Reflecting on race, Luter sees church as agent of change


By Marilyn Stewart

NEW ORLEANS — Race relations are not better since the election of the first African American U. S. president, but the Church can lead in modeling reconciliation, said Fred Luter, Jr., former Southern Baptist Convention president and the first African American to hold the position.

“I really thought this nation was ready to move forward…,” Luter said, pointing to the history-making election of Barack Obama that garnered votes from Anglos as well as diverse ethnic groups. “As much as we needed racial reconciliation in America, I really thought that was the opportunity for our nation to come together and make us one as a nation. But unfortunately…that’s not the case.”

The remarks came in a Black History Month video produced by the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in which Luter expressed optimism for the future as the Church leads the way as an agent for social change. Luter is pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans and an NOBTS national alumni association officer. See the video here.

In analyzing today’s situation, Luter quoted a pastor-friend who states it this way: “America doesn’t have a skin problem, we have a sin problem.”

When the sin problem is resolved through faith in Christ, racial reconciliation follows, Luter said. The church has both the responsibility and capability to model what it means to be brothers and sisters in Christ, he added.

“We can be one,” Luter said. “Regardless of your race, regardless of what side of the track you were born on, regardless of all the things the media and society have tried to do to divide us, we can be one.”

As the first African American SBC president, race is an issue he can’t avoid, Luter said. One question consistently comes up when interviewed by journalists and reporters, Luter said.

“Every last one of them asked this question: Why would a black man want to be president of a convention that started because of slavery?” Luter said. His answer was always the same, Luter said.  “Racism, segregation is a part of our past, but that’s the thing: it’s our past.”

Luter explained that the convention has addressed the past and has taken deliberative action to demonstrate its desire to be diverse.

“We regret the past of this convention,” Luter said. “This convention has publicly apologized for our past…We’ve made it known through resolutions that we want this convention to be diverse, and it is. I believe the Southern Baptist Convention is the most diverse convention of any in America…There is no other convention that comes close to our diversity in the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Luter said he knows he cannot avoid the question of race, but longs for the day when the topic of conversation will instead be the inroads made in evangelism, discipleship and in changing the world.

“Where I can go to a church…and be introduced not as the first African American president, but as, ‘This is our brother, Fred Luter.’ That’s my prayer for this convention and for America.”

‘A win-win situation’

Luter pointed to the close relationship between his church and NOBTS, a friendship benefitting both and modeling what Christians can learn from one another.

As a young pastor with a background as a National Baptist, Luter said he was at first unaware of what NOBTS offered in terms of theological education, continuing education and resources. With his church located two miles from the campus, “a great partnership” developed.

“I began to appreciate all that this seminary had to offer us, a small mission church in the inner-city,” Luter said.

A popular and regular speaker at the NOBTS chapel, Luter invites students to visit and join with Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. For some, it is their first experience worshiping in a predominantly African-American church, Luter said.

“I think it’s a win-win situation,” Luter said. “What New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary has meant to Franklin Avenue, but also what Franklin Avenue Baptist Church has meant to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.”

Students talk about Hope from Heartache

In a separate Black History Month Video, “Hope from Heartache,” produced by NOBTS, seminary students share what it means to follow in the steps of those that dared step out onto a long road to equality. See the video here.

Students honor the freedom won by pioneers such as Frederick Douglas, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and others, yet students point to a greater freedom won by Christ, a freedom through which they find victory over sin and the grace to forgive.

“I have experienced everything from total, complete acceptance to harsh and blatant racism,” said Joy Pigg, a bachelor of arts in Christian ministry (BACMIN) student in the seminary’s Leavell College. “It has developed my faith because it has taught me really what grace is and what forgiveness means. It has helped me understand the gravity of how God has forgiven us for this problem of sin.”

In Christ, where loss is redeemed and heartache gains meaning, students speak of a passion to take hope and healing to those in need. Answering God’s call to serve brought them to NOBTS.