WARNER ROBINS -- When God saved his life in a horrific motorcycle crash in 1977 and then his soul, Fred Luter Jr. started preaching on a street corner to anyone who would listen. He said Tuesday he never dreamed God would promote him to lead the Southern Baptist Convention.
But on June 19, Luter was elected without opposition as the first black president of the convention at its annual meeting held in his hometown of New Orleans.
Its a moment in my life Ill never forget, said Luter, senior pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. He was in Warner Robins to speak at the annual meeting of the Georgia Baptist Convention at Second Baptist Church.
The Southern Baptist Convention, which has a past intertwined with support of slavery and segregation, is the largest protestant organization in America with more than 16 million members and 45,000 churches.
You cannot deny the fact that it is historic that a convention that was once started as a result of slavery now years later has an African-American great-great-great-grandson of those slaves as the president of that convention, Luter said in interview before he addressed the state convention. You cannot get beyond that. You cannot avoid it.
I think its part of what makes it historical, Luter said. Im honored and very flattered that the members of this convention saw enough in me through my qualifications as a pastor to say, We want this guy to lead our convention.
But make no mistake, said pastors assembled in the church foyer before Luter was to speak, Luter was chosen because hes the best man for the job.
And his election, noted the Rev. Benjamin Lang, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Lithia Springs, was more than a moment in history.
This is a movement of God, Lang said passionately.
He said the emphasis for Southern Baptists today is not on the issue of skin but on the issue of sin.
God saves us by grace and not by race, Lang said.
The men noted there are more than 3,500 black churches within the fold of the Southern Baptist Convention, and true change always comes from within. But sometimes that takes time, they said. Of the more than 3,500 black churches, 163 were based in Georgia as of 2011, according to the Georgia Baptist Convention.
Tim Millwood, missionary for the Rehoboth Baptist Association of 54 Southern Baptist churches in Middle Georgia, was asked about the significance of Luters election.
I think it says if barriers between people are going to be broken down, it has to be done in Christ, said Millwood. Hes the great unifier.
It also says you dont have to be imprisoned by your past, Millwood said.
Millwood said that while historical, the election of Luter was not strategic or political.
We saw in Pastor Luter a man whod proven himself as a man of God capable of leading, Millwood said.
When Luter took the helm of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in 1986, its congregation was about 65. By 2005, the congregation had grown to the largest Southern Baptist church in Louisiana with 7,000 members. But then Hurricane Katrina struck. Luters church was deluged by eight feet of water and his flock was scattered.
I thought my life was over really, Luter said. For an entire city to be under water like that, it was disheartening.
But God raised him, his church and the city itself out of ruin. He learned that about 1,000 members had moved to Houston, Texas, and another 600 were in Baton Rouge. Some members were still in New Orleans. He began rotating services among the cities -- borrowing another New Orleans churchs sanctuary for three years for early-morning services before that pastor led his congregation. The newly built sanctuary of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church opened in 2008. David Crosby, pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans, who became among Luters dearest friends when he shared his church, would later nominate Luter for president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Now as president, Luter took his place behind the pulpit at Second Baptist Church and delivered an impassioned message about not being ashamed of the gospel and fulfilling the Great Commission of Christ found in Matthew 28:16-20.
I pray people will leave here really pumped up and revived, Luter said when asked what hed like those assembled to take away with them. Like a pep rally, I want people to leave out, All right. Lets go! Lets make it happen!
To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.