I also cover religion for The Clarion-Ledger, and last week I got to speak with Pastor Fred Luter Jr., the first African American president of the Southern Baptist Convention, shortly after his appearance here at the Mississippi Baptist Convention. Luter said he hopes his election will spark change in the denomination, and he’s determined to do his best.
Senior pastor of the 7,000-member Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans addressed Mississippi Baptists Wednesday at First Baptist Church Jackson. He called Friday for a phone interview sharing a few more thoughts about his ministry.
Born in 1956, Luter entered the ministry after surviving a motorcycle accident in 1977 and began preaching on a street corner every Saturday at noon to anyone who would listen.
“When you first get saved and born again, there’s such a boldness, you really don’t think about anything else,” he said. “There was some positive and some negative responses. A lot of people were just kind of intrigued that I would do that. They didn’t understand why a young person would be out on the street corner sharing the Gospel. Some gave me the finger.”
Luter began preaching at different churches across the city and later became the pastor at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. His congregation steadily grew from 65 members to more than 8,000 by 2005.
Many members had to evacuate following Katrina, but Luter said the church has built its congregation back up to 5,000 members since the hurricane.
“I pinch myself every Sunday seeing how the church has grown,” he said.
In 2011, Luter was elected vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the first African American to hold that position. In June, he was elected president of the 16 million-member SBC.
Luter said he thinks his leadership will help change the perception of the SBC, which is comprised predominantly of white members.
The Southern Baptist Convention, founded in 1845, is the largest protestant organization in America with more than 16 million members and 45,000 churches. While the predominantly white organization’s history is steeped in support of slavery and segregation, Luter’s bio says his ascension to president signifies an overall desire to change the culture and brand of the SBC.
“There are different ethnic groups in the convention,” he said. “So hopefully, we can change the perception, so that people know this convention is open to any ethnic group. We’ve been talking about it for years, but I think my election says to the country that now they can put their money where their mouth is.”
Luter said there’s 5,000 African American churches in the convention.
He said the reception he has gotten from white churches has been overwhelming.
“Everywhere I’ve gone, I’m getting a standard ovation when I’m introduced,” he said. “People are coming up to me with tears in their eyes and saying ‘I’m so glad. I never thought this would happen.’
“Let’s be realistic. I’m sure there are some who didn’t want it to happen, but that’s their problem. This convention has made a statement. This convention is open to every person, regardless of their skin color.”
Luter said he wants to finish his term of president “without messing up.”
“I’m under a microscope,” he said. “I’m asking people across the country as I travel – pray for my wisdom, pray for my strength. Because I really don’t want to mess up. I want African Americans to look back at this convention and say, ‘This is a brave move for the SBC, and it’s one of the best things that ever happened.’”
Luter has been married to his wife, Elizabeth Luter, for 12 years. The couple has two children, Chip and Kimberly.