When Fred Luter recounts his days growing up in New Orleans' crime-ridden Lower Ninth Ward, the Southern Baptist pastor doesn't soften the truth in a Sunday morning sermon: "I was too mean to live, not fit to die, going to hell, and enjoying the ride."
More than 30 years later, he's come a long way. With delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) gathering for their annual meeting in New Orleans in June, many expect Luter, 55, to become the first black president in the denomination's history.
The longtime pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans already serves as first vice president of the SBC. Many anticipate that the African-American minister will win the denomination's top spot overwhelmingly when the group meets June 19-20 in his hometown.
Luter's election would be a significant milestone for the largest Protestant denomination in the country. Southern Baptists formed the SBC in 1845, partly to defend the practice of slavery. (The SBC apologized for that part of its history in a 1995 resolution.)
Russell Moore, dean of the school of theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., shudders when he thinks about slavery and the SBC. "I stand here on a campus that was founded by men who could clearly articulate what it means to be saved, and at the same time defended human beings purporting to own other human beings," he said. "That's mind-boggling in its perversity."
Moore is grateful for the SBC's progress since then, including the 1995 resolution and at least 30 other resolutions addressing race and racism. And he's enthusiastic about Luter's potential election in the denomination that's still 80 percent white: "It would be a sign of God's grace and a redemptive act among Southern Baptists."
But on the eve of Luter's historic bid, a race-related controversy looms over the SBC. The convention is slated to meet less than six weeks after Richard Land, president of the denomination's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, issued a lengthy public apology for comments he made during a March 31 radio broadcast about the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida.
During the program, Land discussed the firestorm surrounding the teenager's death. George Zimmerman, the alleged killer and community watch member in Sanford, Fla., pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder on May 8 and said that Martin attacked him before he shot the unarmed youth at close range on Feb. 26.
Police arrested Zimmerman nearly two weeks after the shooting. The delay elicited widespread demonstrations and an outcry from activists and community members who charged police with racism. (Zimmerman remains free on bail and faces an Aug. 8 court appearance to set a date for his trial.)
During his broadcast, Land accused black political leaders-including President Barack Obama-of using the teen's death to "gin up the black vote." (Obama had called for a full investigation of Martin's shooting when a reporter asked for his comment.) "The president's aides claimed he was showing compassion for the victim's family," Land added. "In reality he poured gasoline on the racialist fires." Land also stated that a black man is "statistically more likely to do you harm than a white man."
After a handful of SBC pastors and leaders criticized Land's remarks, Land issued a brief apology on April 16. By early May he met with SBC leaders-including Luter and other black ministers-to discuss his comments. After a five-hour meeting, Land issued an extensive apology on May 9. "I came to understand in sharper relief how damaging my words were," Land wrote.
Land's remarks included an apology for "insensitivity" to Martin's family and for impugning the president's motives in expressing concern over the case: "It was unchristian and unwise for me to have done so." Land said he sent a letter to Obama, asking for his forgiveness.
As for Luter, the pastor had already extended forgiveness after Land's first public statement: "His comments were a concern for many of us. ... I accept his apology."
But others struggled. Walter Strickland, an African-American associate pastor at Faith Baptist Church in Youngsville, N.C., wrote on the popular Baptist 21 blog: "Many non-African-American Southern Baptists would be surprised at how routinely we have to defend our participation in the SBC, and our spirits have been shaken by the unfolding of these events."
In a phone interview after Land's second apology, Strickland said he appreciated the leader's more extensive comments, and forgave him. He also said he continues to express enthusiasm for the SBC to African-American friends: "People in my church are excited about the gospel and excited about the power of the gospel to overcome these issues."
Back in North Carolina, Strickland's enthusiasm for the SBC extends to Luter's rise in leadership. He says that Luter has earned his status in the denomination for his hard work in the ministry, not because of his race: "This is not an affirmative action appointment."
Indeed, Luter has been well-known in SBC circles for years. After a near-fatal motorcycle accident more than 30 years ago, he grew serious about his faith and pursued pastoral ministry. Franklin Avenue had 65 members when he arrived in 1986. By 2005, the church had grown to nearly 8,000.
But those numbers plummeted when Hurricane Katrina devastated the church building and dispersed the congregation in 2005. A few dozen church members continued meeting on the campus of First Baptist Church across town. Luter led efforts to open satellite churches in areas where members fled, and continued pastoral visits to the displaced.
Though the pastor could have fled himself, Luter stayed in New Orleans and led the church's efforts to restore its building and its congregation. Today, more than 4,500 worshippers pack Sunday services in a new building that opened in 2008.
The minister has said he hopes to promote racial reconciliation in the SBC, but he also wants to help start more churches and help congregations that have struggled like his own.
Whatever the outcome of the election, Luter still seems surprised by his own path. During the same sermon he preached in 2010 that described his wayward youth, Luter told the congregation that "God chose me" despite his sin and rebellion. "Where would I be if Jesus didn't sacrifice Himself for me?" he asked. "I wasn't even looking for God, but I'm glad that He was looking for me."
Beyond racial issues, Richard Land ignited another set of worries with his March 31 broadcast when he discussed the Trayvon Martin case: A blogger and doctoral candidate at Baylor University in Texas charged Land with plagiarizing part of the program. Blogger Aaron Weaver pointed out that some of Land's comments repeated verbatim an editorial in The Washington Times.
Land admitted that he quoted parts of the editorial without giving clear credit to the author. "On occasion I have failed to provide appropriate verbal attributions on my radio broadcast," he wrote on his website. "I regret if anyone feels they were deceived or misled. That was not my intent nor has it ever been." (Land pointed out that he provides links on his website to the material he uses during broadcasts.)
The executive committee of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission announced it would conduct an investigation of the plagiarism charges, and planned to produce a report by June 1. The committee also acknowledged Land's work on racial issues-like the 1995 resolution-but expressed regret for "any harm that may have been done to race relations" in the SBC by his radio broadcast. (Land declined a request to comment for this story.) -Jamie Dean