NEW ORLEANS (BP)–It was not a mere blip on the racial diversity screen, but a trend toward true reconciliation in America’s largest non-Catholic religious body, Fred Luter said being in the spotlight as the first African American to deliver the convention sermon at a Southern Baptist Convention.
Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, said being chosen to deliver the keynote address June 12 is a continuing effort by the SBC to remain faithful to the racial reconciliation resolution it passed at the 1995 convention in Atlanta.
“I really think it is something that has been happening since that resolution,” Luter said. “Because I think we now have leaders in place in the convention who are serious about racial reconciliation. I would have like to have seen it happen sooner, preferably after that [resolution] was passed.
“I don’t see it as something that has happened [only once]. I hope and pray that my opportunity last night is the beginning for not only African Americans, but we have Asians in this convention, we have Hispanics in this convention, and I hope we will open up the opportunity for all cultures and backgrounds to be able to be a significant part of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
The 44-year-old New Orleans native said he receives frequent calls from black ministers outside the SBC who are seeking information on the convention from an African American pastor’s perspective. Luter said misconceptions often come up about the SBC’s hierarchy and control over local churches, and he is quick to allay those concerns.
The SBC’s congregational form of church government and polity allows each individual church the autonomy to develop its own budget, elect its own pastor and officers, and own its property, Luter said. The convention has no control over the decisions and operations of local churches, holding to an ardent congregationalist ecclesiology, which many black ministers find appealing, he said.
Luter pastors the 6,000-member Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in downtown New Orleans, and in his early days at the church 14 years ago, some 50 members composed the congregation.
Luter said he was both excited and nervous about preaching before the convention. “When I got the call last year to preach the convention sermon, I really began praying,” he said in a June 13 news conference. “I knew that I was going to be under a microscope. I knew the media was going to be there. I knew there was going to be a lot of attention. I knew whether another brother gets an opportunity may depend on how I did, so I really prayed about the message last night.”
One area where Luter expressed a desire to see increased minority involvement is the Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference, which precedes the annual meeting on Sunday and Monday. All 16 men who delivered sermons at the conference were Caucasian.
Said Luter, “That’s one of the concerns, and to be honest, that bothers a lot of African American pastors in this convention. We have over 2,000 African American churches. There are a lot of black pastors, a lot of them. We have Asian churches and we have Hispanic churches. It’s amazing to me that out of all those 16 slots at the Pastors’ Conference that we cannot give at least one to a person of color, to a different ethnic group to be a part of these pastors’ conferences.”
In his sermon, the lively Luter repeatedly called on Southern Baptists to actively and consistently proclaim the gospel to lost people. In his half-hour address, Luter said he purposely avoided the SBC’s burning issues of the day and sought to exalt Jesus Christ in his preaching. Luter’s tact was well-received as his words repeatedly drew standing ovations and a rousing response from the convention denizens.
“I intentionally did not want to deal with any denominational issues,” he said. “I wanted to lift up Jesus Christ and I felt like if I could do that, I would be on safe ground. Not that those other issues aren’t important, but I was asked to do the convention sermon and when I hear ‘sermon,’ I think about Christ.
“People left here last night, they were not talking about the amendments to the Baptist Faith and Message that were defeated. They were not talking about the resolutions that came from the floor. Folks were talking about the sermon. They were talking about how the Lord moved in the service. They were talking about how exciting it was to be here and I thank God. That’s how God does things. People left here last night with a feeling that we’d had church. That’s the way I felt. It was exciting.”