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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Legacy of Rev. Dr. James I. Davis

by Lewis Brogdon | Nov 18, 2013
Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. (1 Corinthians 3:1-10a).

One of the many problems Paul addressed in his first letter to the Corinthians was divisions. People in the church had become fond of a particular teacher and decided to name them as their favorite teacher and affirmed their allegiance by telling others they followed them. Paul considered this kind of thinking to be a sign of spiritual immaturity. He sought to correct their misplaced devotion and allegiance to their teachers by instructing the Corinthians that all teachers were servants. Paul may have planted and Apollos may have watered the seed but God made it grow. Instead of the teachers God uses, Paul directed their attention to God who gives the church teachers and blesses the work they do in the church. This passage is important for churches because it helps the church not to become overly infatuated or reliant on teachers who plant and water the seeds of the gospel. It is also particularly important for ministers because of the ever present temptation to give into what I term “ministerial rivalry.” Too many ministers view our sacred work as a competition and feel the need to outperform or worse yet, to criticize or to diminish the work of other ministers. Such practices encourage disrespect that is far too widespread in the ministry today. There is no room in the church for jealous ministers. Instead, like Paul taught the Corinthians, we should appreciate all the teachers and preachers who plant and water seeds and recognize that in different ways God uses us all to bless the church and the world. This text is important not just for corrective reasons but also because it teaches us three valuable lessons. First, it highlights the importance of having a proper perspective about the work of ministers. We teach but God makes it grow. Second, it encourages us to have an appreciation and respect for ministers. Planting and watering seeds is important work worthy of appreciation and respect. Third, it encourages ministers to recognize the mutual nature of our work. Christian ministry means building on the foundation of others. We need each other and God for effective ministry to happen. After all, we can only water seeds that someone else planted. And some of the seeds that yield a rich harvest today were actually planted years ago by someone else. This text has come alive in my life in a profound way. Let me explain.

Two years ago I was contacted by Virginia Hill, one of the members of the Worship Committee about preaching at Trinity one Sunday in October. I gladly accepted the invitation and had a wonderful experience. This was second visit to Trinity and so I knew they were in the process of calling a pastor. After preaching the fall revival and World Communion Sunday, I felt compelled by the Lord to make myself available until they called a pastor. I thought the process would last a month or two but God had other plans. I ended up staying for two years. In fact, my time at Trinity as interim pastor ended becoming one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in twenty-one years of ministry. Trinity was a kind and loving congregation to me, my four kids, and my new wife. In fact, we grew so fond of them that the two and a half hour drive to Dayton and back did not seem that bad. But more importantly, I found this church to be a theologically and socially educated congregation. I was able to preach a broad range of sermons because this church had a history of hearing theological, social, pastoral, congregational, and political sermons. It was a real joy preaching in a church that could appreciate the full range of issues addressed in Scripture. I knew that this was a testament to the commitment this church has to education but also I knew that this commitment was rooted in the legacy of a pastor who labored for years before me. 

I began to realize that a major reason I had such a transformative and empowering experience serving as interim pastor was because of the ministry and legacy of Rev. Dr. James I. Davis. For two years, I stood on his shoulders and preached the gospel and ministered to God’s people at Trinity. I built on a foundation already laid by someone else. And so, I thought that it is only fitting to honor his legacy with this blog. I want the partners and friends of the Black Church Studies Program at Louisville Seminary to know who has made contributions to the church that opened doors for us today. I want you to know about Rev. Davis. And the real beauty and power of this is that I have never personally met him yet he has enriched my life and ministry. I believe this kind of grace is what Paul was trying to help the Corinthians to understand.  

The Rev. Dr. James I. Davis was born on October 27, 1921 in Henderson, North Carolina. He graduated from high school in 1939 and from Knoxville College in 1943 and many of his sermons contained the spiritual experiences that he had while attending there. He received a B.D. Degree from the Pittsburgh Xenia Theological Seminary in 1946; Master of Divinity Degree, Pittsburgh Xenia Theological Seminary in 1968, and a Doctor of Divinity from the Mary Holmes College in 1977. He also continued his education at McCormick Theological Seminary during the early seventies. Dr. Davis’ pastoral service started in 1947 as the pastor of Chase City United Presbyterian Church in Chase City, Virginia. In 1948 the Rev. Clinton Marsh of Indianapolis, Indiana was summoned to Dayton, Ohio to survey the community for an outreach Presbyterian Ministry. Rev. Davis was sent to organize Trinity United Presbyterian Church in 1948 with a founding that included 15 members which grew to a membership of five hundred. During his tenure at Trinity, Rev. Davis provided leadership in the purchase of a parsonage in 1952 at 2600 Lakeview; land at Fleetfoot and Lakeview, the site of the original church building and a second unit on the same grounds dedicated in 1969 with a cost that exceeded a quarter of a million dollars. Through his leadership, the church members’ benevolences paved the way for the mortgage burning on November 21, 1982. He happily announced to the congregation we are here to do God’s will and he paved the way seeking God’s will as the primary focus of his life. In addition, he served as Moderator of the Miami Presbytery, Member of Cabinet of Ethnic Affairs, Trustee of the Synod of the Covenant, Member of the Mission Council of the Miami Presbytery and the Synod where he served as Treasurer, Member of the Staff Service Division of the Synod, Local, State, Regional and member of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus. He was honored by the General Assembly at the annual gathering in St. Louis, Missouri, being bestowed the Spiritual Award given by the Martin Luther King Holiday Celebration and the Miley O. Williamson Award, a coveted honor given by the NAACP. 

Reverend Dr. Davis also performed a commendable list of community service activities and was a recipient of many honors and awards, however, too many to list and innumerate. After 45 years, Rev. Davis retired from Trinity Presbyterian Church on February 1, 1993. Frequently, he would say, “Real joy comes from doing something worthwhile and thanking God every day by remembering great works are performed by perseverance.” Dr. Davis was married to Mrs. Katherine LeMoss Crowder Davis for 60 years. Mrs. Davis was a noted retired Administrator and Educator who recently became the first African-American woman to serve as Moderator of the Miami Presbytery’s Presbyterian Women. She has been as asset to the church, sharing her time and talents. Her credits include the successful implementation of a former annual event, the “Potpourri,” which generated many dollars that helped to undergird special projects with the life of the church. Rev. and Mrs. Davis are the parents of Mrs. Wanda Davis Hoag and the late Mr. JeVern Davis. Rev. Davis retired from Trinity on February 1, 1993 and went home to be with the Lord on December 29, 2008. Rev. Davis left a legacy of faithful ministry and opened doors for people like me to walk through.

I stand on the shoulders of giants and wanted to recognize this fellow laborer and most importantly, God for allowing us to work in the ministry together. In the coming decades before me in ministry, Lord willing, I hope to leave a legacy of change in the church like Rev. Dr. James I. Davis. I hope that God does something through me that impacts the lives of others, even after I am gone.


Lewis Brogdon

          Lewis Brogdon is the
          Director of the Black
          Church Studies
          program at
          Louisville Seminary
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