Diversity for the USA's Biggest Protestant Group?
The election of a black vice president to the mostly white Southern Baptist Convention could be a sign of change. Or not. Here's what he told us.
Under his leadership, Franklin Avenue Baptist grew from 65 members to more than 7,000 before Hurricane Katrina slammed the Crescent City. Today the church has 4,000 members and is planning to build a new church about five miles away from Franklin Avenue.
Franklin Avenue has always been a Southern Baptist church, Luter said. In the 1970s, when the complexion of New Orleans' Upper 8th Ward changed from white to black, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation, stayed put, maintaining its roots in the neighborhood where it was founded.
"God has given me favor," he said. "He has placed me in a position to do good things. It's a blessing."
It's a unique position that he's in, given that the SBC's history of diversity is less than stellar. A question about whether slave owners could be missionaries caused the denomination to split with the American Baptist Convention in the 1845, with the SBC condoning slavery. During the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, the Southern Baptist Church, as a body, was silent about racial injustice.
Luter began preaching at Franklin Avenue Baptist in 1986, three years before the SBC passed a resolution declaring racism a sin. In 1992 Luter became the first African American elected to the executive board of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. And in 2001 he was the first African American to preach the Southern Baptist Convention Message, considered the main event for the annual gathering.
But in this case, being first could carry some challenges, said Dr. Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, a Shaw University professor of theology and an editorial-board member for the Journal of Race Ethnicity and Religion.
"I hope it's not just a setup [by the SBC]," Kirk-Duggan said, noting the denomination's past record on race. "I hope he is really supported and that he will have the support and the authority to bring change and inclusion.
"God made humanity in his own image. That means we are all equal," she added. "There are no subordinates."
Denise Stewart is a freelance writer in Alabama.