CONWAY — Every time the Rev. Fred Luter steps onto a stage now, he is proof that the Southern Baptist Convention is serious about shedding its racist past.
Luter, pastor of a large Baptist church in New Orleans, was in June elected the first black president of the Convention, which was founded in 1845 so its slaveholding members would have a place to worship that wouldn’t judge them as sinners.
“We cannot deny the fact that this Convention was started because of slavery,” Luter said Friday after preaching to an overwhelmingly white audience at the 21st annual Coastal Evangelism Conference at Langston Baptist Church.
But Luter noted that in 1995 the Convention adopted a resolution that he helped draft apologizing for its past, and has been trying since to convince the rest of society that it’s serious about moving into the future.
The Rev. Glen Stanley, pastor of Conway’s Pine Grove Baptist Church, said after Luter’s appearance that his church has been reaching out to blacks and Hispanics for a few years, hoping they will join his congregation. The church has dedicated a space where Spanish speaking visitors can attend the services with the aid of an interpreter.
“We haven’t seen the fruit we’d like to see,” Stanley admitted.
But he’s hoping that Luter’s election as Convention president will help the effort.
“We’re trying to reach all people,” the Rev. Don Purvis, former Langston pastor, said in the mega church’s lobby. “Not just white people.”
Southern Baptist churches, like those everywhere, are watching their membership decline and trying to figure out how to stop the slide. At the June meeting where Luter was elected president, Southern Baptists also adopted an alternate name, Great Commission Baptists, that Convention members whose churches are outside the South can use to describe their religious affiliation.
Luter said that 85 percent of Southern Baptist churches have declining memberships, and if he can do just one thing during his two-year presidency, it will be to lead an upswing in membership, particularly among young people.
Although a Southern Baptist for 25 years, Luter said church was mostly a social outlet for him until a 1977 motorcycle accident nearly took his life and he made a deal with God. Spare my life, he told God, and I’ll dedicate it to you. He was 21 years old.
Immediately, he said, he was filled with the knowledge that he would change his life, abandoning the job at the brokerage and the good times with buddies in his neighborhood.
Shortly afterward, he said, he began preaching on street corners in New Orleans.
He’s honed his considerable skills since then, and his sermon Friday to the audience at Langston was so filled with a perfect blend of full-throated, gesticulating passion broken at the perfect times with humor that, at his conclusion, all in the expansive sanctuary were on their feet clapping and proclaiming allegiance to God.
His message was that the righteous as well as the sinful will go through bad times.
Faith will be the first thing to waiver, he said, drawing from his own experience after Hurricane Katrina.
He and his wife escaped the storm’s path through New Orleans by visiting a daughter who was in college in Birmingham, Ala. They’d fled hurricanes before, he said, but this time “two days became months” and he sat on the couch doubting that there could be a divine reason for what happened to his home town.
Why didn’t you target destruction for the strip joints, he said he asked God. Why not aim just at the Satanic churches?
But he had forgotten about the promises, presence and power of Jesus, he said, and once they returned to him, he could return to New Orleans to rebuild as best as has been possible.
Luter is aware that his election as the first black president of the Southern Baptist Convention has given him a place in history.
But it is not a weight to him. It is an opportunity.
“There’s nothing we can do about our past,” he said. “There so much more to our future. Now it’s time to put our money where our mouth is.”
Contact STEVE JONES at 444-1765.