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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

soundoff (225 Responses)
  1. Leaping Lenny

    How apropos! The guy literally gets major brain damage, which causes him to become Christian, and then later to become head of a sect that was born and bred specifically in racist terms against his race.

    So there you have it, irrefutable evidence: brain damage leads to Christianity.

    June 20, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • doodlebug81

      Haha so correct

      June 20, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  2. RR

    Ah, gotta love Americans and their love for imaginary creatures. So cute.

    June 20, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  3. Dorothy

    Hmmmm.......75 years ago this would have been unthinkable. 75 years from now the headline will read "Southern Baptists first Gay President.". I am sure it won't be true....it will just be their first openly gay president. We eventually all get over our prejudices as a society matures.

    June 20, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  4. HeavenSent

    They will regret voting for him. Nothing good comes out of black leadership.

    Amen.

    June 20, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • RR

      not true. For example, if a black man were to shoot you, I'd consider that awesome.

      June 20, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • gloria

      Yes, there is some good that comes out of this (black leadership event); the good is that it still allows YOU to exercise Free Speech. And you are heaven sent...God loves you for who you are and for what you say. God will truly help you "see the light"

      June 20, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
  5. Truth-works

    All negative commenters... please share your inspiring personal stories of overcoming & your current valuable contributions to someone other than yourself. Ignorant or unconstructive comments that don't answer the question tells a story too.

    June 20, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  6. Shammy

    I too am a man of the book. My book is Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy however. A much better book.

    June 20, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  7. stone age fred

    no atheist trolls today?

    June 20, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Shammy

      I posted Fred, didn't want to let you down buddy.

      June 20, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Leaping Lenny

      The board is open to you Christian trolls today. Enjoy!

      June 20, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Edwardo

      Don't worry.. we're here. Just didn't feel much like interrupting your daily fantasy of spending eternity with your magical sky daddy. Hmmm... wonder if he's helping starving babies in Africa, or just spending the day talking to Pat Robertson.. My bet's on Pat!

      June 20, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
  8. Name*Phillip

    I appreciate reading about men of God who stand firm on the Word of God. Pastor, may the Lord continue to bless your endeavors!

    June 20, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Truth-works

      Amen

      June 20, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Yes pray for the howling monkey.

      Amen.

      June 20, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • RR

      God is dead

      June 20, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  9. HeavenSent

    Katrina survivor? He can swim?

    June 20, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  10. papa

    Anyone wanna bet as to how the headline will read when this church leader falls from grace, as they ALL eventually do .... will it be money ? Women ? young boys ? old boys ?

    June 20, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  11. Roelof

    To vote because of color shouldn't be a motivation. Here in Europe we've got a multiculti problem, in America you've got a multiracial issue. I like him because he's protestant. Protestant for me means something like North Europe. It has something to do with the cultural climate and the succeeding of a country. Within Europe, you've got the catholic (Mediterranean part), likes to spend, you've got the Protestant North European part, that likes to make money. Small cultural difference within Europe. I don't care if people are white or black. Islam causes, something like the ME. Their fascist cult ruins their countries. They are happen to be black. I don't them, not because they are black, but their ideology doesn't work. Nothing has been invented within the Islamic culture. After those Arab muslims conquered the Royal library of Alexandria(Egypt), the quran was written. Before that a lot of knowledge was shared between Egypt and Greece. Now the quran it's science contains the exact same mistakes as old Roman and Greek science. Worse part is that they're parading with it.

    June 20, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  12. Adam

    As his first action, I would like to see him do something that Jesus never did:

    ...repudiate the explicit endorsement of slavery by the God of Abraham in the Old Testament.

    June 20, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  13. Roelof

    To vote because of color shouldn't be a motivation. Here in Europe we've got a multiculti problem, in America you've got a multiracial issue. I like him because he's protestant. Protestant for me means something like North Europe. It has something to do with the cultural climate and the succeeding of a country. Within Europe, you've got the catholic (Mediterranean part), likes to spend, you've got the Protestant North European part, that likes to make money. Small cultural difference within Europe. I don't care if people are white or black. Islam causes, something like the ME. Their fascist cult ruins their countries. They are happen to be black. I don't them, not because they are black, but their ideology sucks.

    June 20, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  14. rev fartwell69

    Please make being a "southern baptist" punishable by life in prison–super hard labor

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

      Your username says everything about you. What a waste of flesh and no I am not a southern baptist and I don't believe in organized religion. I do however believe in treating everyone with respect... you get what you put out there and I wish I was a fly on the wall when Karma comes a calling on you.

      June 20, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • Edwardo

      @Bella – Karma? ARen't the S.B.'s the one who wanted to put gay people behind a fence, Nazi style? I don't think this remark was that innapropriate. I'm not treating haters with respect!

      June 20, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @Bella

      I will respect people, if they deserve it, but that doesn't mean I'll respect ridiculous beliefs and the horrid actions people take on behalf of those beliefs.

      June 20, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
  15. JomoDaMusicMan

    Well, the Black Pastor ran unopposed, I wonder why? Is it because of one issue that he opposes Obama on Gay Marriage. I fear it is deeper than that. I think he ran unopposed because he going to come out against Obama during the Presidential Election. White Powerful Males are always scheming so People be very cautious about this, When the government wanted to do Syphilis Experiment in Tusk AL. First, they got some Black Doctors & Nurses to deceive the Black People. Hopefully this is not the case with the good Rev. I hope u all remember one item of disagreement with the Prez should not be enough to switch your vote to The Racist RedNeck Republican Party

    June 20, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • JomoDaMusicMan

      I hope the Good Rev Luter, does not bend so far over backwards for those Racist RedNecks that he will soon put a White Sheet & Hood on his head and go Burn the other Black Churches and help beat the black members who don't want to turn against Obama

      June 20, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  16. Solo

    They missed their window three years ago...

    June 20, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  17. Lucifer's Evil Twin

    Only a matter of time before his swindling, adultery or pediphilia come to light.

    June 20, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  18. kray

    I hope Pastor Luter understand that these Southern Baptist are using him as a pawn and they want him to speak against the President. I don't believe in Gay Marriage either; however, who am I to say what someone feels is right for them and their situation. Even though I disagree with the President on this policy, I am still voting for him because, I feel he is the better choice than Romney who religion is occultist as far as my belief.

    June 20, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • ronbry

      Well isn't that special!

      June 20, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Michael

      Of course they're using him, just like they used Michael Steele as chairman of the GOP and Herman Cain as a presidential candidate, as "proof" they were no longer racist. Yet the moment their popularity declined they were discarded like yesterday's newspaper.

      June 20, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Jack M.

      Who gave you the right to judge Southern Baptists? You're pitiful and your intelligence is questionable at best. Better to keep your mouth shut!

      June 20, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • bob

      I totally agree with you on the cult issue concerning romney's beliefs!

      June 20, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Son of the South

      You Liberal fools will never be pleased with anything anyone else does: If there are no Blacks and Hispanics, we are all "racists." If there are minorities involved, we still are racist. And if Blacks agree with White Conservatives about anything, then they "Must be a house –igga."

      June 20, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  19. Nemesis

    Well, we gotta find some group to hate on since we don't have the blacks anymore, right?

    June 20, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Solo

      I doubt there will be a day in my lifetime where Blacks are not causing trouble, or costing the taxpayers money.

      June 20, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • bob

      We can HATE LONLEY MISERASBLE DIRT lke YOU! ...nemesis

      June 20, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  20. trex

    ...I just cant help but thing,..............just how many good "Baptists" are saying............"well, there goes the religion". My hope is they expose themselves as what they truly are, and thats NOT Baptist.

    June 20, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • Ron

      What does that mean?

      June 20, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • Mike

      There are probably a few people who call themselves Southern Baptists that say that, but their numbers are infinitesimal compared to the number of us that praise God for continuing to provide us with strong mission and community minded leadership. I wonder, though, if this comment would have been posted if we were talking about an organization without "Southern" or "Baptist" in the name. As it turns out, Southerners, Baptists, and Southern Baptists specifically, are not as inherently predisposed toward prejudices as people tend to think... and sweeping, negative generalizations about a group of people are as wrong when applied to a person's religion or area of the country as they are when applied to the color of one's skin.

      June 20, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.