The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that 11 a.m. on a Sunday is “the most segregated hour of the week,” and even with an African American in the White House, that critique is still a sad reality in many Baptist churches.
But history was made this week in New Orleans when a 55-year-old African American preacher was elected unanimously to lead the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, which was founded in 1845 by Baptists who were defenders of slavery.
Although the Southern Baptist Convention remains a predominantly white organization of 45,000 congregations, the election of Fred Luter Jr. to a one-year term as president sparked hopes among Baptists in more progressive circles that diversity would trickle down through the leadership ranks.
Luter has long had a prominent national presence in faith circles, rising from a street-corner preacher with a few dozen followers two decades ago to lead a congregation of more than 5,000 members as senior pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in his home town of New Orleans.
“This is humongous as far as the Southern Baptist Convention is concerned,” said the Rev. Patrick J. Walker, pastor of the New Macedonia Baptist Church in Southeast Washington and president of the Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference of Washington D.C. and Vicinity. “He is going to bring the Southern Baptist and historic African American organizations to the table.”
At a news conference after the election, Luter praised the delegates for choosing him.
“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,” said Luter, who was appointed first vice president of the organization last year. “Time will tell, and I’ll be a cheerleader promoting that,” he said.
Luter’s election occurs at a time when the nation’s largest Protestant body has been experiencing a decline in membership and baptisms and is aiming for greater participation among minorities. In 1995, the body apologized for its racist history. And it has recorded growth in non-white churches of 5 percent to 19 percent between 1990 and 2010, according to the Baptist Press, the denomination’s news source.
Curtis W. Freeman , director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School, said Luter is respected as a leader of “deep conviction and integrity.”
Although Freeman said Luter’s theological views are close to that of conservative white Baptists, “What I do not think is that he will simply carry forward the agenda of the leadership of the conservative-resurgence,” Freeman told The Washington Post via e-mail.
What changes might Southern Baptists expect during a Luter presidency?
“In my opinion, the most significant leadership he might offer is to open doors of communication between black Baptist groups and the SBC,” Freeman wrote. “There is already a National African American Baptist Fellowship of Southern Baptists that are working on these matters. How Rev. Luter is able to bring that group into the mainstream of SBC will be a sign of his leadership.”
National and local Baptist leaders also expressed the hope that Luter’s election would lead to greater diversity in the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, and more.
“I pray this . . . also points the way to increased advocacy on the part of the SBC in the public square for equal justice, access to quality education, public health and other benefits for all Americans from all walks of life, regardless of their race, class or gender,” said Jeffrey Haggray, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in the District, which is part of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention.