Vernetta Ballard, 53, has been a member at Franklin Avenue for 17 years. Like most church members, she was displaced in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina and lived for two years in Alabama. Two years later she returned to the Crescent City — and to her church, which also had to rise from the ruins of the floodwaters.
On Sunday she had white embroidered commemorative cloths that had been sewn by the church’s sewing ministry. “It’s just amazing to see our pastor elected the first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention,” she said. “To God be the glory.”
Since his election earlier last week, Luter says he has had a steady flow of phone calls from people offering prayers and support. As he was checking out of a hotel in downtown New Orleans on Thursday, his cellphone rang, and on the other end was President Barack Obama. “That messed me up,” Luter said jokingly from the pulpit. “How does he know my cellphone number?”
The two presidents talked about five minutes, he added. President Obama congratulated him, then asked Luter: “So what’s it like to be the most popular president in America?”
Like Obama, Luter is a first, and he’s keenly aware of the changes that brings. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure,” Luter said, during a brief interview after the morning worship. “Anytime you are the first at anything, there are high expectations. My greatest challenge is not to mess up.”
Luter said that his election is evidence of the convention’s commitment to diversity, but it is not a token gesture. “The Southern Baptist Convention is open to all people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds,” he explained. “This is real. It goes beyond the studies and the reports, and Fred Luter is exhibit A.”
The 16-million-member SBC must have a well-thought-out plan for increasing diversity, says Bill J. Leonard, the James and Marilyn Dunn Chair of Baptist Studies at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity in North Carolina. “There must be intentionality on diversity,” he said. “Luter and others must be invited to share power in denominational leadership and on the various committees.”
Luter’s election is an important step, but the impact of that step is what is truly important, according to Leonard. “The Gospel says, ‘By their fruits you will know them,’ ” he said.
One of the most diverse Baptist denominations, Leonard said, is the American Baptist Churches USA. About 30 years ago, the American Baptists set quotas for their congregations to achieve diversity, Leonard said.
While quotas may not be an effective approach to increasing diversity in the predominantly white Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination must choose different ways to reach out to people of other races. “Some of the African-American churches in the SBC are dually aligned with the National Baptist Convention,” Leonard said. That approach may allow the SBC to achieve more diversity and partner in ministry with other congregations without causing a huge disruption for other denominations, he added.
Luter said that he has received support from past leaders of the SBC. “I have received phone calls from each of the past presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention who still are living,” he said. “They’ve called and asked me, ‘What can we do?’ I tell them to pray for me. I want to represent God well. I want to represent our church well.”
Denise Stewart is a freelance writer in Alabama and a member of a congregation aligned with both the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Baptist Convention.