From the Observer archives: The dramatic story behind Phillip Davis’ decision to become a preacher

Bishop Phillip Davis in 1996.
Bishop Phillip Davis in 1996. Charlotte Observer

This article about Bishop Phillip Davis was originally published in the Observer on Nov. 30, 1996.

You ought to be a preacher.

Phillip Davis had been getting that unwanted piece of advice for years - from a college theology professor in his hometown of Cincinnati, from his fellow parishioners at a Southern Baptist church near Chicago and, Davis was convinced, from God, whose call he could hear deep inside himself.

Davis had an answer for those who would decide his future: Thanks, but I've already got a plan. I want to climb the corporate ladder. I want to raise a family.

He even promised his wife, Cynthia, he'd become a millionaire.

By the spring of 1978, Davis, then 26, was a hard-working salesman for Borden Foods in Bolingbrook, Ill., and the father of a 2-1/2-year-old son, R.J. His salary was nowhere near seven figures, and his corporate climb had so far been sideways, not up, as he moved from company to company. Still, Davis was sticking to his plan. And whenever that voice deep inside tugged at him, he'd hold up his son.

God, I can't be a preacher now. I have a son to raise, a mouth to feed.

He and Cynthia, who worked for Illinois Bell Telephone, had enrolled R.J. in a Christian pre-school program in Bolingbrook, a Chicago suburb. One day that spring, the school called. Please come and get your son. He's not himself.

Davis had clients to see, work to do. But he went, and he found his son listless in the principal's office.

OK, he told R.J., let's go. I need to take you home. He grabbed the child's hand and took him to the car, deciding along the way that whatever R.J. had wasn't serious.

As they drove home, Davis was more frustrated than concerned. He was thinking of all those clients he'd have to call.

Come on, son, let's go in the house, Davis told R.J. But his son, drowsy and flopped over in the seat, didn't follow his father inside.

Now worried, Davis picked up R.J., took him in the house and laid him on the sofa.

That's when the boy's body began shaking. He's going into convulsions, Davis thought as a shudder passed through his own body. Then R.J. started foaming at the mouth. And it looked as if he was about to swallow his tongue.

With one hand, Davis held his son. With the other, he dialed 911.

Minutes later, the paramedics screamed into the house and started working on R.J.

Mr. Davis, why don't you just meet us at the hospital, they said.

All right, I'm right behind you.

No, don't try to follow us, just meet us at the hospital. We're going to go full-blast.

Davis called his wife, told her he'd meet her at the hospital and began locking up their townhouse. He opened the sliding glass door to leave and then . . . froze.

I can't take another step. I can't move.

Then came the voice from deep inside. Davis sensed it more than he heard it.

You should place nothing ahead of what I've asked you to do, God told him. Not career. Not family. Nothing.

Davis knew this was the moment that would define the rest of his life. He could say yes to God's plan or yes to his own. Years later, it would remind him of God ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, only to spare the boy after his father agrees to comply.

OK, Lord, I'll preach, Davis answered that day in 1978. I'll do everything you want me to do. I'll do it.

When Davis got to the hospital, he found R.J. sitting up, playing with the nurses. The boy stayed in the hospital for a week, but doctors could find nothing wrong.

Davis went to his pastor at Alpha Baptist Church and told him he was ready to preach.

I was wondering when you were coming, the pastor told him.

Eight months later, not long before R.J. turned 3, Davis delivered his first sermon - about the miracle baby who would become John the Baptist.

Hearing Davis preach that day, 15 people came forward to accept Jesus Christ into their lives.

Postscript: Davis went on to become senior pastor of Charlotte’s Nations Ford Baptist Church, now called Nations Ford Community Church. And son R.J. also became a preacher and is now pastor of the church on Nations Ford’s Ballantyne campus. On Saturday, the elder Davis was found dead in his Union County home, the victim of what authorities said was an accidental gunshot wound.

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