ALEXANDRIA, La. - A New Orleans-area Baptist preacher is making history and breaking racial barriers at the same time.
Franklin Avenue Baptist Church Pastor Fred Luter is the first black president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
It's a significant achievement because the religious group actively endorsed racial segregation for more than a century.
Luter already made history as the organization's first black vice president.
Four months ago, two black pastors stood in a hallway of the Southern Baptist Convention's Nashville headquarters looking at a row of white faces.
The portraits of the 56 convention presidents since the denomination's 1845 founding are in large picture frames holding several portraits each. The final frame holds empty slots.
"They got a space for Fred, right there," one of the men said. "Got a space picked out for him."
This is a big step for a denomination that was formed out of a pre-Civil War split with northern Baptists over slavery and for much of the last century had a reputation for supporting segregation.
In recent years, faced with growing diversity in America and declining membership in its churches, the denomination has made a sincere effort to distance itself from that past. Many Southern Baptists believe the charming and charismatic Luter is the man who can lead them forward.
Luter's rise through the Southern Baptist ranks has been a slow and steady process, the result of the hard work, leadership and creativity that allowed him to turn a struggling inner-city church of 50 members into the largest Southern Baptist church in Louisiana by weekly attendance.
The 55-year-old grew up in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward, the middle of five children raised by a divorced mother who worked as a seamstress "not to make ends meet, but just to make them kind of wave at each other," he said.
The family walked to a local Baptist church every Sunday and Luter's mother made sure all the children attended.
Luter drifted away from religion after leaving home for college, but at age 21 he found himself making a promise to God that he has kept to this day. After a near-fatal motorcycle accident landed him in the hospital, "I said, 'God, if you save my life, I'll serve you for the rest of my life,'" Luter said.
Wednesday, May 22 2013 10:16 AM EDT2013-05-22 14:16:34 GMT
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