by Alan Fisher
On a Sunday, they start to arrive early at Franklin Road Baptist Church. The service starts at ten thirty, but many are already in place an hour earlier, securing their usual seat before the rush. Outside, in the muggy early morning New Orleans heat, helpers guide cars or point people to parking places where they can catch the shuttle to the service.
It's the gathering of the day. Two thousand people were here at 7:30. For the second service, there will be 2,000 more. When the main church fills up, others are directed to overflow rooms like the gymnasium, where they can join in by video link.
As the final stragglers take their seats, and the sound from the choir builds, Pastor Fred Luter appears at the back of the church, moving his way to the front, shaking hands, smiling and thanking people for coming. His personable manner and electric preaching style has made his church the most popular in New Orleans.
Luter turned to religion at the age of 21. A motorcycle accident left him with a badly injured leg and a serious head injury. Wondering if he would recover, he promised God that if he saved him, he’d serve him. And so he began as a street preacher, standing on the corner, reading from the Bible.
Then, in October 1986, he heard Franklin Avenue was looking for a pastor. It had just few dozen members. On the same day he was ordained and installed as pastor.
In the past, Southern Baptists supported white supremacy and resisted the black civil rights movement. The church had even argued in defence of slavery. As an African-American, a black man, Luter had no idea about the church's past.
"It was not until I became pastor here that I found out about the history of the convention," he said.
"And even then it did not bother me, because that’s the history of our nation, that’s the history of our country.
"Slavery was a fact. You'd think that it would be different for religious convention or for religious denomination; it did not concern me because I saw the changes that were happening in the convention once I became a part of it."
Now Luter is expected to make history, as he stands for election as president of the Southern Baptist Convention – the umbrella organisation for his church.
No other candidate is expected to stand. And while the president has no power over the denomination's 51,000 autonomous churches, he does exert considerable influence over the 15 million-plus members by appointing members to the convention's key committees.
In 1990, 95 per cent of Southern Baptist congregations were white; now that figure is around 80 per cent. African-Americans make up just seven per cent of church members.
Rosalind Hinton, a religious scholar at Tulane University , has followed the workings of the Southern Baptists for years.
She told me: "Fred Luter has put his hat in the ring at a moment when this convention wants to appeal to a larger community, wants to shed itself of its racist past, and I think it's a very significant moment.
"But it's also very important to realise just one man at the head of an organization doesn't change this past, and doesn't change the significant challenges of intolerance and hate mongering that the Southern Baptist convention has a history of."
Luter helped write the church's apology for its support of slavery back in 1995. That was a controversial moment for the convention and if, as expected, he wins the presidential election, he knows some church members may be angry at his elevation.
"I'm sure there are some who are, but there's nothing we can do about it," he says.
"We just got to make sure we can do our part to let the people know that this convention doors are open to anybody and everybody, in spite of what you might have read, in spite of what you might have seen in the past, it’s a new day in the Southern Baptist Convention."
Luter believes his election will be a result of hard work rather than the colour of his skin, but he acknowledges it's exactly that which makes his election important and historic for an organisation with such a racist past.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|