They say the SBC has worked diligently to embrace African Americans and other ethnic groups, especially since the convention's 1995 public apology for its past support of slavery. Yet they regard Luter's election as a result of his intelligence, integrity, gifts and leadership skills, not his race. Luter's election, they add, can only enhance the SBC's appeal to ethnic minorities.
"I think the Southern Baptist Convention is making a monumental statement. This is indeed a win-win move," said Kenneth Foy, vice president of the African American Fellowship in New Orleans and pastor of the local church New Life Ministry.
"This might just be one of the best moves the SBC has done in years. It makes me feel a lot better about being a part of an organization that recognizes the importance and value of people of color," Foy said. "The election has certainly reinforced my personal commitment."
Luter's election won't necessarily affect the financial giving of the pastors interviewed, because they said they're already committed to supporting the Cooperative Program and SBC missions outreach.
Samuel Davis Jr. led Faith and Glory Missionary Baptist Church to become a cooperating church with the SBC when he started the church nearly three years ago. His former pastorate was affiliated with the National Baptist Convention of America, a predominantly African American group. He switched, he said, because he views the SBC as an organization that helps churches achieve their mission regardless of ethnicity.
Davis said Luter deserved the opportunity to be considered for the high office.
"He was a voice crying in the wilderness and ultimately they heard," Davis said. "I don't think so much that they 'gave' him anything. It's evident to me that the Southern Baptist Convention is making significant strides with regard to racial reconciliation and I'm blessed to be a part of it."
Cornelius Tilton, pastor of Irish Channel Christian Fellowship, is part of both the SBC and the National Baptist Convention of America, the group under which he was ordained in 1979. He began cooperating with the SBC because he believed the convention, more than the majority African American convention, would be accepting of his congregation that draws a mixture of ethnicities.
"I am delighted that I have lived to see the day when a man of Dr. Luter's character and charisma could be recognized not just as a great African American leader but a great Christian leader," said Tilton, a former chairman of the New Orleans Baptist Association's administrative committee. "When I first joined BAGNO , NOBA's predecessor organization, I had the hope that the day would come when there would be greater inclusion of minorities in the leadership of Southern Baptists. African Americans were around but rarely serving in meaningful leadership positions. As the years have progressed, there has been a great move to accept diversity, even if not embrace it."
Of NOBA's 110 member churches and missions, 36 are majority African American, said Jonathan Sharp, NOBA's cross-cultural evangelism strategist. In his position, Sharp focuses mostly on the Hispanic, Vietnamese and Asian communities, where he sees the greatest need of planting new churches. African Americans comprise 6.5 percent of the 16 million members of the Southern Baptist Convention, according to 2009 figures. Whites comprise 81 percent; other ethnicities 12.5 percent.
Luter's election comes as the convention is focused heavily on multiethnic inclusion. At this year's annual meeting in Phoenix, the Executive Committee and other convention leaders signed an Affirmation of Unity and Cooperation, pledging "to embrace our brothers and sisters of every ethnicity, race and language as equal partners in our collective ministries to engage all people groups with the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
Michal Raymond, pastor of Shiloh Christian Fellowship in New Orleans, said although the SBC was conceived as a result of racial divide, it has progressed and the walls are broken. He said he appreciates that the local association embraces Korean, Chinese, Hispanic and African American Christians.
"It's ... great to see it on a national level too," Raymond said. "It really shows that the Southern Baptist Convention is really including everyone."
Raymond said he believes Luter's service will attract other African Americans to the SBC.
"It will, I think, just because of who he is," Raymond said. "My participation? I'm just ready to do what I can."
Luter, Raymond added, was his pastor as he entered the ministry. "Being that I'm a son of Franklin Avenue, it's just off the charts to me because he's my pastor."
All pastors interviewed said they see advantages in aligning with the SBC in terms of education, organization and ministerial development opportunities.
"The SBC is where I personally was given the opportunity to use the gifts and calling that God has on my life," said Edward Scott, pastor of the Temple of New Life Baptist Church in New Orleans. "Because of that fact I was already open to the SBC."
Diana Chandler is a regional reporter for the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal for the churches in the Louisiana Baptist Convention.
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