Pastor to Become First Black Leader of Southern Baptists
Baptist pastor Fred Luter Jr. once preached the Gospel through an amplifier on street corners in this city’s Lower 9th Ward.
Tuesday, he’s set to become the first black president of the Southern Baptist Convention— a group created more than a century ago to support slavery — at the group’s annual meeting here.
The rise of Luter, 55, from street preacher to religious leader is more than a tale of personal fate. It’s a historic moment in the denomination’s 167-year history, a history tainted with racial segregation and human bondage, historians and convention leaders say.
The Southern Baptist Convention, which is overwhelmingly white, is the second-largest Christian denomination in the USA, behind Catholics. But its membership numbers have been sliding for five years, down from 16,306,246 in 2006 to 15,978,112 in 2011, according to Nashville-based evangelical research agency LifeWay Research. This is dangerously close to falling behind the nation’s third-largest group: people with no religious identity.
Just as Catholic numbers have been sustained by the influx of Hispanics and other immigrants, the SBC hopes it can grow with more minorities.
Electing Luter will be “the most significant event to happen in our history since our formation,” says Daniel Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. “It makes a statement about where the SBC is and where it hopes to go in the future.”