism and service.

His accolades roll on just about forever.

“But I was always a pastor first,” he says. All the work he did throughout his life arose from his desire to help his brothers and sisters, fellow children of God he says, to reach their fullest potential. Because everybody is somebody.          

Wait Until the Ground Swells

Of the intersection of education, faith and activism, Davis says, “I don’t think politics is the word for it. I think it’s putting into action what you believe. Wherever there’s a wrong, somebody needs to do something about it. You have to put hands and feet to it.”

And when is the right time to start? “Wait until the ground swells,” he says. “Wait until the people are ready to act. When people are ready to act, you can lead them.”

Prepare as if Everything Depends on You

This man of faith knows the value of hard work. He grew up studying, marching and learning from people like King and his mentor Howard Thurman.

Then he spent five decades teaching and ministering — two vocations that require continuous study and preparation. “For the most part, I teach all of the Sunday services,” Davis says of his 45 years at Calvary Baptist. “Occasionally I’ll have other people step in and help but I’m responsible for each service.”

He’ll be 73 when he finally allows himself to (semi-)retire. “I’m stepping down as full-time pastor, but I’ll continue to do part-time work,” he says.

Davis has lived a life of praxis as preparation with no real signs of slowing down, as if he’s still getting ready for something yet to come.

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