Pastor Fred Luter, Jr. rebuilt his home church Franklin Avenue Baptist after Hurricane Katrina. On June 14 he became the first ever African-American to be elected first Vice President of the Southern Baptist Convention. Here he opens up about race, preaching and New Orleans.
Although America's largest Protestant denomination, Southern Baptists are losing attendance and membership. Your church has grown exponentially, despite losing 4000 members to Katrina. How do you buck the trend?
The key is to have a good choir! [laughs] People love music. And a few things: making people feel welcome when they come through the door. Have an uplifting service that they enjoy, and the sermons need to be challenging and inspirational. That is what has made the difference for us. I tell our congregation: listen, people do not have to come to your church. But when they do come, you need to make them feel welcome.
You first started preaching in the streets, and now you are in national demand. What's your secret to good preaching?
You've got to be able to communicate with the people. I try to touch the hearts of people and really make them feel the sermon. Every sermon I preach, I preach to me first. I've got to feel it before I can share it with someone else.
Southern Baptists originally began to support slavery and only declared racism a sin 22 years ago. What is it like to now become first Vice President with an overwhelming 77% of the vote?
It is really humbling. This is something that the convention has been dealing with for years. But this says that we are at the point where we are tired of talking about this thing, we want to do something about it. Before it was just words, but now they are putting actions behind their words, and that is a blessing. I am just honored to be part of it.
Why has it been so difficult for racial minorities to become visible SBC leaders?
You've got to make yourself known. But most of them are bi-vocational, meaning most of them work, have jobs. Not a lot of them are full time, and so most aren't able to get to the Convention and the state meetings because of their job schedules. But times are changing now; we are having congregations who can support a full-time pastors.
Why push for racial diversity but not gender diversity?
We have almost 5000 African American churches in the Convention, we have a number of Asian churches, Hispanic churches, and many of those churches are growing. It was obvious that [racial diversity] must be dealt with.
This week Southern Baptists narrowly passed a measure to promote "a just and compassionate path to legal status" for undocumented immigrants. What will this mean for your church, Franklin Avenue Baptist?
Our doors have always been open for anyone, and always have been, for any race, any color, any nationality, so that has never been an issue for us. It will be up to each local church to figure out how they would teach and enforce that resolution.
After Katrina, you lost your home and your church. Why did you decide to stay in New Orleans?
I was born and raised here. I had options, but I really felt I needed to go back home and be part of the rebuilding. Then the mayor of New Orleans called me at the time and asked me to on the Bring Back New Orleans Committee, and I was honored to do that.
Rumor is that you are a top choice for SBC president next year. What would inspire you to run?
My wife. I listen to my wife, she is the most influential person in my life. She would have to be on board with it, and the church that I pastor. This is the only church I've ever pastored. I love these folk, they've supported me through the years. So my wife and my congregation, and of course God's lead.
Do you think you might run?
It is a possibility. I've told people I'm going to enjoy this year working with Dr. Wright, he's a phenomenal president. I have no agenda other than that, and one thing I have never done is politic for a position. So next year when the convention comes to New Orleans, we'll see what happens.
I have to ask how do you like your shrimp?
Gotta be fried. That way you get all the seasoning and the taste. Yesterday as soon as I got off the plane, my wife and I went straight to the restaurant and had some fried shrimp. The seasoning and how we do it here is just unlike any place else in the world.