NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Four months ago, two African-American pastors stood in a hallway of the Southern Baptist Convention's Nashville headquarters looking at a row of white faces.
The portraits of the 56 convention presidents since the denomination's 1845 founding are in large picture frames holding several portraits each. The final frame holds empty slots.
"They got a space for Fred, right there," one of the men said. "Got a space picked out for him."
"Fred" is the Rev. Fred Luter Jr., the man poised to become the first African American president of the nation's largest Protestant denomination when messengers, as the convention calls representatives sent to the convention meeting, vote next week in New Orleans.
It's a big step for a denomination that 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.
In recent years, faced with growing diversity in America and declining membership in its churches, the denomination has made a sincere effort to distance itself from that past. Many Southern Baptists believe the charming and charismatic Luter is the man who can lead them forward.
Luter's rise through the Southern Baptist ranks has been a slow and steady process, the result of the hard work, leadership and creativity that allowed him to turn a struggling inner-city church of 50 members into the largest Southern Baptist church in Louisiana by weekly attendance.
The 55-year-old grew up in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward, the middle of five children raised by a divorced mother who worked as a seamstress "not to make ends meet, but just to make them kind of wave at each other," he said.
The family walked to a local Baptist church every Sunday and Luter's mother made sure all the children attended.
Luter drifted away from religion after leaving home for college, but at age 21 he found himself making a promise to God that he has kept to this day.
After a near-fatal motorcycle accident landed him in the hospital, "I said, 'God, if you save my life, I'll serve you for the rest of my life,'" Luter said.
He survived and soon began preaching on street corners every Saturday with a group of friends from church.
"We had no training," he said. "We were just really excited about what God was doing in our lives and we wanted to share it with others. We got ridiculed a lot."
Luter kept it up for nine years before someone suggested he apply to become the pastor at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. Formerly a white church, the membership had changed to African-American with changing demographics of the neighborhood.
"When I came to Franklin Avenue it was a bunch of women and kids," Luter said. "You could count the number of men on one hand."
So Luter bought a pay-per-view TV boxing match between Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns and told the women in his church to invite every man they knew.
About 25 men showed up, some of whom didn't realize they were coming to the pastor's house, Luter said. Nonetheless, they happily dumped their beer to go in and see the match. Afterward, Luter invited them to come to church.
"The boxing match was on a Friday night and the following Sunday five of those guys were at church," Luter said. He recognized them during the service and all the women started applauding. After church, they lavished attention on the men.
"The next Sunday there were more men," Luter said. "Once we started the men's program we found that men draw not only other men, but men draw women. Word started spreading."
'Word of mouth'
Luter also began an outreach program called "frangelism," for "friends, relatives, associates and neighbors." One week, members asked to bring a friend to church, the next week a relative, and so on.
"We told them, 'If God has done something in your life, you are obligated to share it.' We've never been on TV or the radio, never put up any billboards. The church grew through word of mouth."
As the church grew and began leading the state in baptisms, Luter started to draw notice. In 1995, he was invited to preach at the pastor's conference held in the two days before the Southern Baptist Convention's annual business meeting.
James Merritt, who would later become SBC president, had never met Luter or heard him preach when he brought him to the conference on a recommendation from a colleague. Merritt was simply trying to add diversity to the event. He got much more than he had hoped for.
Merritt was on the speaker's platform facing the audience of 15,000 to 20,000 when Luter began to preach.
"They were electrified," he said. "You could tell by their body language he had them in the palm of his hand."
As Luter tells it, that conference put him on the map and he soon started getting invitations to preach all over the country. Some members of his congregation worried he would leave them for a better offer, but Luter has remained devoted to Franklin Avenue.
Many Southern Baptist leaders, when speaking of Luter, mention how respected he is for his determination to stay in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, destroying Franklin Avenue and scattering its members.
'Life is like a vapor'
Luter said the disaster shook his faith and he didn't know at first if the church could recover. A photograph from that time shows Luter on a helicopter tour of the city, wiping tears from his eyes as he gazed at the flooded buildings and vans of his church.
He told the Baptist Press the tragedy showed him that "life is like a vapor on this side of eternity. What you have today could be gone tomorrow. You can't put your trust in earthly things."
Despite the loss of his home and church, Luter never missed a Sunday preaching and soon began driving a circuit to reach his scattered flock.
"Everywhere I went I would see people from my church and it was like a family reunion, with me crying and wiping snot from my nose," he said.
Those members still in New Orleans started meeting at a white church, First Baptist New Orleans, where the two congregations soon formed close ties that remained even after Franklin Avenue reopened in 2008. First Baptist pastor David Crosby will nominate Luter for president at the SBC meeting.
The tragedy even resulted in two new Franklin Avenue churches being formed, one in Houston and one in Baton Rouge, La., both cities where many former members remain.
Despite huge membership losses at Franklin Avenue in New Orleans after Katrina, about 5,000 people attend services each week and a recent Sunday found people standing along the walls with the sanctuary filled to capacity. To cheers and applause, Luter invited them all to come to the city's convention center and witness a historic moment where their pastor would be elected as the first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
His election is not guaranteed, but with the SBC's annual meeting a week away, Luter so far has no challengers for the position.
Although his likely election will be historic for Southern Baptists, Luter's many admirers say he is in no way a token.
As Crosby, of First Baptist New Orleans, puts it: "It's such a note of grace and favor from God that a man of this caliber would step forward to become first African-American president of the SBC."
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