NEW ORLEANS (BP)–By the time Fred Luter Jr. was called as pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in 1986, the blue-collar neighborhood south of Interstate 10 had transitioned from white to black.
So had the church, not necessarily by choice. The congregation with a worship center that could easily seat 500 had shrunk on Sunday mornings to about 50.
Within 19 years, however, Franklin Avenue had grown into the largest Southern Baptist church in Louisiana. More than 6,000 people regularly filled multiple Sunday morning services in a 2,000-seat worship center built just 11 years ago.
Then came Aug. 29, 2005: Hurricane Katrina, later billed as the nation’s largest-ever natural disaster. The flood line -– still visible today on the church’s street corner sign -– brings to mind images of piano, pulpit and pews that bobbed and ultimately sank in water nine feet deep over the course of three weeks.
Frankin Avenue members scattered across the nation, with larger conclaves in Houston and Baton Rouge plus the remnant in New Orleans.
Living in exile at his daughter’s two-bedroom apartment in Birmingham, Ala., Luter began a circuit-riding weekend ministry to the three cities. Luter also traveled to Atlanta, Baltimore, Memphis and other locales to visit with and counsel his fractured flock.
As of April 6, however, Franklin Avenue is back home. It only took two and a half years for its worship center to be renovated, though its family life center still is a month or more from completion. The Houston congregation now has a pastor of its own: Sam Young, who pre-Katrina was a Franklin Avenue associate pastor. That congregation continues to meet at First Baptist Church of Houston. The Baton Rouge congregation also has its own pastor, Titus White, another FABC associate pastor. They now meet at Florida Boulevard Baptist Church, though for a year they met at Istrouma Baptist Church.
An oppressive neglect hangs over the area near Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, with streets a mix of potholes, buckled asphalt and low places -– all the result of the three weeks under water -– and houses in various states of disrepair. While a few have been renovated and freshly painted, some are boarded up and some still wear the spray paint of rescuers who marked each house searched.
“We’re a regional church,” Luter said during a mid-March telephone interview with Baptist Press. “For some of the people who come to church that first Sunday we’re back at 2515 Franklin Ave., it will be their first time back in that neighborhood since Katrina. I have no doubt they’ll know what needs to be done. They’re people with good hearts.”
The church wants to help restore the neighborhood around it and to help people get into homes, the pastor said.
“Our game plan is, one, get back in the church,” Luter said. “But one of our primary goals is to revitalize that neighborhood community, which will probably mean we’ll have to build those homes” as part of alleviating New Orleans’ number one problem: housing.
“This is a great opportunity for us to be the eyes, hands and feet of Jesus and reach out in the community,” Luter said. “It’s going to be like a resurrection of the ministry. We’re going to continue what we’ve done before, and it was working; it was successful. We just really feel God has us there and will allow us to rebuild there to reach that part of the city for the glory of God….
“People are still living in FEMA trailers and still a lot of them are not working,” Luter said. “The homeless population has tripled because the rent is so high. And there are still some people out of the city who’d love to come back, but they need someplace to stay.
“I think the key is that the government needs to get the money here to rebuild the houses,” the pastor continued. “People need affordable housing. The projects are being torn down, and the people who lived there -– the waiters, cooks and janitors that provided the services the city is known for -– they need housing. It’s a great need, a great need.”
That need is one reason Luter chose to return to New Orleans. He was born and reared in the Ninth Ward, one of the areas most devastated by Katrina.
“I have a passion for this city,” Luter said. “When I was living in Alabama [after Katrina] I had opportunities to go elsewhere, instead of returning to New Orleans, but I really felt I needed to be back because of my connections, and to help rebuild.”
Luter was named by the mayor to the select Bring Back New Orleans Commission; his assignment was education.
“I just always had a passion for schools,” Luter said. “I spend a lot of time in schools throughout the year. I’ve always told people I am who I am today because of teachers. If you can write, thank a teacher.
“It was great working on that commission,” Luter continued. “We put together a comprehensive plan to rebuild the city -– education, health, government, culture…. You felt like you were contributing….
“Before Katrina, I was doing well,” Luter reflected. “I had the largest Southern Baptist church in the state; I was preaching at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting. But when you’ve been to that mountaintop and seen how quickly it can become unglued, that quickly brings you back to reality.
“Don’t take it for granted; it can be taken away in a moment,” said Luter, who saw his home as well as his church submerged by the floodwaters that followed Katrina. “Look at it as a blessing of God. Thank God for the exposure, for the opportunity, but don’t take it for granted.”
Nothing in his life has affected him as deeply as Katrina, the pastor said.
“I wasn’t on speaking terms with God for about a week after it happened,” he said. “My church flooded, the [New Orleans Baptist Theological] Seminary flooded, other churches flooded and the French Quarter was high and dry…. I’m still not completely over it. When I get to heaven, God and I are going to have a long talk about Katrina. There are still some things I don’t understand.”
Luter credits his wife Elizabeth for pulling him out of his pit of despair.
“‘You’ve got to listen to your own sermons,’ she told me,” Luter said. “The thing that got me through this and spoke to my heart is Romans 8:28. Storms are tough times; trials and tribulations are a part of life. But in the midst of the storm we have to hold on to what we believe. Never forget that when the storms show up, so will the Savior….
“Since Day 1 the Southern Baptist Convention has poured itself into New Orleans,” Luter recounted. “Right after the hurricane, David Hankins [executive director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention] got in touch with all the pastors and gave them cash money, and a lot of that money came from the Cooperative Program.
“We’ve had money come through different agencies and even from other state conventions throughout the country,” Luter continued. “Southern Baptist disaster relief teams were followed by recovery teams, and they’re still coming. New Orleans is a Catholic city, but recently The Times Picayune [local daily newspaper] said if it hadn’t been for Baptists, we wouldn’t be where we are today in our recovery….
“I think history will record that it’s because of the number of volunteers who have come from across the country to help rebuild New Orleans,” Luter said. “We’ll continue to need help for the next three to five years. Don’t forget us, because there still are some really great needs down here.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.