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Religious Leadership

Fred Luter Jr.

New Orleans
President, Southern Baptist Convention

Minister helps Southern Baptists Turn a Corner

The election of a black minister to head a Christian organization that encompasses 45,000 predominantly white congregations and long espoused racial segregation would seem, at the least, surprising. In reality, when it occurred last summer, the election became the stuff of national headlines.

Fred Luter Jr. says he was slow to appreciate the magnitude of the events. “I didn’t realize how big a deal it was before I was elected,” says the man who in June became the first black president of the country’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention.

Many saw the choice of Luter to lead the Southern Baptists as central to the convention’s efforts to distance itself from its racist past. The Southern Baptists founded the convention in 1845 after splitting from the First Baptist Church in America over slave ownership.

In 1995, Luter helped craft a resolution apologizing to blacks for the convention’s support of slavery and racism and pledging to work toward racial reconciliation. Today, fewer than 10 percent of Southern Baptist congregations are black churches.

Looking back on last summer’s election, Luter doesn’t dwell on its racial aspects, but he concedes it was a moving experience. “Standing on that stage with almost 9,000 people applauding and on their feet – it became a big deal for me when I saw that type of reaction,” he says.

His mission now is to help diversify, grow and unify membership of the Southern Baptist Convention. But Luter says that won’t divert him from his primary work at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood.

Luter landed at the helm of the church after growing up in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, where his family belonged to the Greater Mount Carmel Baptist Church. Injuries he received in a motorcycle accident at age 20 awakened him to a religious calling, and he began a “street ministry” in his neighborhood. “I wanted everybody I knew to get saved,” he says.

In 1986, an important door opened when he became pastor at the Franklin Avenue church. Luter built the congregation up rapidly from fewer than 100 members to almost 8,000 before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, sending many members to new locales.

His work to rebuild the church after the storm – the congregation has rebounded to about 5,000 members now – was a big reason why fellow Southern Baptists nominated him to lead their convention.

So far, Luter and his wife seem to be taking his newfound fame in stride, but he says the reactions of his daughter and his son are another story. “They see me preaching and speaking across the country, and they’re really proud,” he says. “Like everybody else, they’re kind of amazed.”

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