Fred Luter Jr., pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, was elected first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention on June 13, a milestone that many believe may eventually lead him to assume the denomination’s top position. UrbanFaith news & religion editor Christine A. Scheller spoke to Luter by phone Monday. The conversation focused on Luter’s historic ascent to leadership in a denomination that was founded, in part, as a means of preserving a religious justification for the institution of slavery in America. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: Have you always been a Southern Baptist?
Fred Luter: Franklin Avenue at one time was an all-white Southern Baptist church, but in the late 1970s, there was a white flight. Whites moved out of the neighborhood; blacks moved back in. The white congregation literally turned the building over to the local Baptist association, so that it would be used for the people in this community. I’ve always given them credit for that. They could have torn it down or sold it to the highest bidder. They knew the neighborhood was changing, so they wanted it to be used for the people in this community. I came in 1986, so the church was already a Southern Baptist church.
The initial New York Times report on your election noted a Southern Baptist connection to slavery. Were you aware of that when you became pastor at Franklin Avenue?
No, to be honest, I was not. I had no idea at all. … When I found out, I was already too deep in it. I doubt if a lot of people who are part of our churches are aware. … Back in 1845, the convention was started as a split between the American Baptist Convention. They started the Southern Baptist Convention based on the issue of slavery. That’s part of our dark past.
What is the significance of your election?
I didn’t realize how significant it was until I started getting all these requests for interviews. It has been incredible. I’ve been a part of this since ’86 and … I never thought it would get this much notoriety. I guess if something happens to the president, you it. … We lost over 4000 members in Katrina who were displaced all over the country and I started getting calls from people all across the country saying, “I saw you in this paper. I saw you in that paper. I saw you on CNN.”
Your church lost 4,000 members from Hurricane Katrina?
We had grown from 50 members back in ’86 to about 8,000. We were the largest Southern Baptist church in the state of Lousiana, white or black. God had blessed us in a mighty, mighty way. But then Katrina came and destroyed all of that. Our church was flooded with nine feet of water.
The Baptist Press report on the convention noted its emphasis on ethnicity, and unity. Was there a concerted effort, in the pursuit of diversity, to elect an African American?
Honestly, I don’t think it was, because this report involving ethnicity was really a resolution that came forward in our convention last year in Orlando … that this convention was going to vote on. I think it just so happened that my election came at the same time that this was a major resolution. … I think the background of it, honestly, is that next year the convention is going to be in New Orleans, and I got some calls saying, “Hey man, it would be really nice, since the convention is going to be in New Orleans, that you be in a position of leadership in your hometown.”
What is the value of the diversity resolution?
I think it’s critical. Back in , the convention made a public apology for their beginnings, for their founding on slavery, and they apologized to all the African American pastors in the convention. … That was the start of what’s now becoming something we’re beginning to see, because in this convention there are other ethnicities. Of course, it’s predominantly Anglo, but now we have African Americans, we have Asians, we have Hispanics, and so many in the leadership roles are saying it doesn’t make any sense to have all these different ethnic groups at our convention and the leadership role is lily white. Those in leadership said, “Let’s start doing something about this.”
I think it’s great. It says to those of us who are part of the convention that, yes, this is a part of our past, but we have been talking about including other ethnic groups for a while; now it’s time to start putting our money where our mouth is. Let’s start walking it instead of just talking it. I think it’s now finally coming together.