Pastor, church were not a predictable union

Michael Davis, senior pastor of Woodlawn Baptist Church, took the helm of the traditionally white church about a year ago.
Michael Davis, senior pastor of Woodlawn Baptist Church, took the helm of the traditionally white church about a year ago.

At age 16, Michael Davis sat on his front porch in New Jersey and looked at the sky.

The mischief his friends had been getting into was getting more intense. One friend recently had died in a car wreck. Davis wasn’t sure which path to take.

“I said, ‘God, if you’re real, I want to know,’” Davis said.

He tried church, became a Christian and learned about the Bible from a knowledgeable Sunday School teacher. Several decades later, he’s the senior pastor at Woodlawn Baptist Church in south Charlotte.

He’s an African American pastor to an aging, historically white congregation.

“I can see all the things I’ve been doing in my life were preparing me for Woodlawn Baptist Church,” said Davis, who is now 59.

Davis attended Western Carolina University in the 1970s and earned a degree in industrial technology. He came south because he’d heard it was called the Bible Belt, and he couldn’t think of a better place to be.

Jobs were hard to find, so Davis got a job in Gastonia selling Florsheim shoes. He learned shoe repair and spent 16 years in the business.

He likes to say he’s spent time selling soles, fixing soles and saving souls. Davis couldn’t shake a pull toward full-time ministry.

He loves the Bible and reads it through every year, and eventually accepted a position with Child Evangelism Fellowship, an international nonprofit organization.

The ministry found an apartment for him at the corner of Woodlawn and Scaleybark, and he began leading Bible clubs at a school housed at nearby Woodlawn Baptist. He got to know the longtime pastor, Earl Pennell, and occasionally he’d make a courtesy visit for Sunday worship. Usually, he attended Fairbluff Bible Chapel off Woodlawn Road.

Davis was the only black person at Woodlawn, which didn’t have a regular Sunday children’s ministry, because there were no children.

“I started building up friendships,” Davis said. “The people were glad to see me. (But) I could tell it was a Southern Baptist Church. And I wasn’t.”

Pennell called Davis to his office one day and asked if he’d preach a sermon or two, so Pennell could take a Sunday off. Davis agreed.

Soon, Pennell called Davis again and told him he was planning to retire. In early 2014, Davis agreed to preach six Sundays while the church chose an interim pastor.

Davis worked his job in the shoe department at Dillard’s at SouthPark mall while preaching on Sundays. The people at Woodlawn liked Davis’ preaching. He laughs, saying he had to adjust to the church needing sermon topics well in advance, and to a one-hour service time limit.

“That’s not really my culture,” he said.

But Davis kept preaching, and ultimately was named Woodlawn’s interim pastor.

Drawn to the job

The search committee considered candidates from as far as Texas and Florida, said Sarah Haston, the committee chairwoman. They watched DVDs and YouTube videos of candidates preaching and visited some in person.

“We prayed hard and we prayed diligently for wisdom and discernment that the Lord would send us the man he had prepared for our church,” Haston said.

However, many in the congregation had made up their mind. Some Sunday School classes signed petitions asking the church to hire Davis. A few of his church “mothers,” as Davis refers to some elderly friends, cornered committee members with the same request.

The committee listened.

They asked Davis to apply for the job and then named him a finalist. A three-hour grilling at a committee members’ house left some of them in tears.

“Every question that Michael answered was never about himself,” Haston said. “It was about what more he could do to please God.”

The committee offered him the job, and the congregation voted overwhelmingly to confirm his appointment. Davis submitted his notice at Dillard’s.

“The more we searched, the more evident it became to us that we couldn’t find anybody as good and as Bible-knowledged as Michael,” Haston said.

Alive and exciting

One year later, Davis is quick to say Woodlawn Baptist is not a dying church. He’s performed a baptism – possibly the first in many years at Woodlawn, and new members have joined, including a few African-Americans.

Haston said more church members are studying the Bible on their own. People take notes when Davis preaches. Haston’s Sunday School class has seen a number of visitors recently, many from other countries.

“There’s a new excitement around the church since Michael’s been there,” she said.

Race, Davis notes, has never come up. He said he feels free to be himself.

Haston said Davis is the man God led them to. In fact, it’s a little questionable who chose whom.

“It seems like he just came in and adopted us,” Haston said.

Marty Minchin is a freelance writer:

Learn more

For information about Woodlawn Baptist Church, visit The church meets at 9:30 a.m. on Sundays for Sunday school and 10:45 a.m. for worship. The church is at 4622 Nations Crossing Road, Charlotte.