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Bridging the racial divide

By Ronald E. Keener

As Hurricane Isaac blew through New Orleans in late August, Fred Luter, 56, could be excused if he felt like “here we go again.” Hurricane Katrina, seven years earlier, destroyed his church and scattered the membership across the country.

“We had more than 1,000 of our members move to Houston, and more than 600 of our members in Baton Rouge, and started a church in both cities that are still meeting. Our members in New Orleans met for a one-hour 7:30 am worship service at First Baptist Church New Orleans, pastored by Dr. David Crosby, a mostly Anglo church. God used this ‘partnership’ to be a testimony to the city of New Orleans.

“By the grace of God,” Luter says, “we have once again seen tremendous church growth since Hurricane Katrina, causing us to have multiple services. If you are not in the sanctuary 10 to 15 minutes before service starts, you have to go to one of three overflow rooms with large TV monitors to watch the worship service.

“We are in a landlocked city block with off-street parking, with some members parking up to four blocks away from the sanctuary. We bought 25 acres of land about 10 miles from our present facility to build a larger sanctuary, but more importantly we can park more than 1,200 cars on the property. We will certainly be able to reach more people with the gospel message that Jesus saves!”

How do you manage your time between your congregation and the responsibilities of the SBC presidency?

In my new role as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, there are some meetings and events that I am obligated to attend. I will block those dates out and then fit in my other responsibilities as a pastor of a growing church. Hopefully, there will not be any major conflicts where I need to be in two places on the same date! Having been a bivocational pastor at one time does certainly help with multitasking when I have to juggle appointments.

In what ways would you describe your election as “making history”?

Being the first African-American to lead the largest Protestant denomination in America is certainly historic; there is no way to get around that. It is something that is mentioned in every interview as well as when being introduced before preaching engagements. I do recognize and embrace the history behind this election.

Do you have an agenda or specific goals you wish to carry out during your tenure?

I am still talking to pastors, state execs, denomination staff, and fellow Southern Baptists around the country to see what needs to be done to turn around our downward trend in church membership and baptisms, particularly among our young people. I am convinced that we must be willing to change some of our outdated methods to reach this new generation. There is no way we can reach this iPod, iPhone and iPad generation with eight-track ministry!

It’s been noted that the percent of non-Anglo churches has moved from one in 20 to one in five just during the last two decades. What should that tell us about the SBC, its growth and future?

It should tell us that the SBC is more of a multiethnic convention. Our convention purposely wants to start more African-American, Hispanic and Asian congregations. The numbers will show that these ethnic groups are growing all across our convention.

Is it too much to hope (as Curtis Freeman has said) “for the convention to move beyond the racialized divisions of the past and into a future where white and black Baptists might begin to see themselves as one people”?

I believe that it is not too much to hope for, but it is not realistic to think that we can ever see ourselves as one people without mentioning black or white. However, I have no doubt that the divisions are coming closer than they have ever been, as proven by my election running unopposed in a predominantly white convention.

You have spoken about your “Damascus Road” experience earlier in your life. What was that about?

After being hit on my motorcycle – a new blue-and-silver Honda 360 – I found myself in a local hospital with a head injury and a compound fracture of my left leg. I almost lost my life. A senior deacon at the church I grew up in came to my hospital bed, put his finger in my face and said, “Boy, obedience is better than sacrifice. If you would be obedient to your Mom you would not be sacrificing your life here in this hospital.” So that night I cried out to God to come into my life and make me a new creature! God did, and I have never been the same! I call that evening my “Damascus Road” experience!

When was the last time you were on a motorcycle?

I have never been on another motorcycle since, not because I do not want to ride again; however I know that if my wife, Elizabeth, found out then I would be sleeping that night on the sofa instead of in my bed!

What was it like to be a street preacher in the Lower Ninth Ward of the city? What did it teach you about life, faith and conversions?

I enjoyed my years as a street preacher. I saw God do a lot of miraculous things on the street corners of the Lower Ninth Ward. Being a street preacher taught me that people, regardless of their lot in life, are hungry for the Word of God and are willing to make a public confession when the Gospel is presented in a way that they can understand.

You have been called a trailblazer in the SBC. How do you see yourself in what might be called “the top of your profession”?

I am in no way a trailblazer in the SBC. As a matter of fact I am standing on the shoulders of men I would consider trailblazers. Men like Clarence Hopson, Sid Smith, Emanuel McCall, George McCalep, E.W. McCall and Jay Wells, just to name a few. These men were in the SBC long before me, and because of their steadfastness and sacrifice, made it possible for me to be elected as president of the SBC.

You are known to place a special focus on family in your ministry. How so?

I believe in a strong family ministry because I am the product of divorced parents when I was six years old. I personally experienced the impact of growing up in a home without the presence of a father. Not having a father in the home truly impacted my life and some of the choices I made growing up. Therefore I know how crucial and critical a strong family makes in the lives of young children. Family is certainly a priority at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church.

Also you believe that if you get the man to come to church the family will follow. What might you do to interest men in the church and reach them?

By the grace of God we have 47 to 48 percent men in our congregation worshipping every week. Reaching men has been a priority for me since I became a pastor. I am convinced if you save the man, the man will save his family! We have a number of ministries geared to reaching and discipling men, including a men’s Sunday School class, a men’s discipleship class that meets on Tuesday nights, a men’s choir that sings twice a month, a men’s usher’s ministry that serves once a month, and a men’s recreation night in our gymnasium. I am truly proud of our men’s ministry.

You were a vice president at a brokerage firm early in your career. Did that experience in the secular world influence your life in ministry?

My early bivocational work at a brokerage helped in my relationship with people. A pastor has to have good communication skills if he is going to reach people.

Are you entrepreneurial in your ministry? How is that being expressed in the congregation?

We have more than 45 different ministries at Franklin Avenue – from the nursery to our Senior Soldiers – that are geared to reach people. Most of the ministries were started by members in the congregation who had an idea that could help minister to our growing congregation. If you name it, we will probably have that ministry at FABC.

I saw a reference to your election on June 19 – or Juneteenth, it was called. What is the significance of that word for the black church?

My election as president of the SBC on June 19 was very significant to many African-Americans because of the fact that even though President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became official on January 1, 1863, the word did not get to the slaves in Texas that they were free until June 19, 1865, some two and a half years later. Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration in America commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States.

Your message to the SBC spoke to all races feeling welcomed in the church. Are there specific steps in working toward that?

My message that the SBC is “open to everyone” simply means that we purposely want it known that our convention is multiethnic. Because of the beginning of this convention as a result of slavery, many people felt that the convention was an all-Anglo convention. Well that is certainly not the case, and Fred Luter’s election is exhibit A. Now hopefully we can put this chapter of our history behind us and move forward to reach the lost in our world with the gospel of Jesus Christ!

How do black churches differ from Anglo churches in worship practices?

There is certainly a difference in the worship services in the black versus the Anglo services. Our music is different; our expression of vocal “feedback” during the sermon is different, as well as other practices during worship. However, that is the great thing about different worship styles. People can choose a church they are most comfortable in.

The convention passed a significant resolution addressing homosexuality. Where do you and the church stand on the issue?
Our convention in the resolution said that we believe that biblical marriage is between one man and one woman. Therefore no president, governor, mayor, elected official or, for that fact, any denomination can change what is clearly written in the Word of God. As I have often said, nothing can be politically right if it is biblically wrong.
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