NEW ORLEANS (BP) -- In one of the most historic meetings in the Southern Baptist Convention's 167-year history, messengers meeting June 19-20 elected the body's first African American president and voted to keep the convention's name while approving a descriptor, "Great Commission Baptists," for those churches that wish to use it.
|Newly elected Southern Baptist Convention President Fred Luter Jr. is interviewed as ABC News' Person of the Week on June 21. Photo by Jim Veneman|
The momentous occasion in New Orleans brought media from across the nation to see the election of Fred Luter, a descendent of slaves who now is the president of a convention whose founders, in 1845, defended slavery.
The convention officially repented of its racist past at the 1995 meeting, and has seen the percentage of non-white churches grow, from 5 percent of the SBC in 1990 to 19 percent in 2010. Last year, messengers approved a landmark report encouraging ethnic diversity in committee appointments.
Luter, who was unopposed and received a lengthy standing ovation from messengers when elected, told media at a news conference that he sees his election as being a turning point for blacks and other ethnic groups.
"Here is a convention that has been talking this racial reconciliation thing and now they're putting their money where their mouth is," said Luter, pastor of New Orleans' Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, whose building was flooded after Hurricane Katrina but has been rebuilt into a mega-church amid the city's much-reduced population.
Luter called his election "a genuine, authentic move by this convention that says our doors are open." He also said he hopes to see minorities promoted to other positions within the convention, "and I'll be a cheerleader promoting that."
About 7,900 registered messengers attended the annual meeting, and nearly every one of them -- plus family members and several dozen media representatives -- were in a packed convention hall when Luter was elected. New Orleans pastor David Crosby nominated Luter, and recording secretary John Yeats cast the convention's official ballot.
"It is my high honor to cast this historic ballot of the convention for Dr. Fred Luter as president of the Southern Baptist Convention," Yeats said before adding, "Hallelujah!"
Yeats' expression seemed appropriate for a historic day, and messengers responded with an emotional 70-second standing ovation. With cameras flashing as Luter walked to the podium, he pointed heavenward and, while wiping away tears, said simply, "To God be the glory for the things that He has done." Outgoing SBC President Bryant Wright then put his arm around Luter and prayed for him.
Luter's election came with a historical coincidence: He was elected on June 19, or "Juneteenth," a yearly date in which many African Americans celebrate the emancipation of slaves. His election also came as Americans commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
"This is not just an Anglo convention," Luther told media members. "... I'm Exhibit A that this convention is serious about saying that our doors are open to everyone. I hope to be a spokesperson to that, because let's face it: There are some African Americans, maybe Asians or Hispanics who for years felt that they were not welcome in the Southern Baptist Convention. That's not the case anymore." Read More