Racism to Revival: Luter's Vision for So. Baptists

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NEW ORLEANS -- Pastor Fred Luter, Jr., made history on June 19 when members of the Southern Baptist Convention elected him president. He's now the first African American to lead the nation's largest evangelical denomination.

Luter spoke with CBN News just hours after his term began to reflect the on the emotional victory.

"When all those folks stood up I started thinking about my great, great ancestors. What are they thinking now? And guys that were trail blazers in this convention before I was," he told CBN News.

Luter, a descendant of slaves, now leads an organization that supported slavery and segregation when it started 167 years ago.

Despite that past, he said his eyes are fixed on the future. And Luter's top priority is growing Southern Baptist membership.

Although still the largest with just under 16 million messengers, Southern Baptists have seen five consecutive years of decline. Luter plans to reach out to his predecessors and other pastors for help turning things around.

"I have a two-year window here. I can't do everything I want to do," he said. "But I want to do something to change this decline in baptisms and membership. How can I help you all to pull off what you pull off to make it work, to impact this country, to impact the churches?"

From 'Disaster to Dancing'

Luter brings significant experience in turning things around. He pastors Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, where he's witnessed his congregation revive twice.

There were only 65 people on the membership roll at Franklin Avenue when Luter arrived to lead the church in 1986. The church was shrinking as the urban community was changing from predominately white to predominately black.

The head of Southern Baptist missions doubted Luter would be able to turn things around.

"He told me this, and I quote, he said, 'Son, you are not my choice for this church. But evidently these people want you, so this is my job description for you: you either resurrect this church, or we are going to bury it,'" Luter recalled.

"I looked at him and I said, 'Sir, I know New Orleans is known for our jazz funerals, but I am in no mood for a funeral. We are going to resurrect this church,'" he continued.

With time and effort, Luter saw the church grow to more than 8,000 congregants. But many of those members were forced to flee the city in 2005, as Hurricane Katrina poured more than nine feet of water into their sanctuary.

It then took two years to reopen the doors.

"I never will forget my sermon was from the book of Habakkuk. And my title was 'From Disaster to Dancing.' And I literally danced across this pulpit," Luter said.

That dance celebrated more than his return to the church. Luter and his congregation also helped restore more than 30 homes in the community. The accomplishment led to a memorable lunch meeting with President George W. Bush at New Orleans' famous Dooky Chase Restaurant.

"He had strawberry shortcake and I had pecan pie, which is my favorite desert, and I guess he saw me enjoying it," Luter reminisced.

"And he said, 'Is it really that good?' And the president of the United States of America took his fork without even asking my permission and said, 'Let me try that' and took some of my pecan pie," he said.

"That is a moment I will never forget," he added.

'Frangelism' on a National Stage

Five years later, Pastor Luter now holds three Sunday services to accommodate crowds of more than 5,000. The first service begins at 7:30 a.m. and some people start arriving at sunrise to ensure they are able to get a seat.

"It burdens my heart when people drive from miles and miles, come to the church and can't get it in the sanctuary, and they have to go into the overflow room. That's kind of tough for me," Luter said.

With his growing congregation, Luter often leaves the pulpit to shake the hands of those in the pews.

He also personally reads and responds to his mail. It's part of what he calls "frangelism." That's short for friends, relatives, associates and neighbors reaching each other to grow the church.

The pastor prefers "frangelism" over Facebook. He has yet to join any social media sites.

But Fred Luter's name quickly became a top trending topic on Twitter, just moments after being elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

It's quite a different stage for the pastor whose ministry actually began on a street corner in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.

"There are people who will see me today and say, 'Man I remember you when you were on the street corner. I thought you were so crazy man,'" Luter said.

"Some people they will wave at you. Some people will give you the finger. People will curse you out. But that is where I got my start, and I really think that my ministry on the street prepared me for ministry in the church," he explained.

The former street preacher now leads a denomination of more than of than 45,000 churches filled with some 16 million people.

And he's ready to work.

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Efrem Graham

Efrem Graham

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Efrem Graham is an award-winning journalist, who comes to CBN News from the ABC owned and operated station in Toledo, Ohio.  He received his master's degree from the Columbia University Journalism School. He also holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.  Follow Efrem on Twitter @EfremGraham and "like" him at Facebook.com/EfremGrahamCBN.