A few blocks from where he grew up in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, in a wet and rising wind, Rev. Fred Luter Jr. is pacing behind a microphone. In his last weeks as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the leader of the United States’ largest protestant denomination is here in an official capacity, to speak at the dedication of a non-profit health clinic. But the event also marks a homecoming of sorts.
Here are the streets Luter walked as a boy. He can point to where his mother went to church, and to the barber shop where he honed a gift for speaking. Those buildings are now boarded and the streets marred by blighted homes, by empty lots — evidence of deep racial inequalities that Luter has seen as his life’s work to resolve.
The first African-American president of the Baptist branch that broke from the church to retain its pro-slavery stance, Luter has served a whirlwind two years. His term ends Wednesday. As president, Luter has traveled the globe, preaching in mud huts in Uganda, in the freezing February of an Alaskan winter. He speaks of his sympathy for human suffering, a sympathy that extends outward in every direction, to everyone he meets.
But he has retained a special sympathy for the problems facing his hometown. For the April 28 dedication of Baptist Community Health Services Inc., he spoke not of what he has accomplished abroad but of what he would like to do here. Embarking on a biblical anecdote of those who once doubted Christ, he said skeptics, upon hearing that Jesus was born in the backwaters of Nazareth, asked, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”
“Well, ladies and gentlemen,” Luter said, his voice gaining vim, “Washington D.C. one time asked. Baton Rouge one time asked. All over Louisiana, the question was one time asked: ‘Can any good thing come out of the Lower 9th ward? Can any good thing come out of Tennessee and St. Claude streets? Can any thing come out of the Lower 9th Ward area?'”
“Yes, yes, yes,” he said. “We know there are good things to come. We’ve seen it ourselves.”
Luter standing there was the only answer that was needed. His life could answer the question he asked.
Rise to presidency
Luter did not see himself as a churchman until 1977, when he survived a motorcycle wreck with a new calling to join the ministry. In 1983, he was preaching on street corners. By 1986, he was pastor of the first church to accept him, Franklin Avenue Baptist.
Over the next two decades he built a congregation of 65 into one of 7,000 members, who piled into three back-to-back Sunday services, drawn to the pastor who was warm, familial and deliciously entertaining. Luter tells biblical parables like fireside tales, swells with the momentum of an impassioned used car salesman and sinks into a whisper, tip-toeing across words like lily pads. His sermons have room for Nicki Minaj and iPods, making ancient stories modern to tell lessons of love, forgiveness and family values.
But Hurricane Katrina scattered Luter’s devoted congregation and flooded his sanctuary with eight feet of water. He spent ensuing years rebuilding both, an effort helped in part by the strong reputation Luter had already gained at home and abroad.
In the Southern Baptist Convention, Luter had become a pastor to watch. In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the convention, he was part of a committee that spearheaded a resolution calling for racial reconciliation in the convention.
His nomination to the presidency in 2012 might have surprised a country still perceiving the Southern Baptist church as a largely white one still clinging to racist values. But to those within the church, his rise was unsurprising.
“Luter’s presidency was more of a proclamation than a coronation,” said Kevin Ezell, a convention leader and president of its National American Mission Board, which is charged with growing church numbers. “I think he unapologetically knows what he believes and stands behind it. He is not licking his fingers and sticking them in the air to see where the wind is blowing. He’s confident. He stands consistently behind what he believes. People want to follow a leader like that.”
Click here to read more.