NEW ORLEANS (BP) -- Newly elected Southern Baptist Convention President Fred Luter Jr. engaged a roomful of reporters in his hometown of New Orleans June 19, sharing his surprise at "the confidence Southern Baptists are putting in me and my leadership skills and what God has done in my life."
The unanimous endorsement of the first African American to serve America's largest Protestant denomination is more than symbolic, Luter said, though he understands why fellow blacks might view it as such, waiting to see that "this is not a one and done deal."
"If we stop appointing African Americans or Asians or Hispanics to leadership roles in this convention after my term is over, we failed. We absolutely failed," Luter said. Instead, he said, "This was a genuine, authentic move by this convention that says our doors are open, and the only way they can see that is not just putting up an African American president, but seeing other ethnic groups in other areas of this convention. Time will tell and I'll be a cheerleader promoting that."
Luter's only announced agenda at the news conference is an effort to build bridges to help Southern Baptists acquire a reputation as "the church getting along" instead of folks who often fuss with one another, a concern he addressed the night before when speaking to the SBC Pastors' Conference.
Appealing for prayer, Luter said he hopes to get diverse groups together "to make sure the Gospel of Christ and the Great Commission is not watered down because of the fact that it seems we don't get together." He asked Southern Baptists to pray that he would have wisdom in dealing with the media, so that nothing he says will hurt the convention, his church, his family or the Kingdom of God.
"There will be some pitfalls, but I hope I will learn from them and study more on things I anticipate being asked," he added, hopeful he will be known as a person, pastor, husband, father and man of God who loves the city of New Orleans, the state and the country, "and loves being part of this convention."
Luter hopes his church's reputation for having strong participation by men will serve as an example to other congregations. "When I became pastor of this church, I said, 'Lord, I know the impact a man could have on a child's life,'" he said, having promised God he would be the role model in his own son's life that he never had.
At the outset of his church's development, Luter said he noticed most of the members were women and children. He thanked them for their involvement, but then set about discovering a way to attract their husbands and other men. By inviting men of the neighborhood to his home to watch a pay-per-view broadcast of a fight between Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard, he developed relationships that multiplied into a steady increase in the number of men attending Franklin Avenue Baptist Church.
"They came with boom boxes and loud music, with a beer can in one hand and a wine cooler in the other," Luter said. "I appreciated them coming but they were going to have to throw away the beer and the wine cooler," he remembered. "It was not a problem. They wanted to see the fight."
While insistent the message of the Gospel must remain the same, Luter said, however, "We cannot expect to reach this do-rag, tattoo-wearing, ear-pierced, iPod, iPad, iPhone generation with an eight-track ministry. Things are changing and so we've got to some way, somehow change the methods of how we do things."
The historic coincidence of being elected on the day when many African Americans celebrate Juneteenth, commemorating the enforcement of emancipation of slaves, had not occurred to Luter until a reporter asked for his comment on the day's significance. While Southern Baptists cannot avoid the fact that support of slavery factored into the founding of the convention, Luter said, "All of us have done some things in our past we're not happy about. We cannot do anything about that past. It's over with. However, we can do a lot about our future."
Luter recalled the 1995 SBC racial reconciliation resolution that he helped write with Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land, a man he described as his good friend and brother. After messengers expressed sorrow for racism in the past, Luter said, "Ever since then I've seen us try to make changes, so much so that last year the Executive Committee wanted to make it known our doors are open to everyone," he said of recommendations endorsed at the 2011 SBC annual meeting in Phoenix to expand ethic involvement in the SBC.
"Here is a convention that has been talking this racial reconciliation thing and now they're putting their money where their mouth is," Luter said, describing his own tears of joy when the messengers and guests rose to their feet in acclamation of his election.
"My mom and dad divorced when I was 6 years old and I've been through a lot, but God, in His grace and mercy allowed this to happen in my life. To see it embraced by so many people of so many different ethnic backgrounds and see it affirmed is a moment I will never forget as long as I live."
That show of unity doesn't mean Southern Baptists won't disagree on issues as diverse as political candidates and whether to add the new descriptor of "Great Commission Baptists" as an option for local churches to use, he said. "It is a given that with a convention this size you have different people who think a lot of things about different things."
Describing Southern Baptists as people who are passionate about their country and the candidates for whom they vote, Luter said, "We can do it in a way that it won't offend other people simply because they don't vote for the candidate we vote for."
Regarding internal discussions, Luter supported the recommendation of "Great Commission Baptists" as a descriptor of SBC, though he expressed surprise over the extended debate. "I think it's a win-win situation to still retain the name we're known by," he said, while agreeing with the sentiment voiced during the debate by a church planter serving outside the South that another name would better serve their circumstances.
Having met President George W. Bush when he toured New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Luter said he looks forward to the possibility of meeting President Barack Obama as well "and discuss some things that I would like to see happen," adding, "It would be a joy to meet him."
Luter brings a quarter century of experience of pastoring the same church that launched with 65 members and grew to over 8,000 in attendance by 2005. "We were booming and going and a woman named Katrina came and destroyed it all," Luter told the media, recalling that he thought his life and his ministry were over when he lost his home to five feet of water and the church was extensively damaged by eight-foot floodwaters.
"By the grace of God, He allowed us to come back," Luter said, describing the rebirth of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in 2008 and subsequent growth to a membership of around 5,000.
"I'm honored the convention came back here so that messengers could see what many of their churches have done" in ministering to the city after the hurricane.
With the prospect of serving as president for two years, Luter admitted his influence is limited. "You can start with a big agenda that may sound impressive to the media, but realistically, how much will you be able to accomplish? This position does not have a lot of power," he said.
He plans to meet with SBC entity leaders who will be in place long after his term has ended and ask, "What can I do in two years to help you to fulfill the vision you are trying to fulfill so that we can work together and accomplish the things I mentioned last night?"
Luter said confidently, "I believe it can be done, but it will take a cooperative effort."
Tammi Reed Ledbetter is news editor of the Southern Baptist Texan, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.