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Black pastor reaches across the Southern Baptist divide

The Rev. Fred Luter Jr. has long been a prominent African American voice among a largely white denomination with a segregationist history. Now he is poised to become its first black president.

June 01, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • The election of the Rev. Fred Luter Jr., 55, as president of the Southern Baptist Convention at its upcoming national meeting is viewed as inevitable. It’s an astounding journey for a man from New Orleans’ impoverished Lower 9th Ward.
The election of the Rev. Fred Luter Jr., 55, as president of the Southern… (Ross D. Franklin, Associated…)

Reporting from New Orleans —  

The Rev. Fred Luter Jr. well remembers the first time he ventured from his native New Orleans to preach in Crowley, a rice-growing town in the heart of Louisiana's Cajun country.

The pastor there had invited Luter to speak, but worried how the congregation would react.

"I told him, 'Just don't put my picture up,' " Luter recalled. "Just tell them I'm a leading Southern Baptist."

Now Luter is poised to become the first black president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the country's largest Protestant denomination.

But back then, in the 1990s, he was still rising through church hierarchy and knew it would take time to win over a denomination born out of slaveholders' obstinacy and perpetuated by segregationists.

The Crowley pastor took his advice.

"I'll never forget when I walked through that church," Luter said, chuckling.

Silence greeted him. But in his warm and conversational style, he preached his usual message: God loves us, all lives can be changed.

The congregation appeared to be in shock. He preached again the next night, and a white woman came up after the service to say it had upset her to see a black man at the altar.

Then she had reflected on his message. "We thank God you came," she said. And invited him to her home.

Many church leaders hope Luter can help transform the denomination, while attracting African Americans and other minorities still troubled by its past. The Southern Baptist Convention claims more than 16 million members and is overwhelmingly white, but church leaders say it must diversify if it is to continue to thrive.

The Crowley congregation invited Luter back — twice — and began welcoming other black preachers.

"I opened the doors," he said.

Luter, 55, is running unopposed for president, and his election at this month's national meeting is viewed as inevitable. It's an astounding journey for a man from New Orleans' impoverished Lower 9th Ward, the middle child among five raised by a divorced mother who worked as a seamstress and surgical scrub assistant.

He accompanied her to services at a predominantly black National Baptist church, but he was above all a "street kid."

In 1977, at age 21, he was riding his motorcycle without a helmet when he struck a car and was rushed to the hospital. With a compound fracture in his left leg and a serious head injury, Luter made God an offer: "If you save me, I will serve you."

While working as a commodities clerk he started part-time street preaching, armed with a megaphone he called his "half-mile hailer." He learned how to approach strangers, hook them with his easygoing manner, and win their hearts. Three years later, he married his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth.

Old friends didn't take his sudden fervor seriously.

"A lot of them thought it was just a phase," he said.

By 1986, Luter heard that a Southern Baptist church in New Orleans was looking for a pastor. "That's that white church over on Franklin Avenue," Luter recalls thinking. "Blacks don't go there."

He was wrong. Whites had fled the neighborhood for the suburbs, and blacks had replaced them on the streets and in the pews. The church was down to a few dozen members.

Luter was unaware of the convention's dark history, how Southern Baptists had split from northern counterparts in 1845 in defense of slavery. As National Baptist and other black denominations expanded, the Southern Baptist Convention refused to integrate and supported Jim Crow laws.

Luter was both ordained and installed as pastor at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church on the same day in October 1986. His wife led the women's ministry. They did not advertise the church as Southern Baptist. Often members didn't discover its affiliation until after they joined, and by then, he said, "it really didn't bother them because this church was a part of their lives."

In 1995, the father of two stood by at the 150th annual Southern Baptist meeting in Atlanta as convention leaders approved an extraordinary resolution he helped draft.

"We lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest," their resolution said, acknowledging that some congregations still excluded African Americans and promising to "commit ourselves to eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry."

Six years later, when the convention's annual meeting came to New Orleans' Superdome, Luter was the first African American to deliver the keynote sermon. He was electrifying.

"Preach it when they say no!" he said. "Preach it when they say yes! Don't stop but go, go, go!"

The crowd stood up.

"Soul winning is for every child of God," he told them. "We need every member of every church of every size of every race."

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