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Black Leader For Southern Baptist Convention?


And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Sunday morning, as it's said, is often the most segregated part of the week in America. The Southern Baptist church is still struggling to repair its segregated past. The Southern Baptist Convention is rooted in the rift over slavery, which it supported, and not too long ago, it backed segregation.

Now, the church has since apologized, but it's been slow going trying to diversify. Eighty percent of its 16 million members are white, but that's actually starting to change, in part because in a few months, Pastor Fred Luter will seek the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention. And if he wins, he'll become its first ever African-American president.

Luter began his career preaching on the streets of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans where he grew up, and he was never formally trained, and in fact, he doesn't come from a long line of preachers either.

FRED LUTER: And if you knew my family, you'd know why.


LUTER: That is the truth.

RAZ: Why is that?

LUTER: Well, we've just had a lot of dysfunction in our family. My mom and dad were divorced when I was 6 years old, and we've had divorces and remarriages all throughout our family history. And when people tell me about their family reunions and how their families get together for this and that, I tell folk, I mean I would love to have a family reunion. I say, but if we had a family reunion, you'd have to call security.


LUTER: It just wouldn't be a pretty scene. And so it's the grace of God that have me where I'm at, man.

RAZ: You started preaching on the streets of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. How did that start?

LUTER: I grew up in the 'hood and my mom worked two or three jobs, so I hung out with a lot of bad guys, did a lot of crazy things I should not have done. And so when I gave my life to the Lord and saw what God did in my life, then I wanted all those guys I ran the street with to experience what I was experiencing. So I would be on the street corners every Saturday of the week telling my testimonies, sharing my faith, passing out tracts.

And that's why, you know, I preach real fast. When people hear me preach, they ask me why I preach so fast and I tell them, well, I started out on the street corner. When you're on the street corner, people are moving fast and quick, you know, so they're not sitting down in the pew like that. So I had to say it fast and quick.

And once I came into the church, I never learned how to slow it down. So people come to my church today who remember me way back when and say, man, I remember you. I thought you were crazy. I thought you were a religious nut. But, man, I see you've hung in there and you stuck with it. And so - and I just thank the Lord for it.

RAZ: It's an amazing story, because you went from being a street preacher to the head of the largest Southern Baptist church in Louisiana, the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. You were the first African-American vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention. You are going to run for president this June when the convention meets in New Orleans, and you would be heading up a church that is still about 80 percent white. There are Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans, there've been inroads made to those communities but still a small percentage...


RAZ: ...a relatively small percentage.


RAZ: What would you do to try and diversify the Southern Baptist Convention?

LUTER: I was at the convention in Atlanta in 1996 when this convention apologized for how we were started. It apologized - it's in the records - it apologized that it was not anything that we were proud of and that we need to do better by it. And so since that time, this convention has been trying to let the country know, let the world know that this is not just a convention that was - is lily white and that is not open to folk who are not white.

And they've done that, I think, successfully. I think what this election would do, if I am elected, it will say, hey, we're not only talking this thing; we're putting our money where our mouth at because, you know, if I'm elected, it won't be because of the few African-Americans that's in that convention center.

If I'm elected, it's going to be because of the Anglo messengers who overwhelmingly have voted for me. It won't be because of the handful of black folk that's going to be there. So it will say something to the country and to the world that the Southern Baptist Convention is not just talking this thing, we're actually walking this thing. And I think that will speak volumes.

RAZ: That's Pastor Fred Luter. He heads up the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, and he's seeking the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention. If he wins in June, he'll become the convention's first African-American president in history. Pastor Fred Luter, thanks so much.

LUTER: Thank you, my brother. I appreciate the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.