(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."
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.