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Luter, on race relations, sees church as unifier

NEW ORLEANS (BP) — Race relations issues have not improved since the election of the first African American U.S. president, but the church can lead in modeling reconciliation, said Fred Luter Jr., immediate past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the first African American to hold the position.

Luter, speaking on a Black History Month video, “Answering the Call” produced by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said, “I really thought this nation was ready to move forward” with the historic election of Barack Obama that garnered votes from Anglos as well as diverse ethnic groups.

“As much as we needed racial reconciliation in America, I really thought that was the opportunity for our nation to come together and make us one as a nation,” Luter said. “But unfortunately … that’s not the case.”

Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, expressed optimism for the future as the body of Christ leads the way as an agent for social change.

In analyzing today’s situation, Luter quoted a pastor-friend who states it this way: “America doesn’t have a skin problem, we have a sin problem.”

When the sin problem is resolved through faith in Christ, racial reconciliation follows, Luter said, noting that the church has both the responsibility and capability to model what it means to be brothers and sisters in Christ.

“We can be one,” Luter said. “Regardless of your race, regardless of what side of the track you were born on, regardless of all the things the media and society have tried to do to divide us, we can be one.”

As the SBC’s first African American president, race isn’t an issue he can avoid, Luter said, citing one question that consistently comes up when he is interviewed by journalists.

“Every last one of them asked this question: Why would a black man want to be president of a convention that started because of slavery?”

Luter said his answer was always the same. “Racism, segregation is a part of our past, but that’s the thing: it’s our past.”

The Southern Baptist Convention has addressed the past and has taken deliberative action to demonstrate its desire to be diverse, he said.

“We regret the past of this convention,” Luter said. “This convention has publicly apologized for our past…. We’ve made it known through resolutions that we want this convention to be diverse, and it is. I believe the Southern Baptist Convention is the most diverse convention of any in America…. There is no other convention that comes close to our diversity in the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Luter said he longs for the day when the topic of conversation will be inroads Southern Baptists have made in evangelism, discipleship and in changing the world — “where I can go to a church … and be introduced not as the first African American president, but as, ‘This is our brother, Fred Luter.’ That’s my prayer for this convention and for America.”

‘A win-win situation’

Luter pointed to the close relationship between the church he leads and New Orleans Seminary, a friendship benefitting both, modeling what Christians can learn from one another.

As a young pastor with a background as a National Baptist, Luter said he was at first unaware of what NOBTS offered in terms of theological education, continuing education and resources. With his church located two miles from the campus, “a great partnership” developed.

“I began to appreciate all that this seminary had to offer us, a small mission church in the inner city,” Luter said.

As regular chapel speaker at NOBTS and a national alumni officer, Luter invites students to visit and join with Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. For some, it is their first experience worshipping in a predominantly African American church, Luter said.

“I think it’s a win-win situation,” Luter said. “What New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary has meant to Franklin Avenue, but also what Franklin Avenue Baptist Church has meant to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.”

‘Hope from Heartache’

In a separate Black History Month video produced by NOBTS, “Hope from Heartache”, several African American NOBTS students share what it means to follow in the steps of those who dared to step out onto a long road to equality.

The students honor the freedom won by pioneers Frederick Douglas, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and others, yet they point to a greater freedom won by Christ, a freedom through which they find victory over sin and the grace to forgive.

“I have experienced everything from total, complete acceptance to harsh and blatant racism,” said Joy Pigg, a bachelor of arts in Christian ministry student in the seminary’s Leavell College. “It has developed my faith because it has taught me really what grace is and what forgiveness means. It has helped me understand the gravity of how God has forgiven us for this problem of sin.”

In Christ, where loss is redeemed and heartache gains meaning, the students speak of a passion to take hope and healing to those in need. Answering God’s call to serve, they say, brought them to NOBTS.

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  • Marilyn Stewart