NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Four months ago, two African-American pastors stood in a hallway of the Southern Baptist Convention's Nashville headquarters looking at a row of white faces.
The portraits of the 56 convention presidents since the denomination's 1845 founding are in large picture frames holding several portraits each. The final frame holds empty slots.
“They got a space for Fred, right there,” one of the men said. “Got a space picked out for him.”
“Fred” is the Rev. Fred Luter Jr., the man elected Tuesday to become the first African-American president of the nation's largest Protestant denomination by convention delegates meeting in New Orleans.
It's a big step for a denomination that was formed out of a pre-Civil War split with northern Baptists over slavery and for much of the last century had a reputation for supporting segregation.
In recent years, faced with growing diversity in America and declining membership in its churches, the denomination has made a sincere effort to distance itself from that past. Many Southern Baptists came to believe the charming and charismatic Luter is the man who can lead them forward.
Luter's rise through the Southern Baptist ranks has been a slow and steady process, the result of the hard work, leadership and creativity that allowed him to turn a struggling inner-city church of 50 members into the largest Southern Baptist church in Louisiana by weekly attendance.
The 55-year-old Luter grew up in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward, the middle of five children raised by a divorced mother who worked as a seamstress “not to make ends meet but just to make them kind of wave at each other,” he said.
The family walked to a local Baptist church every Sunday and Luter's mother made sure all the children attended.
Luter drifted away from religion after leaving home for college but, at age 21, he found himself making a promise to God that he has kept to this day.
After a near fatal motorcycle accident landed him in the hospital, “I said, ‘God, if you save my life, I'll serve you for the rest of my life,’” Luter said.
He survived and soon began preaching on street corners every Saturday with a group of friends from church.
Luter kept it up for nine years before someone suggested he apply to become the pastor at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. Formerly a white church, the membership had changed to African American with the changing demographics of the neighborhood.
As the church grew and began leading the state in baptisms, Luter started to draw notice. In 1995, he was invited to preach at the pastor's conference held in the two days before the Southern Baptist Convention's annual business meeting.
James Merritt, who would later become SBC president, had never met Luter or heard him preach when he brought him to the conference on a recommendation from a colleague. Merritt was simply trying to add diversity to the event. He got much more than he had hoped for.
Merritt was on the speaker's platform facing the audience of 15,000 to 20,000 when Luter began to preach.
“They were electrified,” Merritt said. “You could tell by their body language he had them in the palm of his hand.”
As Luter tells it, that conference put him on the map and he soon started getting invitations to preach all over the country. Some members of his congregation worried he would leave them for a better offer but he has remained devoted to Franklin Avenue, even after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, destroying the church and scattering its members.
Luter said the disaster shook his faith and he didn't know at first if the church could recover. He told the Baptist Press the tragedy showed him that “life is like a vapor on this side of eternity. What you have today could be gone tomorrow. You can't put your trust in earthly things.”
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert. Rev. Fred Luter