(The Root) — As the first African American elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. will travel throughout the country, preaching from some of the nation’s most storied pulpits. But on Sunday he was home with his local congregation at the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans.
Three blocks beyond the city’s 9th Ward, the 5,000-member church at the corner of Franklin Avenue and North Dorgenois is a mixture of ages, cultures and races. A few women were adorned in fancy hats, and many of the men in Sunday suits. Others were more casual, but nearly everyone greeted people with a smile or a handshake.
By 7:15 a.m. the 2,000 or so seats in the huge sanctuary and balcony were packed for a worship service beginning at 7:30 at one of the largest Southern Baptist congregations in the city.
Luter, a New Orleans native, was a street preacher before accepting the pastorate at Franklin Avenue. However, his move to the national stage is historic and controversial at the same time. His election to lead the SBC, the largest Protestant denomination in America, is a clear appeal to members beyond its predominantly white base.
The group was birthed before the Civil War after a split with Northern Baptists over slavery and was known to support segregation for many years. In the mid-1990s, Luter was part of an effort to reform its racist image that has led to its nonwhite membership growing from 5 percent in 1990 to 20 percent in 2010.
On the other hand, its leaders have condemned same-sex marriage, passing a resolution that opposes its consideration as a civil rights issue. Last week Luter fell in line with the group’s public stance. “I’m a man of the Book. I believe in the word of God,” Luter said in a CNN interview. “I believe in the Bible. God has specifically spoken about marriage. Marriage is between a man and a woman. That’s biblical.”
Still, those who know him say he’s still the same Fred, with a huge smile, a warm spot for Christians and an evangelistic spirit for those he seeks to convert.
On Sunday he entered the sanctuary just after the choir began singing, quietly greeting people with hugs, giving handshakes to the men and kissing a few senior women seated on the burgundy-cushioned, oak-trimmed pews.
The first time he stepped up to the pulpit, all the folks in the sanctuary rose to their feet, offering a sustained applause. Luter thanked them but was quick to explain that his election was not about him but about God.
“Don’t make me cry,” he said. “I’ve cried a lot already.”
In the past week, lots of national media attention has been heaped on Luter, but on Sunday he told his congregation, “I am still the same.”
The Rev. Marvin Turner, a New Orleans pastor who attended the service Sunday to show support, said he has known Luter for 30 years. “He’s humble. This won’t go to his head,” Turner said. “He’s a child of God, and that’s all he wants to be.”