Sunday, February 15, 2004

Man of faith surrounded by cloud of doubt



By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo]
Larry Davis, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Cold Spring, and his wife, Connie.
[photo]
Larry Davis walks out of his house in Cold Spring nine days ago, after Kentucky State Police arrived to serve a search warrant. The trooper is Mark Grisik.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/PATRICK REDDY

COLD SPRING - About 100 people showed up to hear Larry Davis preach his first Sunday service 18 years ago at the then-struggling First Baptist Church.

The former General Motors plant foreman - a proud man, a former Marine - was not yet out of seminary. Yet even then, his powerful preaching and charisma reached out to them, hinted of the God-centered leadership he could provide.

On Feb. 1, Davis again was standing before his congregation, now 1,800 strong and ensconced in a multi-million dollar sanctuary with a wrap-around balcony and flat-screen TVs. Yet only several hundred were here to hear the embattled Davis preach his last Sunday sermon to date, a parable about driving on the wrong side of the road without realizing your mistake.

When the sermon ended, church members sat quietly, their faces blank.

"There are some people who don't want me on the pulpit, and it's tough standing up there knowing those people are there," Davis said last week. "I'm watching my back now."

His future - and the future of his church - are threatened by allegations of one of the very behaviors the Southern Baptist Convention vehemently campaigns against: gambling.

Kentucky State Police are investigating what church officials say were hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable transactions from a church bank account. Authorities have said that transactions were made via an ATM card at horse race tracks and spent at online casinos.

Davis has not been charged, and his attorney says Davis has never stolen any church funds. But some church members say he controlled the account in question.

While the story of Larry Davis is interwoven with the story of First Baptist Church of Cold Spring, the tale always winds back to a man with a powerful personality, who built a needy church into community prominence, made a name for himself across Kentucky and then helped draw a national spotlight here with a successful Billy Graham Crusade aimed at healing a city's wounds.

"Davis has been the main reason the church has grown over the last 18 years," explained church deacon Larry Everman, 61. "We have grown about 10 percent annually. It is fair to say he is the finest preacher I have ever known."

In an interview Wednesday at his attorney's offices, Davis spoke freely and frankly about how the allegations have torn apart his congregation. He would not talk about the criminal investigation, at the advice of the attorney, Jim Morgan of Newport.

"Obviously, I think the church survives the crisis," Davis said. "Will it ever be the same? I don't know that."

A group of church deacons and trustees confronted Davis Jan. 14 and gave him three options: Resign, take a leave with pay, or take a leave without pay.

Davis balked and continued to preach. He remains the pastor at the church, but as not preached a Sunday service since Feb. 1.

The resulting furor has divided the church, pitting family members against one another and straining 30-year friendships. Once, someone changed the locks on Davis' office. Another time, the church membership voted out all the deacons, only to reinstate them a few days later.

Cold Spring Councilman Charles Gray, who belongs to the church, said Davis' vision and strong leadership has always offended some people.

"Brother Davis served in the Marine Corps," Gray said. "He knows how to take charge and lead. That does not sit well with some people. They are resentful. Some just don't want to see the church get bigger."

Leadership with flair

Davis grew up on the southeastern Kentucky border. A short, stocky man, he speaks easily, in a folksy southern style.

Davis drives a 3-series BMW, talks up UK basketball and invites his closest friends to share his coveted season tickets. He's a name-dropper, who makes frequent references to state politicians, Mel Gibson, and several religious leaders he knows - among them, the Rev. Billy Graham.

That flair bothers some Southern Baptists, who espouse conservative values.

Davis' efforts to bring more people into the church have been made easier by its location. Cold Spring has grown from a Campbell County farm community to a Cincinnati bedroom community. Its population jumped more than 32 percent to 3,806 over the last decade.

Cold Spring's Baptist church was one that, Davis believed, needed leadership.

"Frankly, the church had a tough 30 years," Davis said. "Their heyday was in the '50s. From that point on they had been in decline."

In 1993, the church moved from its '50s-era sanctuary at the corner of Pooles Creek Road No. 1 and U.S. 27 to its current location on U.S. 27, south of the Northern Kentucky University campus. An education building and fellowship hall was added two years later.

And on Easter Sunday 2003 the congregation moved into its current cavernous sanctuary, complete with brass chandeliers.

Some credit Davis for all of it.

"He is one of the most effective leaders I've ever met," said Gray. "He is a visionary, which is illustrated by the type of institution First Baptist has become."

Davis has come to be known outside his own church, as well.

In late 1980s, he spearheaded the effort to remove the Churchill Downs Twin Spires from Kentucky license plates. In a 1988 interview with the Enquirer, Davis admitted he had been to Churchill Downs, but said the plates amounted to free advertisement for the racetrack.

"This is a case in which we believe the government ... should not be allowed to impose its morals on our church," Davis wrote to then-Gov. Martha Layne Collins. "We do not believe that we should be forced as a church to advertise the horse racing industry."

Loyalty and debate

Davis re-entered the spotlight in Cincinnati in 2002 with his successful effort to bring Graham here. It was the first time since 1977 the world's best-known evangelist had held a crusade in Cincinnati.

The four-day mission drew nearly 200,000 people, took in nearly $2.9 million and was praised for its effort to heal the city after the riots. Davis still talks about it.

A spokesman for Graham said no one wished to comment on Davis for this story. Anthony Munoz, the retired Bengals Hall of Famer who chaired the local mission, did not return a phone call.

While Davis' success and commitment to the church has earned him intense loyalty, the criminal investigation has started a heated debate among members on what the Christian way of handling a growing scandal should be.

Deacon Everman said friends would not talk to him because they perceive him as being against Davis, but that he is only trying to do what is best for the church.

"All of us are fallible, regardless of where our spiritual station in life is," Everman said. "We are all going to fall short. Regardless of our mistakes, it does not take away the perfection of Jesus Christ."

Gray, a church member for about a year, said: "For someone to stand up and start making accusations and pointing fingers is not the right attitude to take."

He said he sees the potential for reconciliation and forgiveness.

Collections falling

Meanwhile, church treasurer Darryl Neltner has told the congregation its weekly collection has dipped from an average of about $20,000 to $9,100 last Sunday.

Cold Spring Police Chief Rick Sears and his wife had been attending the church for 18 months but left after financial questions arose.

"My wife and I had been toying with the idea of changing churches for several months because it was not fitting our spiritual needs," Sears said. "Now, in light of all this, it was even more reason to leave."

Still, Davis is not one to back away from a challenge.

His staunch attitude, perhaps, can be traced back to his very choice to become a preacher as a young man.

His own mother didn't like his idea, but he went ahead.

"My mother cried tears of sorrow when she heard I was going to be a pastor," Davis said. "She didn't want me to leave a secure, relatively stress-free job for the life of a pastor."

Davis said he would draw upon what he learned from his father about being a preacher to get through the crisis.

"I learned that regardless of anything, you love the people around you," he said. "No matter what they have done, or what their relationship is to you, my role as pastor is to demonstrate God's love."

E-mail jhannah@enquirer.com




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