The Southern Baptist Convention voted Tuesday to elect its first African-American president in one of its biggest steps yet to reconcile the 167-year-old denomination's troubled racial past and appeal to a more diverse group of believers.
The Rev. Fred Luter Jr. was unopposed in being elected by thousands of enthusiastic delegates on Tuesday at the annual meeting of the nation's largest Protestant denomination in his hometown of New Orleans.
Pastor David Crosby of First Baptist New Orleans nominated Luter, calling him a "fire-breathing, miracle-working pastor" who "would likely be a candidate for sainthood if he were Catholic."
Crosby recalled how Luter built the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church from a tiny congregation to a megachurch of nearly 8,000 before the buildings were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Members of Luter's mostly black church came to worship at Crosby's mostly white church, and the pastors worked together for 2 1/2 years as Luter rebuilt Franklin Avenue. Today, with a Sunday attendance of 5,000, Luter's church is once again the largest Southern Baptist church for attendance in the state.
"Fred Luter is the only megachurch pastor I know who had to do it twice," Crosby said.
Crosby said the SBC needs Luter at the head of the table as it increasingly focuses on diversifying its membership.
"Many leaders are convinced this nomination is happening now by the provenance of God," he said.
Delegates clapped and cheered when Luter's election was announced by current SBC President Bryant Wright, who told those gathered for the convention that they were "privileged to be here for this historic occasion."
Luter wiped tears from his eyes as he accepted the position. Two female ushers from the Franklin Avenue congregation embraced, swaying and weeping with joy.
"I think I'm just too overwhelmed by it right now to speak," said another member, Malva Marsalis.
A minister from Luter's church, Darren Martin, said the SBC's past support of slavery and segregation are well known, but Luter's election was "a true sign that change from within has really come Christ is at the center of the SBC."
Also on Tuesday, delegates voted on whether to adopt an optional alternative name, Great Commission Baptists. The result will be announced today.
Fearing the Southern Baptist name carried negative associations for many outsiders, current SBC President Bryant Wright formed a study committee last year to consider a change. While the committee deemed a full and official name change to be too difficult and expensive, it suggested the alternative name as an option.
But the alternative name faces strong opposition, including from some members who are proud of the denomination's association with conservative theology and politics.
The "Great Commission" refers to Matthew 28:16-20, in which Jesus instructs his disciples at Galilee to go forth and make disciples of all nations.