Pointing heavenward and wiping away tears, the Rev. Fred Luter was elected Tuesday (June 19) as the first black president of the predominantly white Southern Baptist Convention.
“To God be the glory for the things that he has done,” Luter said moments after more than 7,000 Southern Baptists leapt to their feet, cheered and shouted “Hallelujah” when he was declared their next leader.
Luter, 55, a former street preacher who brought his mostly black New Orleans congregation back from near annihilation after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, will lead the nation’s largest Protestant denomination for at least a year when the two-day meeting ends Wednesday. Most Southern Baptist presidents traditionally serve two one-year terms.
Rather than rally behind a traditional white conservative candidate, white Southern Baptists leaders had urged the nomination and election of Luter for more than a year. Many said it was long time for such a move for a denomination that was born in 1845 in defense of slavery.
“We have the opportunity to make history, to show a watching world the truth about our savior and ourselves,” the Rev. David Crosby, pastor of the mostly white First Baptist Church of New Orleans, said in his nomination of Luter on Tuesday. “Let’s give our ballots a voice and shout out to the world—Jesus is Lord! This is our president! We are Southern Baptists!”
Members of black Southern Baptist churches—which make up about 8 percent of some the SBC’s 45,000 congregations—have hailed the expected election. Some said they were shocked and never thought they’d live to see such an occurrence.
In the months before the election, SBC ethicist Richard Land was embroiled in controversy for saying President Obama and civil rights leaders had exploited the case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen who was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer. Land, who was reprimanded and lost his radio talk show as a result of the racial tension his remarks caused, was among those immediately cheering Luter’s election.
“Today was as truly a historic moment as Southern Baptist life will ever experience,” said Land, who helped craft the denomination’s 1995 statement apologizing for the “deplorable sin” of racism. “Praise God for his redeeming grace.”
Luter closed out the annual pastors’ conference on the eve of the Southern Baptist meeting, and had the audience on its feet as he waved his Bible in a fervent sermon.
“Only the Word of God can change the heart of a racist; only the Word of God can change the desire of a child molester,” he preached. “The Word of God can change a lifestyle of a homosexual. The Word of God is the only hope for America today.”
Many have tied Luter’s election to the need for greater evangelism among racial and ethnic minorities as the denomination suffered its fifth consecutive year of membership decline.