NEW ORLEANS — The Rev. Fred Luter Jr. well remembers the first time he ventured from his native New Orleans to preach in Crowley, a rice-growing town in the heart of Louisiana's Cajun country.
The pastor there had invited Luter to speak, but worried how the congregation would react.
"I told him, 'Just don't put my picture up,'" Luter recalled. "Just tell them I'm a leading Southern Baptist."
Now Luter is poised to become the first black president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the country's largest Protestant denomination.
But back then, in the 1990s, he was still rising through church hierarchy and knew it would take time to win over a denomination born out of slaveholders' obstinacy and perpetuated by segregationists.
The Crowley pastor took his advice.
"I'll never forget when I walked through that church," Luter said, chuckling.
Silence greeted him. But in his warm and conversational style, he preached his usual message: God loves us, all lives can be changed.
The congregation appeared to be in shock. He preached again the next night, and a white woman came up after the service to say it had upset her to see a black man at the altar.
Then she had reflected on his message. "We thank God you came," she said. And invited him to her home.
Many church leaders hope Luter can help transform the denomination, while attracting African-Americans and other minorities still troubled by its past. The Southern Baptist Convention claims more than 16 million members and is overwhelmingly white, but church leaders say it must diversify if it is to continue to thrive.
The Crowley congregation invited Luter back — twice — and began welcoming other black preachers.
"I opened the doors," he said.
Luter, 55, is running unopposed for president, and his election at this month's national meeting is viewed as inevitable. It's an astounding journey for a man from New Orleans' impoverished Lower Ninth Ward, the middle child among five raised by a divorced mother who worked as a seamstress and surgical scrub assistant.
He accompanied her to services at a predominantly black National Baptist church, but he was above all a "street kid."
In 1977, at age 21, he was riding his motorcycle without a helmet when he struck a car and was rushed to the hospital. With a compound fracture in his left leg and a serious head injury, Luter made God an offer: "If you save me, I will serve you."
While working as a commodities clerk he started part-time street preaching, armed with a megaphone he called his "half-mile hailer." He learned how to approach strangers, hook them with his easygoing manner, and win their hearts. Three years later, he married his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth.
Old friends didn't take his sudden fervor seriously.
"A lot of them thought it was just a phase," he said.
By 1986, Luter heard that a Southern Baptist church in New Orleans was looking for a pastor. "That's that white church over on Franklin Avenue," Luter recalls thinking. "Blacks don't go there."
He was wrong. Whites had fled the neighborhood for the suburbs, and blacks had replaced them on the streets and in the pews. The church was down to a few dozen members.
Luter was unaware of the convention's dark history, how Southern Baptists had split from northern counterparts in 1845 in defense of slavery. As National Baptist and other black denominations expanded, the Southern Baptist Convention refused to integrate and supported Jim Crow laws.
Luter was both ordained and installed as pastor at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church on the same day in October 1986. His wife led the women's ministry. They did not advertise the church as Southern Baptist. Often members didn't discover its affiliation until after they joined, and by then, he said, "it really didn't bother them because this church was a part of their lives."
In 1995 the father of two stood by at the 150th annual Southern Baptist meeting in Atlanta as convention leaders approved an extraordinary resolution he helped draft.
"We lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest," their resolution said, acknowledging that some congregations still excluded African-Americans and promising to "commit ourselves to eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry."
Six years later, when the convention's annual meeting came to New Orleans' Superdome, Luter was the first African-American to deliver the keynote sermon. He was electrifying.
"Preach it when they say no!" he said. "Preach it when they say yes! Don't stop but go, go, go!"
The crowd stood up.
"Soul winning is for every child of God," he told them. "We need every member of every church of every size of every race."
Part of his appeal is that he's still a plain-spoken street preacher, unafraid to shout from the pulpit about gay men on the "down low," hoochie mamas, sugar daddies and sinners choosing "Beyonce instead of the Bible and Jay Z instead of Jesus, the casino instead of the church and the lottery instead of the Lord."
Franklin Avenue grew and by 2005 had built a 2,000-seat sanctuary and more land to expand. Luter's son, Fred "Chip" Luter III, 27, who had attended Dallas Baptist University, joined him as youth pastor. Then Hurricane Katrina destroyed the church.
Walking through the lofty sanctuary recently, Luter recalled returning to find the floor coated with black Mississippi mud, the walls blooming with mold.
He walked out front and pointed 9 feet up to the original church sign.
"See that gray line?" he said. "That's how high the water was."
Luter now sees divine providence in Katrina. Across town at the mostly white First Baptist New Orleans, the Rev. David Crosby was dealing with $2.5 million in damage, but floodwaters had spared the inside of the sanctuary.
Crosby and Luter decided to experiment. Luter shifted services and Bible study to First Baptist.
"We did that for 2 1/2 years, and all this merging started happening," Crosby, 59, said. "Our men started meeting together, our women's ministry. We had vacation Bible study together."
Baptists who descended on the area to help rebuild came to First Baptist, heard the two choirs sing as one and recognized something new emerging.
Franklin Avenue reopened in 2008, but friendships and joint activities with First Baptist endure, Crosby said. Luter said that as convention president, a largely ceremonial role, he would like to lead the denomination forward in the same way.
"The question is, beyond the symbol, how intentional will the convention's leaders be in giving voice to persons they haven't given voice to in the past?" said Bill Leonard, a professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University's divinity school.
Majority-minority churches have grown over the last decade, as the convention became about 7 percent African-American, 6 percent Latino and 3 percent Asian, according to the most recent figures, from 2009. But some black pastors remain troubled by comments by convention officials, including controversial remarks sparked by the Trayvon Martin shooting.
In March, the church's top public policy official, Richard Land, accused President Barack Obama and black leaders of exploiting the killing of the unarmed Florida teenager. On his radio show, Land appeared to justify racial profiling.
Land later apologized, then met with Luter and other black Southern Baptist pastors.
On Friday, Land's radio show was canceled.
Some say the convention, which adopted a plan to groom minorities for leadership posts, must do more to address its past.
"It's so ironic that, at the same time we have Pastor Luter about to be elected president, we have these comments from Mr. Land," said the Rev. Dwight McKissic of Cornerstone Baptist Church, a black congregation in Arlington, Texas. "How do you reconcile those two positions?"
Still, McKissic remains loyal. "If your mother or grandmother gets senility, you don't disown her because she's fallen on hard times," he said. "I'm definitely in as long as Luter is president."
Nathan Finn, an associate professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., says he has heard from recent graduates assigned to churches in the rural Deep South frustrated to find them still "functionally, intentionally segregated."
"They love Fred Luter," Finn said of such churches, "but they would be uncomfortable having black members."
Some Baptist leaders want the convention to vote this month to expel or "de-fellowship" churches with racist membership policies.
It's just not in his nature to punish. Like the church he visited in Crowley, Luter said, all congregations deserve a chance at redemption.
©2012 the Los Angeles Times; Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com ; Distributed by MCT Information Services
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