Another side of James Davis

By Elizabeth O’Brien

I remember the first time I met James E. Davis. It was August of 2001, and Davis was stumping on a sweltering morning at the subway station around the corner from my apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. It must have been about 90 degrees, but the unflagging Davis wore a dark suit and a Cheshire Cat grin as he pumped my hand and asked for my support in the upcoming City Council race. He was the only candidate to campaign at my subway stop before the primary, and I thought to myself, “This guy’s got my vote.”

After Davis was shot to death last week by an aspiring councilmember inside City Hall, the media portrayed him as a retired police officer and political maverick who campaigned tirelessly against gun violence. I interviewed Davis several times, and I recognized him in these accounts. But there was one aspect of Davis’ life that went largely overlooked: his role as an independent minister.

“Rather than put myself in the category of a denomination, I put myself in the category of Christ,” Davis once told me.

He said he became a minister under New York State’s religious corporations law. The law stipulates that seven or more persons who are of age and U.S. citizens can, if the majority are residents of New York, join together to form a “free church,” according to Article 9 of the law.

“You and your six friends can get together and start a church,” Davis said.

I learned much about Davis, who was 41 when he died, from a Sunday morning visit to his Crown Heights home at the end of 2001, a few weeks before he was sworn in to the Council. There, in the basement of the three-story brick row house that he shared with his mother, Davis held weekly meetings that he called “fellowship” gatherings. His many roles converged within the walls of 298 Brooklyn Ave., where he revealed his charismatic and sometimes controlling personality in full force.

The morning I attended, four young to middle-aged women had gathered over coffee cake and orange juice to hear Davis preach from the Book of Hosea. As Davis paced the dark, low-ceilinged room in a smart suit and tie, his similarly clad image stared out at him from the many campaign posters on the walls. (His Council win represented his fifth time running for elected office and his first victory.) His basement doubled as his campaign headquarters and his pulpit. Davis’s house also served as the home office of Stop the Violence, his nonprofit organization, which was registered with the New York State attorney general’s office under the name of his ministry, Jesus Christ House of Prayer, Inc.

Unbidden, Davis turned the first part of the fellowship into an extended, one-way interview. I was writing a piece on him for a class at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. That morning, Davis began answering tough questions that I hadn’t yet asked.

“I could turn my whole house into a parsonage and not pay taxes, but I don’t do that,” Davis said to me as his small flock waited patiently for the service to begin.

He challenged the idea, leveled by some critics, that politicians shouldn’t preach. Some had said that his Stop the Violence campaign, with its ads on city buses prominently featuring Davis’ face, was merely a vehicle for raising his political profile.

“I don’t want these meatballs saying that because I believe in Jesus Christ I shouldn’t be a politician,” Davis said. “So all these churches are hypocrites to allow politicians to speak before the pastor?”

Davis missed nothing. He took note of my eyes roaming about the basement, and he said, “I see you looking around.” He had told me before that I was his friend until I proved otherwise — maybe by publishing a damaging article — but that once I turned against him he would never speak to me again.

Those were heavy words leveled at a mere student. But Davis took me seriously. While many public figures refused to grant interviews to journalism students, he had been gracious. For our first interview, Davis suggested that he come to my apartment. I was his constituent, after all. I demurred, and we went to a nearby bar — he didn’t want to cross Flatbush Ave. to go to a restaurant because that would mean leaving his district — and we drank Diet Cokes.

Davis revealed one reason why he granted me access: I was a student now, but one day I may write for The New York Times, he said. And when that day arrived, Davis hoped I would remember him, and remember him well.

For Davis had ambitions. He told me, “The sky’s the limit — I may be the first black president of the United States.”

And he cheered my progress along with his own. I bumped into him at a community meeting the summer after I graduated from school, one of the countless meetings that Davis, who seemed to be everywhere at once in the 35th Council District, attended. At the time, I was working as an intern for the Daily News. Davis gave me a high five when I told him, and he said something like, “We’re both moving up in the world.”

Tragically, Davis wasn’t given the chance to chase his ambitions any farther. His friends and the media portrayed him as a promising politician cut down in his prime. This much is true. But there is one more thing that some neglected when remembering the slain councilmember. They forgot his middle initial.

James E. Davis always used his middle initial. The “E” stood for “Ever,” he told me: “Ever-cool, ever-sharp and ever-lasting.”