As the Southern Baptist Convention named its first African-American leader in New Orleans, thousands rose to applaud what pastors call a step toward greater diversity.
The step reverberated across the nation and all the way to Tampa, where longtime ministers and Baptists are still reflecting on the decision.
Rev. Fred Luter Jr., pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, completed a landmark moment last month when he accepted presidency of the 167-year-old convention, an organization historically linked to slavery and segregation.
Ken Whitten, senior pastor at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, attended the event in June.
"It's a great move for Southern Baptists," Whitten said. "It's great to show that at the foot of the cross, the ground is level. We are a denomination made of Anglos, African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics. We need to portray in our leadership who we are."
Founded in 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention formed as a result of differing opinions about slavery between Baptist churches in the North and South. In 1995, the church publicly apologized for its stance, denouncing racism as a "deplorable sin."
Today, the convention reports, of its 16 million members, about 20 percent are nonwhite. Luter's election is seen as a chance to bring greater diversity to the organization and possibly help with a decline in member churches and baptisms.
The convention meets once a year for a conference, where new officials are elected. At the 2011 event, Luter was named the first black vice president. Pastors say his promotion in 2012 is a notable progression for the church.
"Years ago our denomination grew out slavery," Whitten said. "To correct that mentality, we made a public apology. It's important that we're not just talking about correcting it but doing something about correcting it."
The Rev. Evan Burrows is lead pastor at the predominantly black First Baptist Church of College Hill in Tampa and member of the National Baptist Convention of America. He previously led a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Burrows said he never personally dealt with racism as a Southern Baptist but considers Luter's election an important move away from the church's history.
"I think they've made great strides to put the past behind them," Burrows said. "This sends a positive message."
The Rev. W. James Favorite, senior pastor at Beulah Baptist Institutional Church in Tampa and a member of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, agrees.
"It proves the sincerity of the Southern Baptists in reaching out to everybody," Favorite said. "I was surprised. When Rev. Luter was appointed vice president previously, many thought it might be a political move, but this shows that they were very sincere."
Favorite, a New Orleans native, said Luter's presidency might entice more churches to join the Southern Baptist Convention. Since assuming leadership at Franklin Avenue Baptist in 1986, Luter, 65, has grown the church from 30 to more than 7,000 members. Pastors nationwide applauded his efforts to locate and help church members dispersed after Hurricane Katrina.
"He rebuilt his church," Favorite said. "He is a real go-getter, an energetic, fiery preacher."
Tommy Green, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Brandon, calls Luter a friend.
"He is a man of tremendous integrity," Green said. "I am very excited about his election. Being at the convention, the mood was like being at a sporting event right before the players are about to run out. That's how excited we all were about this."
In 2011, Luter preached a guest sermon at First Baptist Church of Brandon. He also spoke twice at Idlewild after Hurricane Katrina. As president of the convention, he will make decisions affecting 45,000 churches. History is made. Now Luter will prove himself, pastors say.
"We elected Fred not because he was black but because he was the best," Whitten said.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2439.