A New Orleans preacher, preaching to a New Orleans crowd, can expect a few "Amens!" if he quotes lyrics from Billie Holiday's bluesy "God Bless the Child" while talking about God's love for sinners who get saved. But what if he's preaching at the pastors' conference before the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention?
All the people said, "Amen!"
What really mattered was that the preacher was the Rev. Fred Luter and his turbo-charged call for salvation and social change was one of the dramatic scenes that preceded his election, by acclamation, as the first African-American president of America's largest non-Catholic flock.
But there was more to this event than its symbolism, coming 167 years after the convention was formed to defend the rights of slaveholders to be missionaries. Also, his election came on "Juneteenth" -- June 19th -- when many African Americans celebrate the emancipation of the slaves.
In his only sermon during the gathering in New Orleans, Luter challenged Southern Baptists to face the blunt realities of life in a diverse and urban society. For starters, Southern Baptists in pulpits and pews must face their own sins, so they can truly identify with the lost.
After all, everyone is "an ex-SOMETHING," he said. Sin is sin and forgiveness is forgiveness.
"The Gospel can save a gang banger. The Gospel can save a crack addict. The Gospel can save a child abuser. The Gospel can save a street runner. The Gospel can change a rebellious teen-ager. The Gospel can change an unfaithful spouse," he shouted.
"The Gospel can change you and the Gospel can change me. How do I know it? Because, ladies and gentlemen, I haven't always been preaching in a pulpit. I haven't always been preaching at the pastors' conference. At one time I was too mean to live and not fit to die, going to hell and enjoying the ride. But one day I heard the Gospel and the Gospel changed my life."
The young Luter's life in New Orleans was shaped by a broken home and his rebellion ended with a bloody motorcycle wreck. This dance with death inspired his move into part-time street preaching in the Lower Ninth Ward and eventually into the ministry. Under his leadership, the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church grew from 50 members in 1986 to 7,000 two decades later.
Then Hurricane Katrina demolished the church and its community. Luter stayed to rebuild, with the remnants of his flock sharing space for a time with the predominantly white First Baptist Church of New Orleans. That partnership grew and it was First Baptist's pastor, the Rev. David Crosby, who nominated Luter for the SBC presidency, which traditionally consists of two one-year terms.
Today, Franklin Avenue Baptist has about 5,000 members and is rebuilding again, because of its rapid growth. Meanwhile, 36 of the 110 churches in the New Orleans Baptist Association are majority African American.
Nationwide, the SBC's membership totals are down 2 percent in recent years -- a slide that have been much worse without rising numbers in predominantly black, Latino and Asian congregations. Today, whites make up 81 percent of the national convention's nearly 16 million members, with African Americans at 6.5 percent and other ethnicities combining for 12.5 percent.
Looking at the bigger picture, Luter stressed that all Americans -- regardless of race -- are wrestling with a blitz of social changes that are shattering many families and communities. Thus, his sermon addressed a litany of hot issues, from sitcoms to politics, from racism to gang violence, from adultery to pornography, from homosexuality to abortion.
"Oh my brothers and my sisters," asked Luter, "what is it going to take to change our lives? What is it going to take to change our morals? What is it going to take to change our culture, our community and our world? ...
"Only the Word of God -- not the Republican Party. Only the Word of God -- not the Democratic Party. Only the Word of God -- not the U.S. Congress. Only the Word of God -- not the U.S. Senate. ... Only the Word of God can change the mind of a murderer. Only the Word of God can change the heart of a racist. Only the Word of God can change the desire of a child molester. Only the Word of God can change a gang member. Yes it can! Yes it can!"