This year, Southern Baptists are poised to make history. At the SBC annual meeting next month, the convention is expected to elect Dr. Fred Luter as it's next president. The New Orleans pastor would be the convention's first African American President. Luter has recently become very familiar with Meridian, preaching here several times over the last couple of years, including this past Sunday.
Luter got his start three decades ago as a street preacher, not long after he became a Christian. He began preaching to try to reach his former friends from the street.
"I wanted Roy and Butchie and Bubble and Coot, I wanted all those guys to be saved," said Luter.
It wasn't long before churches took notice, particular the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, which was at the time, an older, dying church stung by white flight, with only a handful of mainly African-American members left. The New Orleans Director of Missions had a word of warning for him when he took the job.
"You either going to resurrect this church, or we're going to bury it," he told Luter. "I'm from New Orleans, we're known for our jazz funerals, but Bro, I was in no mood for funerals, so I said, if God can resurrect my life, God can resurrect the life of this church," said Luter.
And resurrect it he did. From the time he came to Franklin Avenue in 19-87, until 2005, the church had grown into the largest Southern Baptist Church in Louisiana. Luter had become a rising star in the convention. In 2001, he was the first African American pastor to deliver the convention sermon at the annual SBC meeting. But even as his star rose, those who knew him say his ego did not.
"Seems like the higher he goes, the smaller his ego gets, and that's God. That's God and God alone," said Earl Carson, a former member of Franklin Avenue who now lives in Meridian.
Then Hurricane Katrina hit. It destroyed Franklin Avenue. The building was devastated. his people were scattered and Luter and his wife were forced to move to Birmingham. His church members were scattered in Baton Rouge and Houston, with a few remaining in New Orleans. For 8 months, he drove between the three cities, preaching in New Orleans and Baton Rouge one weekend, and in Houston the next. Franklin Avenue officially reopened its doors in 2008, and the church has experienced a renewal since that time, now up to about 5,000 members. That's three quarters of its original membership.
"A lot of these are also brand new members, whose churches did not come back, and new folks, who are coming to the body of Christ, but by God's grace, we've come back strong," said Luter.
And his perseverance has caught the eye of many; the reputation he has earned since Katrina has a lot to do with the overwhelming support he has to be the next president of the Southern Baptist Convention.