Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans' Upper 8th Ward has about 4,000 members — most of them black, and all Southern Baptist.
As the nation's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention has 16 million members, but what it doesn't have is a lot of diversity. Only 45,000 of its members are African American, according to denomination reports. And other minorities account for a small percentage of its membership.
But the election Tuesday of the Rev. Fred Luter Jr., Franklin Avenue Baptist Church's black pastor, as vice president of the mostly white SBC could signal a change for the 166-year-old conservative religious organization. The election also places him in line for election as president in 2012.
In the pulpit, Luter delivers sermons with animation and energy. When the sermons are over, he greets the congregation with a huge smile and open arms. Through the week, he's visible in the community, still working to rebuild a city recovering from the 2005 devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Just as change has come to other American institutions, it's coming now to a religious denomination not previously known for inclusion.
"The door is open now," Luter said, speaking with The Root in an interview between sessions at the SBC's annual meeting in Phoenix.
"In the past, the convention has talked about diversity, but they are walking it now," he said. "The door is open not just for African Americans but for other ethnicities as well."
The convention approved a plan for the SBC to be more inclusive of all ethnic minorities and to make certain that they are included in leadership appointments and pictured in resources. While the denomination leaders say that they don't want to have quotas, they will be including a breakdown of minority representation in the annual membership census.
Falling membership within the SBC means that the denomination needs all the new recruits it can find. According to the SBC's publishing arm, Lifeway Christian Resource, in 2010 membership was 0.15 percent lower than it was 2009, in the fourth straight year of decline.
Luter, a native of New Orleans' 9th Ward, has been pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church since 1986. Before that assignment, he was mostly a street-corner preacher.
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.