Rev. Fred Luter’s Challenges Ahead

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  • Decades after scores of imminently qualified African-Americans first graced Fortune 1000 suites and four years after Barack Obama took up White House residency, the Southern Baptist Convention has elevated a black man to its highest elective office.  
     
    If the Rev. Fred Luter's election on Tuesday to the SBC's presidency shocked much of the nation, it came as no surprise to the wave of academics, theologians and pundits who've followed his rise up the Convention's power ladder since 2011.
     
    On the contrary, Luter's election last year to the Convention's second highest office– First Vice President–was viewed as a public prelude to his Tuesday ascension, which had been predicted by scores of observers and is now a reality.
     
    Since 1845, when white southern Baptists, many of them slave holders, angrily rejected repeated efforts by northerners to abolish black enslavement, numerous leaders and members have been supporters, if not prominent advocates, of long term efforts to prevent and derail African-American economic, social and political equality.
     
    In that year, following the lead of Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians living below the Mason-Dixon Line, southern Baptists withdrew from their national body and formed a convention to accomodate slavery and perpetuate the myth of white moral, ethical and intellectual supremacy. Southern Baptists were outraged, moreover, after their northern brethern refused to accept a proposal to designate white slavers as "missionaries" to blacks, rather than owners of, and traders in, human flesh.  

    Against this backdrop, Luter, senior minister of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, the largest Protestant congregation in New Orleans, has mounted the denomination's national pulpit, long crowded with incendiairy racial baggage.
     
    Luther is confronted by at least two daunting, if quietly discussed, challenges.
     
    The first is to convince black, brown and other minorities, whom the denomination hopes to evangelize, that they will be comfortable as members and officers in majority-white SBC affiliated churches. The second is guidance, as America's largest Protestant communion competes for converts of color against denominations that for more than a century have aggressively evangelized among non-whites and boast notable success in winning them.
     
    Jevovahs Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists are two primary examples of successful, long time evangelization among people of color in the United States and around the globe.
     
    If those challenges were not enough to fill Luter's agenda, the Convention, stuck in zero membership growth for several years, must contend with the nation's raipdly changing demographic reality.
     
    By the year 2045, according to many demographers, the United States will no longer be a majority white nation. Instead, Latinos, along with blacks and Asians, will constitute the bulk of America's population.
     
    For the Convention, that shift in population could bring a much more diverse and vibrant body of members and officers or the risk of gradual economic, social and political irrelevance if evangelization among non-whites is tepid, culturally clumsy and ultimately unsuccessful.          
     
    Yet the Convention's more urgent and present focus is the SBC presidency, which is largely ceremonial and provides no salary and little executive power. Luter, like other SBC presidents before him, has been elected to serve a one-year term. He cannot, according to SBC by-laws, serve more than two.
     
    Luter's influence as president will be seen in his appointments to the Convention's 22 boards and commissions. According to statements aired and published by several print and electronic media, Luter intends to appoint more blacks and people of color to those boards and commissions than did his predecessors.
         
    Among the prominent ministers reached for comment for this article were Dr. Calvin Butts, senior shepherd of black America's flagship congregation, the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church, located in Harlem, Dr. David Crosby, who presides over the majority-white First Baptist Church, New Orleans and the Rev. Cedric Hughes Jones, Jr., the highly respected senior minister of West Philadelphia's Mount Zion Baptist Church.
     
    In a measured response, Dr. Butts said of Luter, "judging from what we have discovered about him, I believe Rev. Luter is the kind of man who, once he gets into that position (the presidency), will work to make it serve the interests of all people. He will make appointments, hopefully, of people who will address the issues that impact most of the people who belong to the Southern Baptist churches."

    Although most of them are white, Dr. Butts added, "they are poor, so their issues are the same as those of most poor people in America.  Rev. Luter is also aware that racism in America is alive and well and, therefore, I don't believe he is going into that position with blinders on."
     
    While the Convention has apologized for its racist positions taken in past years, Dr. Butts noted, "apologies without justice is void."
     
    "I believe," Dr. Butts continued, "that Rev. Luter will attempt to make corrections to the ideology that guided the SBC for so long. He concluded his comments by saying, "I think all of us, particularly in the black community, ought to pray for Rev. Luter with the hope that he will do the right thing."

    Dr. David Crosby, senior minister of the mostly white First Baptist Church in New Orleans, told BlackAmericaWeb.com that "Fred Luter's election will say to the world, 'see, we're not the people we used to be, we've changed."
     
    Dr. Crosby, who counts Luter "as a good friend," nominated him for the Convention's presidency on Tuesday, in New Orleans. He has often described Luter as "annointed by God for this time" and "a miracle worker," among other effusive praises heard and recorded by media during the past year.  
     
    "It's really not so much about Fred Luter," Dr. Crosby said, "it's really about the transformation within the Southern Baptist Convention."
     
    Luter, a genial, joval man, was gracious and humble when interviewed by BlackAmericWeb.com.
     
    "I am very grateful for this opportunity to spread the light of the gospel and show what an African-American can do for this convention." he said.  Luter acknowledged that "there are some challenges," but preferred to speak about the "warm receptions" he's had "all over the country, wherever I've preached."
     
    In some all-white congregations, he said, "there were people who had never heard a black man preach in their churches, but who, after hearing my sermons, congratulated me and asked me to return."
     
    Luter said he is not yet aware of all the duties and obligations mandated by the SBC presidency, but will be given them by the preceding president before his term officially begins.
     
    Although he is known for his preaching prowress, Luter said he has "no intention of poaching" or deliberately enticing members of other Baptist denominations to join SBC churches. The four black major conventions have more than 15 million members in their flocks; the National Baptist Convention, the largest of the four, has some 7 million of them.
     
    Rev. Jones, responding to BlackAmericaWeb.com's request for comment Wednesday, said, "While I do not know Rev. Luter, his personal story of overcoming difficulties will resonate with many black people. Perhaps his personal story and leadership will influence the policy conversations among Southern Baptists."
     
    "If he can shape the dialog with in the Southern Baptist Convention to address the meaningful theological and social issues of concern to black people, then his historic selection will have some consequences relevant to the daily lives of African-Americans," Rev. Jones emphasized.
     
    If not, he said, "this election matters little to Black Christians."
     
    Given Rev. Luter's "commitment to Jesus," Rev. Jones continued, "I pray that he will sound the trumpet of social justice on behalf of the least of these, especially the poor."

    Rev. Jones said Luter, "as a victim of Hurricane Katrina, has seen first hand the devastating impact of poverty, combined with an inadequate policy response. If Rev. Luter's leadership prompts more Southern Baptist churches to pursue the Jesus agenda of preaching the gospel to the poor, healing the brokenhearted, proclainimg liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind and liberating the oppressed, then all people–includibng African-Americans–should rejoice."
     
    If not, Rev. Jones said, "then it will be church business as usual, without the transformation, which is so desparately needed.  In the 21st Century, it is the transformation that is yearned for, not just a change in the race or ethnicity of the leader."
     

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