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Fred Luter aims for resurrection of congregation in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Fred Luter, senior pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, still doesn’t know the status of his church, its members, his home or even his brother, Keith Luter, amid Hurricane Katrina’s tragic aftereffects.

“It’s a difficult situation to address,” Luter said, who is anxious to get back into the city to assess the situation and to minister to families accordingly.

He also wants to find out if his brother Keith has survived the ordeal. Luter hasn’t heard from him since Thursday, Sept. 1.

“My mom is so concerned; she’s called me in tears,” Luter said. “It has been tough.” (EDITORS’ NOTE: Keith Luter subsequently was located and is safe.)

So far, Luter hasn’t received any reports of confirmed deaths from his membership. Yet, “no doubt, with the membership we have, we have lost some,” he said sadly. “There’s no way to tell yet because we are such a large church.”

Founded in 1933, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church has swelled to more than 7,000 members since Luter became pastor in 1986, when there were only 65 members on the rolls.

At the time, Luter, who was the first African American to preach the convention sermon at a Southern Baptist Convention, at the 2001 annual meeting in New Orleans, was challenged to either “bury or resurrect” the dying church in a changing neighborhood.

Now, nearly 20 years later, the pastor faces the same challenge, this time due to the torrential flooding after Hurricane Katrina, which appears to have virtually destroyed the community where he serves.

A self-described “street preacher from the lower Ninth Ward,” an area flooded when a flood wall broke along the Mississippi River, Luter believes that in God’s strength he will see a whole new “resurrection” amid the death and destruction left behind by the storm.

The destruction, he fears, includes his church, which sprawls alongside a block on Franklin Avenue, a road which leads to New Orleans’ Lake Ponchartrain, which has flooded New Orleans.

Luter said he has heard rumors about floodwater levels rising anywhere between 5 feet and 20 feet to the rooftops, but he hasn’t received any definitive information about the church.

“We are definitely planning on rebuilding once we can get back into New Orleans,” Luter said. “It’s not going to be easy, but we are going to make it.”

Luter fears that the storm also destroyed his home, from which he and his wife Elizabeth evacuated to Birmingham, Ala., to stay with their daughter Kimberly, who recently graduated from Samford University.

Since their evacuation, they have tried to make contact with church staff and members, hearing that many have evacuated to Houston, Dallas, Memphis and Birmingham and elsewhere.

Just this past July, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church purchased 90 acres of land east of New Orleans where they planned an extension to their current campus.

“I have heard that the area was the hardest hit with flooding,” Luter said.

The church had planned on excavating and otherwise preparing the property in 2006 with the hope of finally building a multi-purpose building, educational space and church offices in 2008. After time, the master plan called for the construction of a 6,000-seat sanctuary.

“We may have to rethink our plans,” Luter said.

Luter’s son, Chip, recounted, “Just three weeks ago, we watched a DVD presentation of the new property.”

Despite the likelihood that the DVD and the plans were lost in the flood, the younger Luter, a Dallas Baptist University student who works in the provost’s office, serves as a resident assistant and twice has preached in the chapel, confirmed, “We’re not losing faith.”

In response to the unfolding tragedy in New Orleans, DBU will partner directly with Luter and the Franklin Avenue congregation by collecting funds for the church and its members.

Members of the DBU community also will participate in a relief and rebuilding trip to the areas impacted by the storm during DBU’s Oct. 3-7 fall break.

“Although the building is destroyed, the people aren’t,” Blake Killingsworth, DBU’s assistant to the president, said. “They need to see the love of Christ, and we want to demonstrate it to them.”

Killingsworth said the university also is assisting refugees who are coming to Dallas to stay at a gym-turned-family center at First Baptist Church in Duncanville and at Dallas Baptist Association’s Mount Lebanon Baptist Encampment in Cedar Hill.

Though Chip Luter hasn’t yet received actual word about the status of his childhood home, he expects the worst. “The news reports showed just the rooftops of the homes in Eastport, which is a minute away from my house,” he said.

He thinks about the items he likely has lost: pictures and a copy of the first sermon that he ever preached.

“It is definitely overwhelming, but God has His purpose,” Chip Luter said.

“God always has a silver lining in each dark cloud,” he said. “I’m glad that we have Christ. Without Him, we would have no hope.”

    About the Author

  • Shannon Baker

    Shannon Baker is director of communications for the Baptist Resource Network of Pennsylvania/South Jersey and editor of the Network’s weekly newsletter, BRN United.

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