(Photo: The Christian Post)
NEW ORLEANS – All eyes are on Fred Luter as he officially begins his term as the first black president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
While many recognize Luter's election in and of itself as a giant step forward in racial reconciliation, they say only time will tell what kind of impact his leadership will have on a mostly white denomination.
For the most part, African Americans in the SBC are confident that the future is brighter.
"We're at the table now," said A.B. Vines, the newly elected president of SBC's National African American Fellowship, to The Christian Post. "If we're there, we can change things."
Luter's one-year term began Wednesday night at the end of the SBC Annual Meeting in New Orleans. The former street preacher was elected Tuesday with some 7,700 Southern Baptists unanimously supporting his historic election.
His election comes at a time when the SBC is already seeing growth among ethnic minorities. The percentage of Anglo churches has decreased from 95 percent in 1990 to 80 percent in 2010. Despite the decline in overall baptisms and membership, Hispanics, Asians and African Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the SBC, according to Vines.
The hope going forward with Luter at the helm is to see more African Americans and other minorities in leadership positions throughout the denomination.
Luter recognizes that some may view this as only a symbolic gesture of the SBC getting past its history of slavery and racism. But he and other African Americans in the denomination believe it was a genuine move instigated by changed hearts.
"This convention was started because of slavery but now to have an African American lead the convention, it's a huge spiritual deliverance and freedom to realize that former slave owners will now have to respect and honor a former slave," said Vines.
"Luter's election means that we are respecting those of color, respecting those who have come and served ... and now we have a doorway of truly being equal."
People will see that "this was a genuine, authentic move by this convention that says our doors are open," said Luter. But the only way they will see that, he noted, is if the SBC continues appointing non-Anglos to lead state conventions, agencies and the denomination.
Luter, who leads Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, expressed that he doesn't want to be "just a symbolic position."
"I want this election to make a difference in the life of this convention," he said Tuesday. "It remains to be seen what can happen from this day on but I promise you I'm going to do all that I can to make sure this is just not a one-and-done deal, but this will be something that people will see for years and years down the line."
But there's not a lot he can do in two years (he will likely be re-elected next year), he admitted. Still, in that short period, he hopes to bring diversity not only to the churches but also to the rest of the leadership in the nearly 16 million-member denomination.
For now, the 55-year-old preacher is asking for lots of prayer. That's where his wife, Elizabeth, comes in.
"Mostly, she'll be praying," Luter said in a one-on-one interview with CP. "Her main role is praying for me. She gets up every morning at 5:00, prays for me, prays for our kids, prays for our family, and she has a relationship with God that I really admire and envy."
Expectations surrounding Luter's presidency are high, but many Southern Baptists believe divine providence is on his side.
"Just to see how God is moving in the life of Southern Baptists, to know that God is bringing our convention together in such a marvelous way ... it's just outstanding how God is working," said Terry Turner, president of the Southern Baptist of Texas Convention African American Fellowship and pastor of Mesquite Friendship Baptist Church in Texas.
Christian Post Reporter Katherine T. Phan contributed to this report.