NEW ORLEANS — This week, the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention passed to a black pastor for the first time.
The nation's largest Protestant denomination voted Tuesday to elect the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. to lead them, an important step for a denomination that was formed on the wrong side of slavery before the Civil War and had a reputation for supporting segregation and racism during much of the last century.
In a news conference after the vote, Luter said he doesn't think his election is some kind of token gesture.
"If we stop appointing African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics to leadership positions after this, we've failed," he said. " I promise you I'm going to do all that I can to make sure this is not just a one-and-done deal."
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Faced with declining membership, the SBC has made efforts to appeal to a more diverse group of believers.
Delegates to the SBC annual meeting voted to adopt an alternative name for churches whose leaders think the "Southern Baptist" title could be a turn-off to potential believers.
Those who supported the optional name "Great Commission Baptists" argued that it would help missionaries and church planters to reach more people for Christ. The Great Commission refers to Jesus' command to his apostles to go forth and make disciples of all nations.
Luter was unopposed when he was elected in front of thousands of enthusiastic delegates in his hometown of New Orleans.
At the news conference, he spoke about the decline in SBC membership. He described his own efforts in his church, including intensive outreach to men, and he expressed his concern that men in his inner-city neighborhood weren't taking responsibility for their children.
He began to cry as he recalled growing up with a divorced mother and no father in the house, saying he asked God, "Let me be that role model to my son that I didn't have." And he recounted how his son followed him into ministry and asked Luter to be his best man at his wedding.
Luter described what he hopes to achieve for the convention, saying he has the ability to get along with everyone. He plans to use that skill to bring denominational leaders together to discuss how they can set aside differences and work together to spread the Gospel.
He said it was unrealistic to think that the SBC would become less political, but "we can do it in a way that won't offend other people."
Pastor David Crosby of First Baptist New Orleans nominated Luter, calling him a "fire-breathing, miracle-working pastor."
Crosby said the SBC needs Luter at the head of the table as it increasingly focuses on diversifying its membership.
"Many leaders are convinced this nomination is happening now by the provenance of God," he said.
Luter wiped away tears as he accepted the position. Two female ushers from the Franklin Avenue congregation embraced, swaying and weeping with joy.
"I think I'm just too overwhelmed by it right now to speak," said another member, Malva Marsalis.
A minister from Luter's church, Darren Martin, said the SBC's past support of slavery and segregation are well known, but Luter's election was "a true sign ... that change from within has really come. ... Christ is at the center of the SBC."
Luter's supporters say that having someone whose background is so different from many past presidents, both because he is black and because he leads an inner-city church, will be good for the SBC. It shows the outside world that the denomination has changed, and it helps within the denomination to have more diversity of perspective in the leadership.
Although SBC presidents have little real power, they have a bully pulpit and they have the power of appointment (in a roundabout way) to the boards that oversee the SBC's seminaries, mission boards and other important entities. It was through the election of a series of conservative presidents beginning in the late 1970s that social and theological conservatives took over the denomination.