NPR

Southern Baptists See Their Future In A Black Pastor

The Rev. Fred Luter is running unopposed for the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention. Here, he delivers a sermon during Sunday services at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. (AP)

The Southern Baptist Convention is expected to elect its first black president on Tuesday: Fred Luter, a former street preacher who turned a dying New Orleans church into a powerhouse. His election is a milestone for the 167-year-old denomination at a time when minorities make up a growing share of a shrinking membership.

Luter, who is running unopposed for president of the nation's largest Protestant body, is a departure from his predecessors. He was the middle child of a divorced mother, and until a motorcycle accident landed him in the hospital at age 20, he had little interest in God.

Then God changed him, he told NPR earlier this year.

"I grew up in the 'hood, and my mom worked two or three jobs. So I hung out with a lot of bad guys, did a lot of crazy things I should not have done," Luter said. "And so, when I gave my life to the Lord and saw what God did in my life, then I wanted all those guys I ran the street with to experience what I was experiencing."

Soon, Luter was preaching on the streets in New Orleans. In 1986, he was invited to take over Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. Under him, its congregation grew from a couple of dozen people to 7,000 — the largest Southern Baptist church in Louisiana. Then Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, destroying the sanctuary.

"It would have been easy for Fred Luter to have said, 'I think God's calling me elsewhere,' " says Russell Moore, dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. "And he could have gone to a very comfortable pastorate anywhere in the country.

"And yet, he stayed," Moore says. "And he stood with the people of New Orleans and said, 'We'll be back, we'll rebuild' — and became a spiritual anchor."

'The Future Of The Country Is Urban'

Luter's decision to stay, and his personal charisma, propelled him to national prominence in the Southern Baptist Convention, says pastor David Crosby.

Crosby leads First Baptist of New Orleans, which shared its space with Luter's congregation while they rebuilt. He adds that Luter brings something else desperately needed to this denomination, which has seen its numbers drop: He understands how to reach the only growth area of religion.

"The future of the country is urban; the future of the Southern Baptist Convention is also urban," Crosby says. "We've got to learn how to operate and do our mission and thrive in the urban environment. And Fred brings that. He knows it instinctively."

The SBC has made some progress in that area. Two decades ago, the denomination was "as white as a tractor pull," as one critic put it. Now it's 20 percent minority. Richard Land, who heads the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says Luter's election shows how far the Southern Baptists have come from the days when they supported slavery.

"It's as historic a moment as Southern Baptists have had," Land says, "because the president of SBC is not just an honorific — it is a position of real power."

Maybe — and maybe not, says Dwight McKissic, senior pastor of the largely African-American Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.

'A Historic Moment'

"This is a great job, but it's somewhat symbolic and ceremonial," he says.

McKissic says the two-year presidency is a good first step. But he says African-Americans are absent from all the real positions of power.

Some say there's a latent racism in the denomination. And many were troubled by a recent broadcast on Land's radio program in which he said President Obama and black leaders were using the death of Trayvon Martin for political purposes.

"This is being done to try to gin up the black vote for an African-American president who is in deep, deep, deep trouble for re-election," Land said on the air.

"It was like someone took a knife and stuck it in my heart," McKissic says. "It validated suspicions that many black Baptists have had all along, that this is how a good number, if not the majority, of Southern Baptists felt."

Land has apologized and asked for forgiveness.

"I don't want anything I've said, or any mistakes I've made, to detract from — in any way — from what is going to be a truly historic moment — a historic moment in which I rejoice," he says.

Luter has forgiven Land; he says it's time to look forward. He notes that if he's elected, it will be because white Baptists voted for him.

"It won't be because of the handful of black folk that's going to be there," Luter says. "So, it will say something to the country and to the world — that the Southern Baptist Convention is not just talking this thing, we're actually walking this thing."

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Transcript

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

The Southern Baptist Convention elects a new leader today during its gathering in New Orleans. If you're thinking of someone who is white, male and suburban, think again. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: Meet Fred Luter, who's running unopposed for president of the Southern Baptists.

FRED LUTER: I don't know why Jesus love me. I don't know why he care. I don't know why he gave his life for me, but, oh, I'm glad. I'm glad that he did.

HAGERTY: Luter is African American, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. Until a motorcycle accident landed him in the hospital at age 20, he had little interest in God. But, he told NPR earlier this year, God changed him.

LUTER: I grew up in the hood and my mom worked two or three jobs, so I hung out with a lot of bad guys, did a lot of crazy things I should not have done. And so when I gave my life to the Lord and saw what God did in my life, then I wanted all those guys I ran the street with to experience what I was experiencing.

HAGERTY: Soon Luter was preaching on the streets. In 1986, he was invited to take over the Franklin Avenue church. He grew it from a couple dozen people to 7,000, the largest Southern Baptist church in Louisiana. Then Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, completely destroying the church.

RUSSELL MOORE: It would be very easy for Fred Luter to have said I think God's calling me elsewhere.

HAGERTY: Russell Moore is dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

MOORE: And he could've gone to a very comfortable pastorate anywhere in the country. And yet, he stayed and he stood with the people of New Orleans, and said we'll be back and we'll rebuild, and became a spiritual anchor.

HAGERTY: Luter brings something else to the denomination, which has seen its numbers drop, says David Crosby, senior pastor of First Baptist of New Orleans. Luter understands how to reach the growth area of religion.

DAVID CROSBY: The future of the country is urban. The future of the Southern Baptist Convention is also urban. We've got to learn how to operate and do our mission and thrive in the urban environment. And Fred brings that. He knows it instinctively.

HAGERTY: Richard Land, who heads the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says Luter's election shows how far the Southern Baptists have come from the days when they supported slavery.

RICHARD LAND: It's as historic a moment as Southern Baptist's have had, because the president of the Southern Baptist Convention is not just an honorific, it is a position of real power.

HAGERTY: Maybe, maybe not, says Dwight McKissic, senior pastor of the largely African-American Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.

DWIGHT MCKISSIC: This is a great job, but it's somewhat symbolic and ceremonial.

HAGERTY: McKissic says the two year presidency is a good first step. But he says African-Americans are absent from all the real positions of power.

LAND: You go on the Southern Baptist website now, it's lily white. It does not look like America. And that will not change the day Fred Luter gets elected.

HAGERTY: Some say there is a latent racism in the denomination, and many were troubled by a recent broadcast on Richard Land's radio program. In it, Land said that President Obama and black leaders were using the death of Trayvon Martin for political purposes.

10:43:25

RICHARD LAND

, SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION This is being done to try to gin up the black vote for an African-American president who is in deep, deep, deep trouble for reelection.

MCKISSIC: It was like somebody took a knife and stuck it in my heart.

HAGERTY: Pastor Dwight McKissic.

MCKISSIC: It validated suspicions that many black Baptists have had all along, that this is how a good number, if not the majority, of Southern Baptists felt.

HAGERTY: Richard Land has apologized and he's asked for forgiveness.

LAND: And I don't want anything that I've said or any mistakes I've made to detract, in any way, from what is going to be a truly historic moment, a historic moment in which I rejoice.

HAGERTY: For his part, Fred Luter has forgiven him, and says it's time to look forward. He notes that if he's elected it will be because white Baptists voted for him.

LUTER: It won't be because of the handful of black folk that's going to be there. So it will say something to the country and to the world that the Southern Baptist Convention is not just talking this thing, we're actually walking this thing.

HAGERTY: Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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