Members of the Southern Baptist Convention elected an African-American pastor to its No. 2 position for the first time on Tuesday, signifying an effort to diversify its leadership and flock at a time of declines in overall membership and church attendance.
Fred Luter Jr., the head pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, was elected with 1,558 votes, or 77 percent. Some of his supporters had expected him to be unopposed, but he picked up a local Arizona challenger in Tuesday’s session. Rick Ong, a deacon at First Chinese Baptist Church in Phoenix, received 441 votes, or 23 percent, according to results from the Baptist Press.
The move to elect Luter comes at the same time the SBC is making a push for greater participation among what it sometimes calls its “non-Anglo” members in the life of the convention, particularly in leadership roles.
His election also sets up the potential for his election to the top position of president when the denomination holds its annual meeting next year in Luter’s hometown of New Orleans.
It’s a big step for a denomination whose history is rooted in a split over race. The denomination originally formed in 1845 in a split with the American Baptist Convention over the question of whether slave owners could be missionaries. The SBC was silent or actively opposed civil rights through the 1970s, and many congregations excluded blacks. It was not until 1989 that convention declared racism a sin.