The Rev. Fred Luter speaks with guests at Lakeview Baptist Church in Auburn on Monday. / Allison Griffin/Advertiser
AUBURN — A The Rev. Fred Luter knew that his election as the first African-American president of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination would make headlines.
But he couldn’t have predicted the whirlwind that his life has become over the past two months.
“It’s been nonstop, it’s been engaging, it’s been enlightening,” Luter said this week before preaching to a large crowd at Lakeview Baptist Church in Auburn. It was one of many sermons he’s delivered recently to churches in the predominantly white Southern Baptist Convention.
His election earned phone calls from President Barack Obama and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s office, along with personal letters from former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. He’s been interviewed by several major media outlets and TV newsmagazines.
And three weeks ago, he was an honored guest at the North Carolina home of evangelist Billy Graham, an experience Luter described as “like meeting Moses for the first time.”
Luter’s meeting with Graham was just before Graham was hospitalized earlier this month for a respiratory infection. Luter said though Graham, 93, is frail, his mind is still very sharp.
He said Graham remembered coming to New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, and he remembered where Luter’s church, Franklin Avenue Baptist, was located. Katrina’s flood waters ravaged the church and scattered members of the congregation.
Luter took over Franklin Avenue, which was a predominantly white church until the 1970s, in 1986. He took the congregation from about 50 members to about 8,000, pre-Katrina. The church lost about half the membership after the hurricane, but has rebuilt to about 5,000 today, Luter said.
“God’s been very good to us, no doubt about it.”
Preaching the word
Luter talked to the Auburn congregation this week about his new post, but only briefly; he was in full-on, Southern Baptist preacher mode. His sermon was on the transforming power of the gospel, which he says is desperately needed in the perilous times of today.
The gospel can save anyone, he said, and it’s an experience he knows first-hand.
“How do I know? You’re looking at somebody that the gospel changed,” he said to the congregation.
In an interview before his sermon, Luter talked about growing up in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. His parents divorced when he was 6, and his mother worked multiple jobs to support the family.
Drawing on that experience, he’s made it a priority in his church to focus on reaching out to men. “I raised myself, so I got involved with a lot of stuff with my partners and friends that I have no doubt I would not have gotten involved in if I’d had a male presence in the home.”
He’s also concerned about reaching young people. The decline in membership among young people mirrors the decline in membership generally at Southern Baptist churches, he said. He’s committed to finding new ways to reach them, and is looking to his fellow pastors who’ve successfully instituted such ministries for help.
“There’s no way we can reach this iPod, iPad generation with an 8-track ministry,” he said.
Though the outreach must change, the message will not, he said. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and evermore. But in order to reach them, we’ve got to change our methods.”
A racial past
Luter said the reception he’s received from the many churches he’s visited has been overwhelmingly supportive. People are eager to meet and take pictures with him and his wife, Elizabeth, who usually accompanies him on his trips.
They realize the historic significance of his convention presidency, and Luter knows he can use that to make race relations a priority for the denomination, which numbers about 16 million. About 20 percent of Southern Baptist churches are made up largely of minorities.
Virtually every story that was written about his election discussed the history of the Southern Baptists. The denomination 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.
But that is changing, Luter said, and he’s ready to confront that history head on.
“This convention, in spite of our beginning, is no longer your grandfather’s convention,” Luter said. “We’re really excited about reaching more ethnic groups.
“I believe that’s God’s plan for us,” Luter said. “We’re all, as believers, going to live together in a place called heaven, so we might as well start practicing it here on earth.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.