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<!---##CCI#[Text Tag=head Group=All]---><headfit>Church defends embattled pastor <P> </headfit> <!---##CCI#[/Text]---> Church defends embattled pastor

By Kevin Eigelbach
Post staff reporter

Nearly everyone in the First Baptist Church of Cold Spring has a Larry Davis moment to talk about.

Angie Markus had one two years ago when her brother died. She called the Rev. Davis at 4 a.m., and he sat with her and her family at University Hospital during her brother's surgery.

About Larry Davis
•  Jan. 10, 1948 -- Born Larry Joseph Davis in Mud Creek, Whitley County, Ky., near Jellico, Tenn.

•  Fall 1964, spring 1965, fall 1966, spring 1967, summer 1967 -- Davis attends Cumberland College, a Baptist college in Williamsburg, Ky., but does not graduate.

•  Jan. 28, 1969 -- Davis joins the Marines. His military occupational specialty is administration, and he attains a rank of private first class.

•  Dec. 27, 1970 -- Found not physically qualified, he is honorably discharged from Marines.

•  1975 -- Davis earns bachelor's degree in economics from Wright State University in Dayton.

•  1978 -- Davis becomes pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Harveysburg, Ohio, in Warren County.

•  December 1980 -- Davis earns a master of divinity degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

•  January 1985 -- Davis leaves Friendship Baptist Church, becomes pastor of First Baptist Church in Cold Spring.

•  December 1986 -- Davis earns a doctorate in evangelism from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

•  1993 -- First Baptist Church moves from sanctuary at Poole's Creek Road and U.S. 27 to a new property and sanctuary on U.S. 27.

•  1995 -- The church adds a Fellowship Hall and Educational Building.

•  1997 -- Davis is appointed to the Cold Spring Ethics Commission.

•  1998 -- Davis becomes vice president of the Northern Kentucky Interfaith Commission.

•  1999 -- Elected chairman of the Cold Spring Ethics Commission.

•  August 2000 -- Davis meets with a consultant for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association about getting Franklin Graham to do a Northern Kentucky mission.

•  June 25, 2001 -- Fifty local pastors, including Davis, vote to form a committee to make a formal invitation to Billy Graham to preach a mission in Greater Cincinnati.

•  June 27-30 -- Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Billy Graham Mission is held in Cincinnati. Davis acts as one of six vice chairs for the event.

•  Easter 2003 -- First Baptist Church of Cold Spring has first service in its new, $2.5 million sanctuary, which seats 1,500.

•  January 2004 -- Fifth Third Bank alerts church treasurer to questionable financial transactions in church accounts. Kentucky State Police open investigation into the church finances.

"He just prayed with us, laughed with us, anything he could do to ease my mother's pain," the Fort Thomas resident said.

Moments like those help explain why most of the congregation has stayed with Davis through events that would have meant dismissal for other pastors. Those events include a state police investigation into church finances and the departure of hundreds of church members.

Cold Spring resident John Shay has questioned Davis' handling of a memorial fund for his son, Chris, who died from cancer in 1999.

A church member for 30 years, Shay now helps lead a group of about 250 members who are holding an alternative worship service at another church.

Yet he, too, has had his share of Davis moments.

Chris Shay had experimental surgery about 11 a.m. on a Wednesday at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, about 260 miles from Cold Spring.

As Chris was coming out of surgery, Shay was surprised to see Davis walking down the hall. The pastor talked for a while with him, and then drove back to the church for Bible study that night.

"In the ice and snow, he drove up there by himself," Shay said. "That's how he built the congregation. He was a people person who visited the people.

"You knew that Larry would be there if anything happened to your family," Shay said. "And when things do happen to go wrong, you think, 'I'm going to stick by him, look what he did for us.' "

Although he didn't like him at first, the Rev. Harold Pike, former pastor of South Side Baptist Church in Covington, has called Davis a friend for years.

Physically, the two are a study in contrasts. Pike, a former college basketball player, stands well over 6 feet tall and has a booming bass voice. Davis stands 5-foot-7 and has what Pike called a higher-pitched voice.

Pike had a Larry Davis moment recently that started while Davis and his wife, Connie, were having dinner at Pike's house.

Davis told Pike's wife, Martha, how pretty he thought her china was, and she told him it was a wedding present.

She said she wished she had two more place settings, Pike said, and nothing more was said about it.

About six weeks later, at Pike's retirement party last fall, Davis brought in a present -- two place settings that matched Martha's china.

"He's an absolute jewel in (human) relations," Pike said.

Even his detractors say Davis has enormous personal charm. They also admit he's a tremendous preacher.

Former church Treasurer Darryl Neltner, who wrote the letter that started the Kentucky State Police investigation, said the controversy hasn't seemed to affect Davis' preaching.

"He has a good way of making his points, not oversimplifying them, but not getting so deep that people don't understand them," he said.

"That's the one reason I attend this church -- the preaching," said Sylvia Jones of Edgewood, a former Catholic won over by Davis' skills as a teacher.

He has a special talent for preaching funerals, Pike said. He always does his homework -- finding out something about the deceased he can talk about and choosing a Bible verse to preach on that's appropriate.

In recent years, Davis has become interested in promoting understanding between Christian denominations.

The Rev. Bill Neuroth, former head of the Northern Kentucky Interfaith Commission, credits him with getting other Baptists interested in the commission.

"My first reaction was that he was almost too good to be true," Neuroth said. "He was so dynamic, so can-do, so, 'we can do these good things for the community.' "

He preached at an ecumenical service at the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Neuroth said, and his church choir also sang that night. "It was a night I'll never forget," Neuroth said.

Davis has also worked with the Council of Christian Communions, an interdenominational organization in Cincinnati.

"His leadership ability was respected on both sides of the river," Neuroth said.

Davis has said that in 1998, he started to invite local black preachers, such as the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr., to bring their congregations to his church for joint worship services.

Those contacts helped him when he and others started organizing the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Billy Graham Mission. Graham preached for four nights at Paul Brown Stadium in July 2002.

"He furnished wonderful leadership in all the Billy Graham challenges," Pike said.

Before Davis came, the church didn't reach out to the community around it, said Linda Alford, who served on the committee that called Davis to Cold Spring.

"He does everything he can to get people to come to the church to know the Lord," said Alford, who is also an assistant superintendent for the Campbell County Schools.

Even his detractors credit Davis with bringing hundreds of new members to his church.

When he became the preacher in 1985, the church only had about 150 members.

In 1993, the congregation moved from its sanctuary at Poole's Creek Road and U.S. 27 to a new location on U.S. 27.

Last Easter, the church dedicated a new, $2.5 million sanctuary that seats 1,500 people.

Davis acted as the general contractor for the construction of the new sanctuary, and Neltner has said that he exclusively controlled the church's construction account at Fifth Third Bank.

In January, bank officials alerted Neltner to some unusual transactions in that account.

He investigated, and reported finding more than $400,000 in transactions in an account at Provident Bank that he thought was closed.

He and other church leaders confronted Davis about the transactions in the two accounts, which included thousands of dollars withdrawn from ATM machines at local horse racing tracks, transactions to online gambling services and checks allegedly made out to the pastor.

A rumored attempt to oust Davis never happened. But the controversy split the church.

The investigation continues, with Campbell County Commonwealth Attorney Jack Porter saying he hopes it will wrap up by the end of the month.

Alford said she could never believe Davis has done wrong. He can account for the money, she said.

"People jumped to a conclusion way too quick," she said. "He's absolutely going to be innocent in the end."

Davis has said through his attorney, Jim Morgan, that he has never stolen any church money. He has said he will provide an explanation at the proper time.

The allegations that he gambles, which many Baptists consider a sin, don't bother her.

"I've never seen anything like that interfere with his ministry whatsoever," she said.

Publication Date: 04-05-2004

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