NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The man expected to be in the running to become the first African-American in the No. 2 position of the nation's largest Protestant denomination didn't choose to become a Southern Baptist. By Fred Luter Jr.'s account, it just sort of happened.
In 1986, Luter was hired at the head pastor at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, a Southern Baptist Convention affiliate. Ever since, he has been breaking racial barriers in the predominantly white denomination.
In 1992, he was the first African-American elected to the executive board of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. In 2001, he was the first African-American to preach the convention sermon at the SBC annual meeting.
When the Southern Baptist Convention elects new officers at its annual conference in Phoenix beginning Tuesday, the 54-year-old Luter will be in the running for first vice-president. And some prominent Southern Baptist leaders already have said they hope that position will lead to his election as president next year when the 2012 convention is held in Luter's hometown.
Luter said he doesn't want to speculate on that.
"I'm a street kid from the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans," Luter said in an interview on Friday. "It's very humbling. It's really an honor just to be nominated."
Technically, Luter hasn't been nominated yet. But Danny Akin, President of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., has already announced that he will nominate Luter.
"To my knowledge, no one has announced to run against him," Akin said, "and I would be very surprised if anyone does."
Akin called Luter a "much-loved, much-respected pastor" who "can be elected on his own merits regardless of skin color."
The move to elect Luter comes at the same time the SBC is making a push for greater participation among what it sometimes calls its "non-Anglo" members in the life of the convention, particularly in leadership roles.
Luter's church is one of an estimated 3,400 black churches in the nation's largest Protestant denomination, a small minority of more than 45,700 total SBC-affiliated churches with about 16 million members total.
Akin said his nomination of Luter was not related to a resolution on diversity scheduled to be presented at this year's annual meeting but "just coalesced beautifully."
"I'm a white boy from the South, but I'd love to see the convention of churches become more diverse in terms of ethnicity and race," he said. "I long to see the church on earth look like the church in heaven, around the throne."
In the past, Southern Baptists have not been on the forefront of fighting racial injustice. The denomination originally formed in 1845 in a split with the American Baptist Convention over the question of whether slave owners could be missionaries. The SBC was silent or actively opposed civil rights through the 1970s, and many congregations excluded blacks. It was not until 1989 that convention declared racism a sin.
In 1994, the convention elected its first African-American to an executive position when the Rev. Gary Frost was named second vice president. In 1995, the denomination issued an apology to blacks for slavery. That same year, Luter was elected to succeed Frost as second vice president.
The push for increasing minority participation comes at a time of decline for the SBC. According to figures released on Thursday by the denomination's Lifeway Christian Resources, baptisms were down almost 5 percent in 2010 over 2009. Total membership declined slightly, by 0.15 percent to 16,136,044, the fourth straight year of decline.
Statistics on the number of ethnic churches have not yet been released, but Roger S. Oldham, SBC vice president for convention communications and relations, said they have been growing.
Ethnic congregations made up about 13 percent of SBC churches in 1998. That had increased to 18 percent by 2008, with African-American and Hispanic congregations each making up about 6 percent of SBC churches, Asian churches at about 3 percent and other ethnic churches making up another 3 percent.
The SBC's executive committee released recommendations in February for increasing minority participation in the denomination. The group will present those recommendations this week. They include encouraging the president to give special attention to appointing ethnically diverse representatives to SBC committees and encouraging the officials who organize annual meetings to make sure those speaking during the program represent the diversity of the denomination.
Resolutions covering some of the same ground have been adopted at previous meetings without ever being very successfully implemented, but the combination of Luter's nomination and the resolution has some people hoping this time will be different.
The Rev. Dwight Mckissic, pastor of the black, SBC-affiliated Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, said he was excited about Luter's likely election, but called it a "baby step," noting that the first vice president serves for one year and has little real power.
McKissic said he visited the SBC headquarters in Nashville in 2007 and found the highest ranking African-American there was a custodian. The real positions of power, he said, are the high-level staff positions.
"When we get a Hispanic, African-American or Asian as head of one of the entities, like the North American Mission Board or one of the seminaries, then I'll know we really have come into the 21st Century," he said.