fred_luter_jr.jpgPHOENIX (AP) — Members of the Southern Baptist Convention have elected an African-American pastor to its No. 2 position for the first time, 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, on June 14. Some of his supporters had expected him to be unopposed but he picked up a local Arizona challenger. 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 came 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.

Luter's church is one of an estimated 3,400 black churches in America's largest Protestant denomination, a small minority of more than 45,700 total SBC-affiliated churches with about 16 million members overall.

His election also sets up the potential for moving to the top position of president when the denomination holds its annual meeting next year in his 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 the convention declared racism a sin.

In 1994, the convention elected its first African American to an executive position when the Rev. Gary Frost was named second vice president. In 1995, the denomination issued an apology to blacks for slavery. That same year, Luter was elected to succeed Frost as second vice president.

Luter said it doesn't make him uncomfortable that people want to see this as a milestone for African-Americans.

“There's no way we can get around it. Here's a convention that started on slavery. Years later, you have an African American one step away from the presidency. I can't deny that,” Luter said.