FORT MILL — The Rev. Fred Luter Jr., the first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention, will speak at Westerly Hills Baptist Church in Fort Mill on Monday.
Last year, Southern Baptists made history when they elected the 55-year-old black preacher to lead the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with more than 16 million members and 45,000 churches.
The Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845 by Baptists who were defenders of slavery. It remains a predominantly white organization today.
But Luter’s election 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 hometown of New Orleans.
He was re-elected in June to a second one-year term.
While Luter’s position as president of the denomination is historic, he has a long history with Southern Baptists. It all came together in what Luter calls his “Road to Damascus” moment, referring to the apostle Paul’s conversion experience in the Bible.
An avid motorcyclist, Luter was involved in an accident in 1977 that left him hospitalized with compound fractures and serious head injuries. He said that after surviving the accident, he realized he wanted to go into the ministry.
Luter, who was born and raised in New Orleans’ lower Ninth Ward, had been active in the church as a child. With no church to preach in, Luter set up shop every Saturday at noon on the corner of Galvez and Caffin avenues, where he would preach to anyone who would listen.
He preached his first church sermon in 1983 at the Law Street Baptist Church in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward. By 1986 he was preaching regularly at Greater Liberty Baptist Church when he heard about the opening for a pastor at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church.
Franklin Avenue Baptist Church was originally an all-white church, but as whites moved out of the neighborhood, a result of urban renewal, the congregation changed to mostly African-American members.
In 1986, Luter took the helm at the small, struggling church and quickly went to work, creating an outreach strategy he referred to as “FRANgelism” – Friends, Relatives, Associates, Neighbors.
“It’s about making the main thing the main thing, and that’s bringing people to Christ,” Luter said.
He also focused his attention on bringing men into the fold. He felt that if you could get men to church, the women would come.
“The man is the head of the family,” Luter said. “If he comes to church, he’s going to bring his family with him.”
In the beginning, to get more men involved, Luter would do things like have 20 or 30 of them over to his home to watch a sporting event and then make his pitch for God.
“When Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns fought, I had about 25 guys at the house that night,” he said. “Many of them are still with us.”
By 1989, Luter had grown his church to more than 300 members. In 1994, Luter and his congregation began plans to build a new church. Over the next three years, through regular tithes and offerings, the church faithful had raised enough money to begin construction of their new facility – one that would seat 1,500 people.
On Aug. 29, 2005, the church and the rest of New Orleans would be forced to a screeching halt by Hurricane Katrina. The church was destroyed and members were scattered all over the country.
Luter, however, would not rest. He began the painstaking process of trying to locate his members and get them home. He traveled all over the country, and new Franklin Avenue Baptist Churches sprang up in cities like Baton Rouge, La., and Houston.
But Luter wasn’t satisfied. He wanted a church in New Orleans to serve those members who had managed to make it back home.
Luter’s call would be answered by Pastor David Crosby of the First Baptist Church in the Lakeview section of New Orleans. Crosby’s large church was spared the devastation that Franklin Avenue experienced and was able to reopen within a few months.
The two pastors struck a deal and in the process struck up a friendship. For the next three years, Luter held 7 a.m. services at Crosby’s church, all the while rebuilding his own. It was Crosby who formally nominated Luter for the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Luter says it’s a new day in the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Our doors are open to each and everybody – no matter the color, no matter the creed, no matter the background,” he said. “This convention’s doors are open and our churches are open to whosoever will, let them come.”