Willie Ray Davis is a man with presence, the sort of man who is instantly recognizable in a trim blue plaid shirt at West Alabama Ice House even when it is mobbed by World Cup fans watching a US-Ghana match, a man who finds a couple of people to shake hands with on his way to the bar, a man who, while sitting opposite us at a picnic table in the shade, can only be described as having a million-dollar smile.
“The Third Ward community didn’t really have a lot of social things provided for us,” says Davis, speaking of his childhood in a home with 10 siblings and one strict single mother. “We had very little money and it was a hard time. But what we did have was each other.”
Thus did Davis, who went on to join the Army and marry a pastor’s daughter, come to be a reverend of common causes. Now 59 and a pastor of almost three decades—today presiding over MacGregor Palm Community Baptist Church in Southside, which he founded in 2010—Davis finds that he enjoys wielding the political influence that a congregation 400-strong can afford one. Hence, he weighs in on issues both for and against, as in he is for bringing social services to neighborhoods in need, against police brutality, and—of late—for a repeal of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.
I am offended that they would compare equally the support of the LGBT cause to the black American—or Negro American—cause, which are two different things.
It was on May 28, after debating the measure for over nine hours and by a vote of 11 to 6, that City Council passed the historic bill that aroused Davis’s ire, a bill designed, according to Mayor Annise Parker, to protect residents from discrimination based on sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, genetic information, and pregnancy. But it was the last category—sexual orientation—that proved galvanizing. Almost immediately, pastors of various congregations around town joined forces at City Hall to fight the ordinance, Davis among them. His objections are both familiar and nuanced.
“I am offended that they would compare equally the support of the LGBT cause to the black American—or Negro American—cause, which are two different things,” Davis says, sipping his bottled water. “Your sexual preference is a choice. To be black American, I don’t have a choice with that. I was born that way.” While many people believe sexual preference is not in fact a choice at all, the pastor, who has both LGBT family members and congregants, swiftly bats that notion away. Davis is adamant in his preachings that such a lifestyle is against God’s rule, although “I also say to them that it’s not going to stop me from pastoring or from loving you as an individual.”
We remind him that the bill, known as HERO, was enacted in part to prevent bars and nightclubs from turning away African Americans, another notion that the pastor dismisses. “I’ve been in Houston 59 years of my life,” he says. “I lived during the times when blacks could not go into restaurants—my mother worked in a restaurant in this city, I wasn’t allowed to go into that place at that time.... I know what it was like to be at the back of the bus. I can tell you, after the Civil Rights Act, and the older disrimination, Houston is not a city that discriminates against anybody at any time.” Later he backtracks, allowing that discrimination does indeed still occur, but remains firm in his opposition to the ordinance. The mayor is using race as a smokescreen to further a personal agenda, he says.
“We’re going to push this referendum,” Davis tells us, steeling himself for the battle ahead. First stop: acquiring 17,000 signatures by the beginning of July (which he will later tell us has been accomplished, pending verification). “We’re going to get the signatures we need, and we’re going to bring this before the city of Houston, and the city of Houston’s going to vote this down,” says the reverend of common causes. “That’s my prayer.”