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From New Orleans, Fred Luter leads scattered congregation

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–The 1,300 or more members of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church who meet at 7:30 a.m. each Sunday at First Baptist Church in New Orleans are looking forward to getting back to the Eighth Ward, but newly discovered mold has delayed the facility’s renovation there.

Meanwhile, the 650 members of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church West who meet at 1 p.m. each Sunday at First Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, have a new pastor and are looking for a church building they can call home there.

And in Baton Rouge, the numbers of Franklin Avenue members who meet at 1 p.m. on the first and third Sunday of each month at Istrouma Baptist Church have fallen to about 300; many members have returned to New Orleans or moved elsewhere.

Fred Luter, pastor of what was one of the largest Sunday-morning congregations in Louisiana prior to Hurricane Katrina, then with about 6,000 worshipers, continues the circuit-riding role he started in January after determining that sizable groups of members were in those three cities. Although other members remain scattered in Philadelphia, Dallas, Memphis, Atlanta and elsewhere, Luter has done his best to see them all.

“I’ve cried more these last months than I ever had all of my life,” Luter said. “It mostly happens when I travel to different places and see former members of the church. We had a close fellowship; just seeing them again brings tears to my eyes. Then not being able to be back in the church you’ve been preaching in for 19 years, that’s really tough. Not being able to worship together -– it’s been a tough, tough time.”

Sam Young, an associate during 17 of Luter’s 19 years at Franklin Avenue, has been named pastor of the “West” congregation. In New Orleans, he was onsite pastor for about three years of the former East Edgewater Baptist Church, when the church’s members asked Franklin Avenue for a merger after their pastor resigned.

“It’s a really good fit,” Luter said of Young’s new role with Franklin Avenue members in Houston. “The people love him. The Sunday I announced it, the people stood and clapped.”

Luter said he plans to visit the Houston-based church at least once every other month. But with Young there to minister to the congregation’s needs, Luter said his time will be freed to minister as needed in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Renovation of Franklin Avenue Baptist, battered by eight feet of post-Katrina flooding from a canal breach, has stalled because of an undetected roof leak that bred a new case of mold in the church that volunteers stripped bare to the studs last fall.

“Once we finish that cleanup, we’ll be ready for a firm to come in and do a scope of the work to be done to rebuild the church, which at the moment is just an outside shell,” Luter said. “We’re ready to do what we have to do to get things up and running.”

The renovation will cost perhaps $6 million and should be done by next summer.

Franklin Avenue had purchased 90 acres of lowland in east New Orleans just before Katrina pounded the region last Aug. 29. The church has had a presence in that area for about three years and had discussed the possibility of relocating there, but perhaps four years of work would be involved in filling the lowland and preparing it for construction, Luter explained. With the pressing need for a church facility, the congregation opted to renovate its existing facilities.

“All these churches have been so phenomenal to let us use their buildings,” Luter said. “It’s been awesome to see how the relationships have grown. All of these are predominantly Anglo congregations, and we’re predominantly African American. I think it’s a great testimony to the body of Christ and, really, to the world.

“First Baptist New Orleans has been wonderful to us, but there’s no place like home,” the pastor continued. “It does meet a need as far as worship is concerned, but there are other key elements of a church, like fellowship and discipleship classes, that we can’t get because of the limited time [each Sunday].”

Many out-of-town members still are in a wait-and-see mode, Luter said.

“A lot of those from out of town are saying, ‘I’m just waiting to see what’s going to happen with the levees and the high schools,’” the pastor said. “A lot of people want to come back but they’re waiting for more services, nearby schools and hospitals reopening.”

It’s been a hard year, Luter acknowledged. He gave credit to his wife Elizabeth for her strength that has helped him cope.

“Now that I’ve been able to see the favor of God, I’m doing a whole lot better,” he said. “Mark 4, the disciples in the boat -– that has ministered to me continuously. The presence and the power of Jesus was with them in the midst of the storm, and they could have peace in the storm…. [A]nd the life of Job has been a blessing to me. To see all he lost and God restored what he lost – that’s been a source of comfort to me….

“I’d just like to thank the churches across America,” Luter said. “They, our local association and state convention have been really supportive. It has given us a lot of hope … that we can rebuild this city.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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