By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
CORINTH – When the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. was elected as the first black president of the Southern Baptist Convention earlier this month in his hometown of New Orleans, it was easy for onlookers to consider it an act prompted at least in part by political correctness. After all, the denomination began when Southerners separated themselves from Northern Baptists who were increasingly vocal in their opposition to slavery.
The Rev. Mickey Trammel of Corinth says those onlookers would be badly underestimating the man, the motives and the movements that may result from the historic vote. Luter’s election without opposition aroused several minutes of weeping, cheering and applause at the SBC’s annual conference. Luter himself stood speechless for several minutes before the mostly white crowd before regaining his voice.
Trammel, pastor of Tate Baptist Church in Corinth who previously pastored Golden Central Baptist Church in Golden, has had Luter as a guest preacher in his congregations several times since 2007.
“I want people to know this is not a political thing,” Trammel said. “I know Fred Luter personally, and he’s fine a man as I’ve ever met.”
It’s not just Luter’s character that impresses Trammel. The first time Luter was Trammel’s guest speaker, at Golden Central, Trammel wondered needlessly if many would come to hear the dynamic African-American orator in nearly all-white Tishomingo County.
“We walked in about 6:15 p.m., and the service didn’t start until 7, and about 80 percent of the seats were already filled,” Trammel said. “There were 700 or 800 people there that night. There was electricity.
“There was a lady about 85, who had lived there all her life. Golden only has 210 people. I asked her, ‘Don’t you think this is the most people who’ve ever been in this church?’” he said. “She told me, ‘Preacher, this is the most people who’ve ever been in this town!’”
In addition to being an exceptionally compelling preacher, Luter has proven himself a dynamic leader capable of shepherding through unpredictable growth and unforeseeable catastrophe. In 1986, when he took over the pastorate at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church – its fifth pastor in seven years – the once-prominent, once-all-white congregation had dwindled to a shadow (one account says 50 members) of its former self.
The former Ninth Ward street preacher emphasized “frangelism” – reaching “friends, relatives, acquaintances and neighbors” with the gospel – and used sports-related fellowship as one outreach to the men who were so absent in many congregations. Within a few years the church added a second and then a third Sunday-morning service. In 1997 it moved into a new 2,000-seat sanctuary and in 2002 started a satellite church in New Orleans East. By 2005 the congregation claimed over 7,000 members.
With plans to build a whole new facility for the East congregation, 2005 ended in disaster. Hurricane Katrina inundated the Franklin Avenue site with nine feet of water. Church members were scattered among other cities. From a temporary home in Birmingham, Luter divided his efforts among groups of members in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Houston, along with smaller pockets in other cities.
Since then, permanent sister congregations have been established in Baton Rouge and Houston, and the New Orleans congregation, after sharing a facility with First Baptist Church, moved into its own new building in 2008.
Trammel is convinced Luter’s service as SBC president – traditionally a two-year tenure – could be equally transforming as the denomination and its churches intensify their welcome to neighbors, whatever their ethnicities.
“At the end of Fred’s tenure, there will be more of an emphasis on reaching people from all colors and cultures and lifestyles,” Trammel said. “We’re not only going to say, ‘We’ll help you guys find a church that you’ll be comfortable in or help you build a church for yourselves.’ We’ll say, ‘You’re welcome to be part of our church.’
“Fred will definitely be a great president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and I’m just excited to see how God will use him, how he will prosper the convention through him,” Trammel said. “He is a great leader and a great communicator of the Word.”