NEW ORLEANS - Pastor Fred Luter’s path to the top of the Southern Baptist Convention was an unconventional one.
On Tuesday, Luter was elected president of the church - the first African-American to lead the 16 million members of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Luter said his path started at the corner of Caffin and Galvez where the young man who grew up in the Ninth Ward became a preacher without pews, altar or a church, standing on the street corner trying to save souls.
"I started right here singing songs and reading the scripture," he recalled in a Dec. 2011 interview. "Some people would pass by, some would stop, some would blow the horn, some would give me the finger, but to this day I have fond memories."
Luter said preaching taught him to speak quickly because he had only seconds to capture those passing by. He had originally planned to be a PE teacher in school, until he was seriously injured in an accident and was challenged to read the Bible.
“I’m not a physical education teacher anymore, but I’m still impacting lives," he said. "It’s just in a different way. I don’t have the school book, I have the Good Book."
Thirty-four years later Luter is the pastor of the 5,000-member Franklin Avenue Baptist Church where the 2,000-seat sanctuary is filled with joy on Sundays and Luter seems happiest of all.
“My wife and I when we leave here literally, we have to pinch ourselves," he said. "The whole hour after we leave here we’re talking about, ‘can you believe all those people at church today?"
Believe it or not, Luter has only pastored at one church -- Franklin Avenue Baptist -- after the congregation chose a street preacher to lead it in 1986.
The church had only 65 members when Luter took over, but over 20 years later the congregation had swelled to over 8,000 seeking spiritual guidance.
“People call me a heart preacher, because I preach with passion," said Luter. "It’s simply because of the fact of what I’ve gone through. My mom and dad divorced when I was six years old and I pretty much had to raise myself because momma had to work two or three jobs."
One of Luter’s greatest personal and professional trials came when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 and gutted his church, his home and his city.
“Katrina was really difficult for me," he recalled. "I went through a difficult time because I just couldn’t understand how something like that could happen in America."
The waters went nine feet deep in the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. Luter said he’s always believed in hard work and that’s what he did, joining other preachers and cleanup crews from around the country who helped gut the sanctuary. On the weekends he traveled across the country to reach evacuated church members.
Even now, back at the corner of Caffin and Galvez, he can see how tough the task of rebuilding still is.
“To see the neighborhood brings tears to my eyes," he said. "This was a vibrant community. I pray for our city. This is one of the great cities in the world and I just pray that we will come together as a city and become the city that I know we can become."