(June 16, 2012) The Rev. Fred Luter Jr. is poised to become the first African American president of the nation's largest Protestant denomination when convention delegates vote during the week of June 18 in New Orleans.
It's a big step for a denomination that was formed out of a pre-Civil War split with northern Baptists over slavery and for much of the last century had a reputation for supporting segregation.
In recent years, faced with growing diversity in America and declining membership in its churches, the denomination has made a sincere effort to distance itself from that past. Many Southern Baptists believe the charming and charismatic Luter is the man who can lead them forward.
Luter's rise through the Southern Baptist ranks has been a slow and steady process, the result of the hard work, leadership and creativity that allowed him to turn a struggling inner-city church of 50 members into the largest Southern Baptist church in Louisiana by weekly attendance.
The 55-year-old grew up in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward, the middle of five children raised by a divorced mother who worked as a seamstress "not to make ends meet, but just to make them kind of wave at each other," he said.
The family walked to a local Baptist church every Sunday and Luter's mother made sure all the children attended.
Luter drifted away from religion after leaving home for college, but at age 21 he found himself making a promise to God that he has kept to this day.
After a near-fatal motorcycle accident landed him in the hospital, "I said, 'God, if you save my life, I'll serve you for the rest of my life,"' Luter said.
He survived and soon began preaching on street corners every Saturday with a group of friends from church.
"We had no training," he said. "We were just really excited about what God was doing in our lives and we wanted to share it with others. We got ridiculed a lot."
Luter kept it up for nine years before someone suggested he apply to become the pastor at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. Formerly a white church, the membership had changed to African-American with changing demographics of the neighborhood.
“When I came to Franklin Avenue it was a bunch of women and kids,” Luter said. “You could count the number of men on one hand.”
As the church grew and began leading the state in baptisms, Luter started to draw notice. In 1995, he was invited to preach at the pastor's conference held in the two days before the Southern Baptist Convention's annual business meeting.
As Luter tells it, that conference put him on the map and he soon started getting invitations to preach all over the country. Some members of his congregation worried he would leave them for a better offer, but Luter has remained devoted to Franklin Avenue.
Many Southern Baptist leaders, when speaking of Luter, mention how respected he is for his determination to stay in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, destroying Franklin Avenue and scattering its members.
Despite the loss of his home and church, Luter never missed a Sunday preaching and soon began driving a circuit to reach his scattered flock.
His election is not guaranteed, but with the SBC's annual meeting a week away, Luter so far has no challengers for the position. Although his likely election will be historic for Southern Baptists, Luter’s many admirers say he is in no way a token.
As Crosby, of First Baptist New Orleans, puts it: “It’s such a note of grace and favor from God that a man of this caliber would step forward to become the first African-American president of the SBC.”