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Luter among N.O. leaders who met with Bush to discuss future

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, was one of 17 business and civic leaders chosen by Mayor Ray Nagin for the Bring New Orleans Back Commission charged with the assignment of developing a master plan for rebuilding the flood-ravaged city.

The group dined with President Bush and his wife, Laura, at the Italian-Creole restaurant Bacco in the French Quarter Oct. 10 and had the opportunity to express their concerns and ideas with the nation’s leader.

Luter told Baptist Press he has known Nagin for years and the mayor has visited his 7,000-member Southern Baptist church several times. Luter believes he was chosen for the commission because of the number of people he represents and because he is a lifelong New Orleans resident.

“Everybody knows I love New Orleans,” he said Oct. 12.

The commission includes a cross-section of people from the political, educational, healthcare and religious sectors of New Orleans, Luter said, including Tulane University President Scott Cower, jazz legend Wynton Marsalis and Catholic Archbishop Alfred Hughes. Commission members will oversee 20 to 25 committees in charge of levees, economic development initiatives and education systems.

Nagin called the commissioners “some of the most authentic and highest integrity” people in the city, The Shreveport Times reported. Nagin said he’s tired of hearing that local officials are too corrupt to handle the rebuilding. “For three-and-a-half years, we’ve been about integrity, we have been against corruption,” the mayor said.

Luter was pleased with Bush’s pledge that the federal government will not dictate the terms for rebuilding the Gulf Coast but will support the key decisions made by local leaders.

“That’s what we want. Nobody knows New Orleans better than us,” Luter said. “It’s a unique city. Unless you’ve been here, you don’t understand. It’s what we asked him: Mr. President, if you would just let us give you [a plan based on] what we as New Orleanians see and know that we can do to accomplish this. He was excited about it and said, “Good,” because again, nobody knows New Orleans better than we do.

“There were people in the government that were saying we shouldn’t even rebuild the city,” Luter added. “That would be a shame. The president himself said he couldn’t see the United States without New Orleans, and I agree with that.”

The dinner with Bush at Bacco was the first time Luter had met the president, and he left with a high opinion of him.

“I was thoroughly, thoroughly impressed with him. He’s a very personable man. He went around the room and shook hands and looked into the eyes of each of those commission members,” Luter said. “He spent time talking with people about their family and their loved ones. There even were two or three people who gave him their cell phones and he said hello to their loved ones. I was just blown away by that. I thought that was a very personal side that you don’t see of the president in news conferences and public events, but I thought that was very, very touching.”

Luter also said the meeting was worthwhile and encouraging to the members of the commission, most of whom lost homes and businesses in the flood and can easily be overwhelmed by the enormous task of rebuilding.

“I left really feeling good about the future of New Orleans,” Luter said. “The commitment we have from the president is what we wanted. It gave us the feeling that, ‘Wow, we can really do this thing,’ and we have the backing of the president of the United States, and so that made us feel really good.”

Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, Luter said, had eight feet of water inside the building during the flood. The church staff got an opportunity to walk the grounds for an up-close look for the first time in early October. They’re now meeting with insurance adjusters, and this month they hope to start the monumental cleanup effort in expectation of starting again on the same property.

“The whole bottom level was destroyed. Pews are thrown on top of each other,” Luter said. “All the church offices were totally destroyed, the family life center, gymnasium floor, the classrooms there, the nursery, the bookstore, the library — all of those things were totally destroyed by the water.”

Cleanup will be a long process, he said, and leaders aren’t sure how long it will take because the task may depend on how much manpower they have and how many people are able to get inside the building given its current condition.

“I would hope to see something happening with [the church property], even if we have to put a tent up or something, hopefully by March of next year,” the pastor said.

The process of gathering members anew is a daunting one for Luter, who said he has yet to hear from half his congregation. Church members are scattered all over America, and Luter has been traveling to various cities to preach each week in locations where he believes many of them have relocated.

“This past Sunday I was in Houston, and that was a tremendous success. We had about 525 of our members at a special service at First Baptist Church in Houston. Pastor Gregg [Matte] and his staff at First Baptist Houston just opened up their doors to us,” Luter said. “It was a service just for members of Franklin Avenue, and it was a phenomenal success. There were a lot of cries, a lot of tears, a lot of hugs because some of us have not seen any of us since the flood. As a matter of fact, some of us didn’t even know that the others of us were alive. So it was a really touching, emotional service.”

Among the most vivid lessons Luter is learning during this hardship is that it is unsafe to place one’s trust in material possessions.

“It’s like Job said, ‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.’ You can work years of your life and build your dream home and have the property and material things that you want, but it can be gone in one day,” he said. “And that’s what happened to us, so we really appreciate life more and have learned not to put our trust in the things of this world because they can be here today and gone tomorrow.”

Luter said he is grateful for the support he and members of Franklin Avenue are receiving from fellow Southern Baptists nationwide. Because God had blessed him with the opportunity to travel throughout the country, preaching at conferences and churches for nearly a decade, he said he was introduced to a lot of people within the convention.

“Since the flood, members of our church who have gone to places you would not even think were on the map, many of them have run into people that knew of me and knew of Franklin Avenue, and people have opened up their arms, their homes, their churches, their gymnasiums and most of all their pocketbooks to assist our members,” Luter said.

“… That’s been the blessing that I’ve enjoyed, and I hope one day as a church family we’ll be able to do something like this for others who are going through tragic situations like we are.”

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  • Erin Curry