NEW ORLEANS (BP) — The new blue and silver Honda 360 motorcycle was mangled junk. A young Fred Luter Jr. lay in a hospital bed, his left leg broken in several places, a hole in his head.
Louis Beloney, then-senior deacon at Greater Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, gave the 21-year-old Luter sage advice: “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” That is, Luter would have done better to obey his mother Viola, who told him just a month earlier not to buy the bike, rather than nearly sacrifice his life in the May 1977 accident when he struck a car on Paris Avenue in New Orleans.
“And he said, ‘You better get your life right with God.’ It challenged me and started making me really consider my relationship with God, to the point that I started reading my Bible every day, on a daily basis, morning and evening,” Luter recalls 35 years later. “I called the accident my Damascus Road experience.”
Leaving the hospital three months later in a full-leg cast he would wear until the next year, his head mostly healed, he soon walked on crutches down the aisle of Greater Mt. Carmel and committed himself to the Lord.
“I immediately started a street ministry because … I was so shocked by my relationship with Christ, I wanted everybody in my neighborhood, all my partners … to know the God that I knew,” Luter said. “So every Saturday at 12 noon I’d be preaching on different streets of the Lower Ninth Ward and sharing Christ. And that’s how, as they say, that’s how it all began.”
The first African American president of the Southern Baptist Convention is amazed at how God has blessed his ministry, opening doors previously closed to those from Luter’s side of town.
“I’ve been with Southern Baptists for 25 years as pastor,” he said, “and I have a really, really good relationship with a lot of pastors across the convention, a lot of the directors of missions across the country, a lot of state execs, evangelism directors. I’ve preached for most of them, if not all of them.”
Luter was unopposed for the SBC presidency. A trailblazer in the SBC, the pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church was the first African American to preach the convention sermon at the annual meeting in 2001, also held in New Orleans, and in 2011 was the first black elected as SBC first vice president.
Luter got the SBC’s attention in the early 1990s when the church led the Louisiana Baptist Convention in baptisms. Wayne Jenkins, LBC director of evangelism and church growth, contacted Luter while attending a New Orleans meeting, when Luter graciously invited Jenkins to preach, having just met him.
“The place was completely packed. I’m talking about beyond fire-marshal packed,” Jenkins said. Once the pews were full, ushers would place seats in the aisles. When those filled, they would seat worshippers on the platform, repeating the same during each of three Sunday morning services.
“People were all around us. In fact, one guy when I was preaching was reaching up and patting me on the back. That’s how close everything was,” Jenkins said, speaking of a sanctuary that seated 250 before the 1997 construction of the current 2,000-seat worship area. “Most years Fred will baptize between 250 and 350. It will be somewhere in there.”
Jenkins describes Luter as authentic, a close friend and a good preacher who has maintained a strong personal witness.
“What you see of Fred on the platform and what you see of Fred off the platform is the same man. A good family man, strong morals. That was part of the success, I think, the blessing of God on his church,” Jenkins said. “He made a strong stand and said, ‘I will not have anybody serving in this church that does not hold to those strong views,’ and he had to discipline some people during that period of time.”
Jenkins introduced Luter to evangelism leaders across the SBC and the invitations started pouring in, including the 1996 SBC Pastors’ Conference.
“James Merritt was the president of the Pastors’ Conference, and you know, everybody, a lot of pastors from across the country come to the Pastors’ Conference,” Luter said. “When I preached that sermon there, it literally put me on the map. I started getting calls from everybody.
“Before you know it I was preaching in places like First Baptist Church Jacksonville for their pastors’ conference with Jerry Vines. I started preaching [at] Bellevue in Memphis, Tenn. I preached [at] Tony Evans’ church Oak Cliff [Bible Fellowship], David Jeremiah [of Shadow Mountain Community Church in California],” Luter recounted. “It’s just amazing the places that God has opened up for me to preach.”
Luter’s many friends across the SBC encouraged him to seek the presidency.
“They say … this will say a lot to the kingdom of heaven that here’s a convention that was started as a result of slavery and the past that we have, now an African American pastor is leading them,” Luter said. “I just feel that with my personality and my commitment to the Word of God, that I can really bring the different groups across our convention together, so that we can help fulfill the mission that God has given us.”
Luter grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, known to many SBC ministries because of rebuilding efforts that continue there seven years after Hurricane Katrina. The middle of five children, his parents divorced when he was 6, with his mother working as a seamstress and surgical scrub assistant to make ends meet. While his father was faithful to care for the family, not having a father in the home shaped Luter’s focus on family in ministry.
“Particularly when I had my son I said to God that I really want to be the dad in my son’s life that I never had growing up in the home,” Luter said. “So definitely it did have an effect on me wanting to do better and be better, because you know it’s real awkward when you go to situations and people, their parents are together and yours are not.”
As churches struggle to appeal to men, Franklin Avenue enjoys a membership encompassing both genders about evenly, a testimony to Luter’s emphasis on developing godly men who are active members of the church.
“I just had a conviction if you save the man, the man will save his family,” the new SBC president said. “I felt we needed to make reaching men a priority.”
Luter married his high school sweetheart Elizabeth on Oct. 11, 1980 — he succinctly states the date with pride. Their 27-year-old son Fred III is Franklin Avenue’s youth pastor; their 30-year-old daughter Kimberly teaches school in Birmingham, Ala.
The family stayed with Kimberly when Katrina’s floodwaters damaged their New Orleans home and the church that Luter had diligently grown from a membership of 50 in 1986 to 7,000 less than 20 years later. His love for Franklin Avenue stirred him to turn down post-Katrina offers to pastor elsewhere, instead he met with church members scattered in at least three states until they were reunited in the renovated facility. Franklin Avenue met for two and a half years at First Baptist Church in New Orleans, where Luter and the church family developed a close bond with the majority white congregation and its pastor, David Crosby, who nominated Luter for the presidency.
“David and I because of Hurricane Katrina have developed a relationship that is just special,” Luter said. “David and First Baptist opened up their arms to us and the relationship that was developed as a result of a hurricane — a tragic situation as far as we’re concerned — has developed into such a great relationship to not only him and I as pastors and brothers, but through ladies of our churches who still do Bible studies together and our men and their men still do prayer breakfasts every month.”
Since Katrina, Franklin Avenue’s membership has rebounded to 5,000. With both morning services overflowing and most worshippers parking their vehicles on neighborhood streets, the congregation is in the midst of a capital campaign to build a $26 million building about five miles east of the current facility. The congregation will use both buildings, unwilling to leave cherished neighbors.
“The church has been there for years,” Luter said. “We’ve done so much in that community that we’ll always be part of that community.”
Luter’s life is replete with godly relationships he says he’s been gifted to develop. From his youth, he said, friends looked to him to serve in such posts as captain of the football and basketball teams or on the student council.
Shortly after Luter turned to Christ, he began working as a gospel disc jockey, spinning LPs at weddings. The sideline to his fulltime job as a commodities clerk at a brokerage firm began after a friend, noticing his love of gospel music, asked him to serve at her wedding.
“This will probably blow people away,” he said, “… and I thought I was pretty good at it too.”
He gave up that sideline when he was ordained as a preacher and installed as pastor of Franklin Avenue, serving bivocationally while advancing to the brokerage firm’s vice presidency.
“I was bivocational and so as a result of that I would go to work in the daytime and come here at Franklin Avenue like at 5:30, 6 o’clock every evening, until about 9, 9:30 at night,” he said. Luter enrolled at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary at night and often would interrupt his workday for funerals and other church concerns, as the congregation grew.
“Some of my leaders said, Pastor, you need to stop doing that, the church is growing. We need you to come full time,” he recounted. “The church just started exploding with growth. We started adding additional services and things like that and, as they say, the rest is history.”
Through it all, Luter has remained humble.
“I am always nervous when I preach. It doesn’t matter if it’s seminary professors or at Angola state prison, I’m always nervous. That’s why I talk a lot at the very beginning. If you hear the sermons that I do, I do a lot of talking at the very beginning as far as my introductory remarks, just to kind of get that nervousness out of the way. Once I get started … God has just given me a gift where it doesn’t bother me anymore.
“I just do what God has called me to do. I’m amazed at the opportunities that have been given to me through the years.”
Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ staff writer. Karen Willoughby of the Louisiana Baptist Message contributed to this report.