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June 20th, 2012
11:51 AM ET

New Southern Baptist leader: Former street preacher, Katrina survivor

By Ashley Hayes, CNN

(CNN) – Hospitalized at age 21 with compound fractures and serious head injuries after a motorcycle accident, Fred Luter Jr. decided to give his life to God and enter the ministry.

A native of New Orleans' impoverished lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, Luter was the third of five children raised by a divorced mother who worked as a seamstress and a surgical scrub assistant, according to Thom Rainier, president and CEO of the Nashville, Tennessee-based LifeWay Christian Resources and a friend of Luter's.

Although he had been active in the church as a child, Luter "began to do some serious reflecting on his life" after the 1977 crash, according to a Web posting on Rainier's website. "God used that incident to bring him back to serving him," Rainier wrote.

And what a long way he's come since. On Tuesday, Luter, now the pastor of the 8,000-plus-member Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, was elected the first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention, an organization that began as a pro-slavery church more than 160 years ago. His term officially begins Wednesday night.

"This is a brand-new convention," Luter told CNN on Wednesday, calling his election "Exhibit A, to the world, that this convention is now ready to open its doors."

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However, he said, he and the convention are opposed to same-sex marriage, acknowledging that he and President Barack Obama differ "on this particular subject."

"I'm a man of the book," he said. "I believe in the word of God. I believe in the Bible, and God has spoken about marriage. Marriage is between a man and a woman ... no one can change that," he said.

"All of us, as believers, all of us love everybody, including those in the gay community," he said. "We're going to embrace them as far as who they are, but we're also going to stand on biblical principles that the word of God has already established."

Rainier said of Luter's election: "The timing is late, but the choice is right." He wrote on his website that he has rarely known a greater preacher or family man. "One of my greatest fears is following Fred Luter speaking," he said.

Luter said he was surprised to have been unopposed, given the size of the 16 million-member organization and the fact that it's an election year, but the support he received from the floor "just brought tears to my eyes."

His election comes 17 years after the convention apologized for the denomination's onetime support of white supremacist and segregationist policies.

He told CNN on Wednesday that the organization's history cannot be denied, but he noted that "every one of us has a history ... there's nothing we can do about our past, but there's a lot we can do about our future."

Following what Luter called his 1977 "Road to Damascus" moment, referring to the apostle Paul's conversion experience in the Bible, he began preaching on a street corner.

"With no church to preach in, Luter set up shop every Saturday at noon on the corner of Galvez and Caffin Avenue, where he would preach to anyone who would listen," according to a biography posted on the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church website. In 1983, he preached his first church sermon at the Law Street Baptist Church in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans. By 1986, he was preaching regularly at Greater Liberty Baptist Church when he heard about the opening at Franklin Avenue.

Once an all-white church, the Franklin Avenue congregation changed to mostly African-American members as urban renewal resulted in whites leaving the neighborhood, the church's website says. When Luter was approved as its new pastor, the church had 65 members and was "struggling."

But Luter implemented an outreach strategy known as "Frangelism," according to the church. The "Fran" stood for friends, relatives, associates and neighbors.

He also focused on bringing men into the church, reasoning, "The man is the family. If he comes to church he's going to bring his family with him," according to the church biography. To foster male church involvement, Luter would have men over to watch a sporting event and "then make his pitch for God," the church said.

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"When Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns fought, I had about 25 guys at the house that night," Luter said in the church biography. "Many of them are still with us."

Franklin Avenue had more than 7,000 members by August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast and triggered massive flooding in New Orleans. The Ninth Ward neighborhood was among the hardest hit.

The Franklin Avenue Baptist Church building "took on more than eight feet of water," according to its website. "The church was destroyed, and members were scattered all over the U.S., struggling to comprehend what had happened while considering the possibility of having to build new lives elsewhere."

It was a low point for Luter, Rainier recalled in his website posting. He remembered seeing Luter in the halls of LifeWay not long after Katrina and speaking with him about it. As he began talking about it, Rainier wrote, Luter broke into tears.

" 'Thom,' he began, 'I just hurt for our people,' " Rainier wrote. " 'They have no homes. They have no church. They have lost family. They have lost so much.'

"The moment was powerful for me," Rainier said. "You see, Fred and (his wife) Elizabeth Luter had lost so much too. Their home was destroyed and their lives were displaced. But there was not a moment of self-pity. There was no questioning of the will of God. Yes, there were tears. But those were the tears of a shepherd who loved his flock so much that he could hardly bear their pain."

Luter began attempting to reunite his church, according to the Franklin Avenue website. He found displaced members, tried to get them home and traveled all over the country to preach in cities where they were.

"New FABCs (Franklin Avenue Baptist Churches) sprang up in cities like Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Houston, Texas, but Luter wasn't satisfied," wanting a New Orleans church for members to return to, the biography said.

He was able to strike a deal with Pastor David Crosby of a Baptist church in the city's Lakeview neighborhood that had been spared major destruction from Katrina and was able to reopen within a few months. For the next three years, Luter held 7 a.m. services at the church while rebuilding Franklin Avenue.

In the process, the two pastors forged a friendship they say will last a lifetime, the church said. Crosby was to nominate Luter for his Southern Baptist Convention presidency.

The new Franklin Avenue sanctuary opened on April 6, 2008, the church said, and its membership has continued to grow.

The church notes that Luter is not naive about the Southern Baptist Convention's past. In 1986, when he began at Franklin Avenue, the church was considering leaving the convention, it said.

"In a move that could be described as fortuitous, he told his organization that he believed 'this convention had a heart for evangelism, for discipleship and reaching people in difficult times,' " according to Franklin Avenue's website. "Not knowing what would happen years later, he convinced them to stay."

Luter has been married to his wife, Elizabeth, for 32 years, according to the church. The two have a son and a daughter.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Evangelical

soundoff (225 Responses)
  1. Fuster

    Black or white, it doesn't matter. The reality is the Southern Baptist group has always been full of crap.

    June 20, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • The Corrector

      If you can't pull through this mess, then that's your problem.
      I'm getting on just fine with those that can pull through this mess.
      You might hear the word Armageddon being used a fair bit.
      I do hope that it doesn't bother you too much.
      Face one simple fact;
      If you're beyond economical repair, then there's too much wrong with you.

      June 20, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  2. webelieve@ gmail.com

    Why is this such a great thing because of color? This man should be applauded because of where he has come from. In the Kingdon of Heaven, do we really think that race is going to matter there?

    June 20, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Bagslap.com learn the real truths of your supposed kingdom of heaven.

      June 20, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Lameness Spotter

      C'mon @impostor... the joke's over. You have run it into the ground. Scram.

      June 20, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  3. RichS

    Why can't you just be happy for the man that has just received recognition for his leadership abilites? It has nothing to do with his color. Bigots who look under rocks for issues are pathetic.

    June 20, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • Welled

      Not scandinavia. Best country on the planet is Syria. People not sunk in debt up to their hairline that won't dare look up from their desks at the debt merchant owners. America is steeped in debt slavery. The only difference between forced slavery and debt servitude is gun pointed and you and the debt you have to work off. Giving up manhood being another mans lackey. Syrians are men.

      June 20, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  4. Tee Bob

    Hm, he is another Michael Steele, because it is nothing but an election year strategy. Remember when President Obama first won the election and Republicans were at a loss about what to do to become relevant, again? Then from the wood work came Mr Steele, who became their mouthpiece and delivered his masters messages without the fear of being considered racist. After all, he was/is a black man, same race as the president, right?. How can he be racist? What happened to Michael Steel after the Tea Party became the face of the Repaublican Party?

    Fast forward to now and one of the hot issues during the election will be gay marriage. Realizing how effective black churches are at influencing their members, who could make a better case for blacks to vote against the president than this man? The selling point simply is this: If you vote for the president, you are voting for gay marriage! Your guess is a good as mine about the mindless flock would do. After all, the message is coming from another black man, who has been handpicked for the convenience of winning an election. Faith be damned.

    June 20, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Thor

      Next we might see a Black Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

      June 20, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  5. Ron in California

    The number of racist comments here are appalling. Why is it that these folks always feel a need to be negative. Their comments tell a great deal about their own bigotry

    June 20, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Agree with you Ron and so does our lord. My website, prolapsed.net, has an article about race and why God has favored white people the last 2000 years. Blacks should read it and learn how to find the lords love to obtain Jesus' truths.

      June 20, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
    • Mike

      Ok, so to sum up the majority of the posts below:

      Prejudices and sweeping, negative stereotypes about large groups of people based on skin color are incredibly wrong.

      Prejudices and sweeping, negative stereotypes about large groups of people based on their religion or what part of the country they live in, however, are TOTALLY OK.

      Moral of the story? Apparently you should judge people based on their actions and character, unless there's a non-legally-recognized way that you can marginalize them as a group, in which case it's fair game. There's no plausable reason that the Southern Baptist Convention could want a mission-minded, community-oriented pastor of an 8,000 member church as their president aside from a desire to hide their obvious racism. No possible reason at all. (Hopefully I don't need to point out the blatant sarcasm dripping from the previous two sentences... but just in case, here's the disclaimer).

      June 20, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • Juanmom2

      Heaven sent, please change your name to Hell's Bells because you are an evil little person. I guess whites don't kill or get killed, if you really knew the Lord you would not be speaking in this manner. God doesn't love our skin, you red necked racist fool, God just LOVES us!

      June 20, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  6. v2787

    Michael Steel was the first Black repuglican party leader, too, but he was a token just like Fred Luter is. I grew up in the Southern Baptist Convention, and I know what kind of people belong to that denomination. You will not find a more racist, exclusivist bunch of religious bigots anywhere. They've thrown a bone to the Black community and are doing this as a PR move. Trust me, the powers that be will force Luter to be their puppet, and he'll parrot the party line or he'll quickly be thrown under the bus. Don't be fooled, people: this is still the same old racist SBC it's always been.

    June 20, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • bvilleyellowdog

      Exactly – there are always Uncle Tom's. And you forgot Cain.

      June 20, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Ron in California

      It's people like you who keep the racial divide going.

      June 20, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • DefyTheGods

      Excellent post! The SBC may be racist, but I think black people should spend more time keeping black kids off the streets and in school and less time trying to get into other people's clubs. We can "First black..." from A to Z, but it means nothing, while the same issues remain in the community.

      June 20, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • baj4q

      "other people's clubs"? This guy was a Southern Baptist, right? So it's just as much his 'club' as anyone else's.

      June 20, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  7. Pilgrim1

    A big step forward for a denomination with so many vestiges of racism still present in the pews!

    June 20, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Doug

      Isn't it ironic that the people who claim to love and know god are the biggest bigots in this country? Gays and blacks were deemed inhuman by bible believing people (gays still are today). Slavery is allowed and A-Ok with the bible. The bible even gives you a set of rules on how to treat your slaves. Drop religion and you have no hate in your heart. Its that simple.

      June 20, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Juanmom2

      I love you Doug;-)

      June 20, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  8. hohum

    Just another lying sack o garbage thinking no one can see what he's really doing....

    June 20, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  9. Donald in CA

    If a black preacher have been elected to a former white only position i wonder what part of his soul he had to sell.

    June 20, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Anna

      To the rest of the world...welcome to the USA. It would'nt be the USA without a daily story about the color of a person's skin...No wonder the whole world laughs behind the USA's back and often to it's face

      June 20, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Pilgrim1

      Let them laugh. We have a history of mistakes and abuses that we must work through, but in the end we are still the best thing going by a long shot!

      In the end, the laugh is on them!

      June 20, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Doug

      Pilgrim1, you must not have been out of this country. I can name a half a dozen countries better off than the United States. I'll start with the 3, mostly atheist, Scandinavian countries.

      June 20, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • Answer

      @Pilgrim

      Only in your mind.

      June 20, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Pilgrim1

      Actually I've been in 67 countries of the world, and been to every continent. I've lived in Asia, Africa, Europe, South America and North America. No country comes close to America's freedoms, resources, potential, and socio-economic opportunities. Of course we have many, many problems. But so do every other country in the world. I am never ashamed or upset by returning home to the land of the free. If you love Scandanavia so much, then by all means emmigrate. Hope you enjoy the 70+% tax rate and the harsh winters, but at least we'll be rid of another naysayer!

      June 20, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  10. AverageJoe76

    The living should not burden themselves with the afterlife. There's absolutely nothing to prepare for. We'll all know when we get there. So saying stuff like, "better to accept Jesus and not need to, than denounce Jesus and need him". All that says is, "I'm scared to be wrong". And I don't blame you for being scared. But ask yourself, "if God was truly merciful, why didn't he confirm his exsistence to everyone if our eternal souls depend on accepting Him /Jesus?"

    June 20, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Walter

      He did reveal Himself through his son, Jesus Christ.

      June 20, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • AverageJoe76

      @Walter – Then he didn't do a great job on the 'reveal'. Because there's still plenty of people that don't believe that. If God wanted to look out, this wouldn't be a discussion, and we'd all agree on one God.

      June 20, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • Mike

      And, of course, if God became a man today and walked up to you on the street and said, "Hi, I'm God. I hear you don't believe in me, so here I am, just to show you I'm real," you'd definitely believe in him immediately and not think he was crazy. We rationalize away the intricate and seemingly infinite order of the universe as Science that disproves God's existence rather than Science that demonstrates it. We rationalize away his actual, recorded presence here on earth 2000 years ago as a myth or legend. We rationalize away our inherent ability to feel his presence as the vestiges of a judeo-christian-dominated society that are so deeply ingrained in our psyche that we can't tell the difference. So what miracle would you like him to perform next to reveal himself to you, and how would you like to rationalize that one away?

      June 20, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  11. gatecrasher1

    Where's his birth certificate?

    June 20, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  12. Morris Wilburn

    People can change – Malcolm X was once a racist but turned from that belief system – and organizations can change.

    June 20, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  13. Jimmy G.

    This guy is just a token black and he knows it and says nothing about it because he is a fraud and a liar.

    June 20, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Thanks for the insight Jimmy G ... into how you think.

      June 20, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Harry

      I know Mr. Luter Personally, he is not a token anything. He is a great man of God and a great leader in this modern age. He is a great preacher, maybe instead of bad mouthing him on a subject you know nothing about you listen to some podcasts to see what kind of man he is.

      June 20, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Hey Jimmy you would love my website, prolapsed.net. Its showers the light of the lord on those who lack Gods truths.
      Amen.

      June 20, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  14. AverageJoe76

    Does a magic trick have to accompany an individual / event before people believe God was involved? And by 'magic', I mean; stuff y'all just don't understand (aka miracles). Just haven't seen anyone embrace these people claiming God told them to do something horrible, yet God approved the slaughtering of entire villages by David's hand. So what's the difference today?

    June 20, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Doug

      God told Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry to run for President. You shouldn't believe anyone who states to know anything about god (even if it comes from the bible since the bible was written by man). Religion is the biggest scam going...

      June 20, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  15. tristram

    The Southern Baptists just need someone to hate. Their idea of heaven is no fun unless they think someone else is suffering in hell. Since their brand of bigotry is dwindling, they are bringing in reinforcements. As long as white Baptists and black Baptists can focus their hatred on the gays, they can ignore their disdain and distrust of each other. And Fred Luter is not just "against gay marriage." He is a all-out bigot as he demonstrated in his acceptance speech when he equated gay relationships to racism and child-molesting.

    June 20, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      tristram, get a grip. Gay folks aren't the only sinners in the world. We are all sinners and we all have our cross to bear. The reason you think every Christian is concerned about gays is because YOU bring it up. I've never discussed gay sin as much as I have on these blogs and gay sin isn't why I came on-line at this site in the first place.

      Instead of complaining, I suggest you read Jesus' truth (the Bible) to figure out what sin is blinding you that you need to work on in order to walk through the fire and still be standing.

      June 20, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Harry

      We are all sinners deserving wrath. We pray for everyone to repent and come to Christ. No hate.

      June 20, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Doug

      Hey Harry, start by telling that to other followers of Jeezus and the Southern Baptist Convention....

      June 20, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Harry

      Hey Doug, I do.

      June 21, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  16. AverageJoe76

    So again; Nowadays, if people say they had a 'Road To Damascus'-moment, we tend to think they're a bit fruity, YET nobody has a problem believing Paul in the Bible. My other example was Abraham; he was about to kill his only child to prove his faith – but God stopped him (although God asked him to do it. supposedly). But if that happened today, Abraham would be locked up, and child protective services would intervene. Is old crazy more credible than new crazy?

    June 20, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Thanks for the insight ... along with the laugh. I was drinking coffee while reading your post. Well, I lost the coffee (LOL). Good post. Thought provoking.

      June 20, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  17. HeavenSent

    What happened to this man is that he walked through the fire and came out standing. Amen.

    June 20, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Rundvelt

      Would you have the same words if he was becoming a head Imam in Islam? Probably not.

      June 20, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Which God??

      HeavenSpooge, you are just out of your head. Just brainless.

      June 20, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      At least they learn 95% of Jesus' truth. 5% of satan's lies are thrown in, which is the problem. And you? What knowledge of Jesus have you acquired?

      June 20, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Which Witch, do you think you can find another place to whine and complain?

      June 20, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Which God??

      HeavenSpooge, your ignorance is showing, again.

      June 20, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Satan

      Satan has always been straightforward with the company he wants!

      June 20, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  18. Rundvelt

    So, let me get this straight. God decided that he wanted you to continue to serve him, and he figured the best way to do that was to have you get into a motorcycle accident, put you through pain and injury. I mean, couldn't he have given you a dream? Couldn't he have simply told you? And what about free will? Do this or I'll hurt you seems to be a bit of infringment on that concept.

    June 20, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Rundvelt

      > The Franklin Avenue Baptist Church building "took on more than eight feet of water," according to its website. "The church was destroyed, and members were scattered all over the U.S., struggling to comprehend what had happened while considering the possibility of having to build new lives elsewhere."

      And clearly this wasn't a sign from God that you shouldn't be in that church.

      Religious people are silly.

      June 20, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  19. sam

    The head injury explains it very well.

    June 20, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Rebel4Christ

      Did anyone read the article on Luter at bagslap.com? It sheds light on his post Katrina years.

      June 20, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Lameness Spotter

      @Rebel4Christ,

      Stop it.

      (no fan of the original @Rebel4Christ, but you are ridiculous)

      June 20, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Rebel4Christ

      Stop what? Spreading the truths of God? I will never stop loving all like Jesus loves me.

      June 20, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • JellyBean@Rebel4Christ

      LOL! Damn you! You got me!

      June 20, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Which God??

      @Sam. Yes it does. I'm wondering where his sign is, you know, the one that says 'the end of the world is nigh." Strete thug to top thug. Big hypocite too. Gonna love them gays but love the bible mo'. If push came to shove, the gays would be out on their collective rears, then stoned.

      June 20, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      "Stop what? Spreading the truths of God? I will never stop loving all like Jesus loves me."

      Before claiming something is true, one needs to provide evidence for said facts. Faith is not evidence, sorry.

      June 20, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Rebel4Christ

      If you had visited my site, bagslap.com, then you would retract your statement.

      June 20, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Answer

      Wow look at that.. another religious idiot with a webpage that they think will validate them.

      June 20, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  20. m

    just another lying preacher

    June 20, 2012 at 11:57 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.