(CNN) — Hospitalized at age 21 with compound fractures and serious head injuries after a motorcycle accident, Fred Luter Jr. decided to give his life to God and enter the ministry.
A native of New Orleans’ impoverished lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, Luter was the third of five children raised by a divorced mother who worked as a seamstress and a surgical scrub assistant, according to Thom Rainier, president and CEO of the Nashville, Tennessee-based LifeWay Christian Resources and a friend of Luter’s.
Although he had been active in the church as a child, Luter “began to do some serious reflecting on his life” after the 1977 crash, according to a Web posting on Rainier’s website. “God used that incident to bring him back to serving him,” Rainier wrote.
And what a long way he’s come since. On Tuesday, Luter, now the pastor of the 8,000-plus-member Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, was elected the first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention, an organization that began as a pro-slavery church more than 160 years ago. His term officially begins Wednesday night.
“This is a brand-new convention,” Luter told CNN on Wednesday, calling his election “Exhibit A, to the world, that this convention is now ready to open its doors.”
However, he said, he and the convention are opposed to same-sex marriage, acknowledging that he and President Barack Obama differ “on this particular subject.”
“I’m a man of the book,” he said. “I believe in the word of God. I believe in the Bible, and God has spoken about marriage. Marriage is between a man and a woman … no one can change that,” he said.
“All of us, as believers, all of us love everybody, including those in the gay community,” he said. “We’re going to embrace them as far as who they are, but we’re also going to stand on biblical principles that the word of God has already established.”
Rainier said of Luter’s election: “The timing is late, but the choice is right.” He wrote on his website that he has rarely known a greater preacher or family man. “One of my greatest fears is following Fred Luter speaking,” he said.
Luter said he was surprised to have been unopposed, given the size of the 16 million-member organization and the fact that it’s an election year, but the support he received from the floor “just brought tears to my eyes.”
His election comes 17 years after the convention apologized for the denomination’s onetime support of white supremacist and segregationist policies.
He told CNN on Wednesday that the organization’s history cannot be denied, but he noted that “every one of us has a history … there’s nothing we can do about our past, but there’s a lot we can do about our future.”
Following what Luter called his 1977 “Road to Damascus” moment, referring to the apostle Paul’s conversion experience in the Bible, he began preaching on a street corner.
“With no church to preach in, Luter set up shop every Saturday at noon on the corner of Galvez and Caffin Avenue, where he would preach to anyone who would listen,” according to a biography posted on the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church website. In 1983, he preached his first church sermon at the Law Street Baptist Church in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans. By 1986, he was preaching regularly at Greater Liberty Baptist Church when he heard about the opening at Franklin Avenue.
Once an all-white church, the Franklin Avenue congregation changed to mostly African-American members as urban renewal resulted in whites leaving the neighborhood, the church’s website says. When Luter was approved as its new pastor, the church had 65 members and was “struggling.”
But Luter implemented an outreach strategy known as “Frangelism,” according to the church. The “Fran” stood for friends, relatives, associates and neighbors.
He also focused on bringing men into the church, reasoning, “The man is the family. If he comes to church he’s going to bring his family with him,” according to the church biography. To foster male church involvement, Luter would have men over to watch a sporting event and “then make his pitch for God,” the church said.
“When Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns fought, I had about 25 guys at the house that night,” Luter said in the church biography. “Many of them are still with us.”
Franklin Avenue had more than 7,000 members by August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast and triggered massive flooding in New Orleans. The Ninth Ward neighborhood was among the hardest hit.
The Franklin Avenue Baptist Church building “took on more than eight feet of water,” according to its website. “The church was destroyed, and members were scattered all over the U.S., struggling to comprehend what had happened while considering the possibility of having to build new lives elsewhere.”
It was a low point for Luter, Rainier recalled in his website posting. He remembered seeing Luter in the halls of LifeWay not long after Katrina and speaking with him about it. As he began talking about it, Rainier wrote, Luter broke into tears.
” ‘Thom,’ he began, ‘I just hurt for our people,’ ” Rainier wrote. ” ‘They have no homes. They have no church. They have lost family. They have lost so much.’
“The moment was powerful for me,” Rainier said. “You see, Fred and (his wife) Elizabeth Luter had lost so much too. Their home was destroyed and their lives were displaced. But there was not a moment of self-pity. There was no questioning of the will of God. Yes, there were tears. But those were the tears of a shepherd who loved his flock so much that he could hardly bear their pain.”
Luter began attempting to reunite his church, according to the Franklin Avenue website. He found displaced members, tried to get them home and traveled all over the country to preach in cities where they were.
“New FABCs (Franklin Avenue Baptist Churches) sprang up in cities like Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Houston, Texas, but Luter wasn’t satisfied,” wanting a New Orleans church for members to return to, the biography said.
He was able to strike a deal with Pastor David Crosby of a Baptist church in the city’s Lakeview neighborhood that had been spared major destruction from Katrina and was able to reopen within a few months. For the next three years, Luter held 7 a.m. services at the church while rebuilding Franklin Avenue.
In the process, the two pastors forged a friendship they say will last a lifetime, the church said. Crosby was to nominate Luter for his Southern Baptist Convention presidency.
The new Franklin Avenue sanctuary opened on April 6, 2008, the church said, and its membership has continued to grow.
The church notes that Luter is not naive about the Southern Baptist Convention’s past. In 1986, when he began at Franklin Avenue, the church was considering leaving the convention, it said.
“In a move that could be described as fortuitous, he told his organization that he believed ‘this convention had a heart for evangelism, for discipleship and reaching people in difficult times,’ ” according to Franklin Avenue’s website. “Not knowing what would happen years later, he convinced them to stay.”
Luter has been married to his wife, Elizabeth, for 32 years, according to the church. The two have a son and a daughter.
By Ashley Hayes
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