NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Four months ago, two African-American pastors stood in a hallway of the Southern Baptist Convention's Nashville headquarters looking at a row of white faces.

The portraits of the 56 convention presidents since the denomination's 1845 founding are in large picture frames holding several portraits each. The final frame holds empty slots.

"They got a space for Fred, right there," one of the men said. "Got a space picked out for him."

"Fred" is the Rev. Fred Luter Jr., the man poised to become the first African-American president of the nation's largest Protestant denomination when convention delegates vote next week in New Orleans.

It's a big step for a denomination that was formed out of a pre-Civil War split with northern Baptists over slavery and for much of the last century had a reputation for supporting segregation.

In recent years, faced with growing diversity in America and declining membership in its churches, the denomination has made a sincere effort to distance itself from that past. Many Southern Baptists believe the charming and charismatic Luter is the man who can lead them forward.

Recommending Luter

James Merritt, who would later become SBC president, had never met Luter or heard him preach when he brought him to the conference on a recommendation from a colleague. Merritt was simply trying to add diversity to the event. He got much more than he had hoped for.

Merritt was on the speaker's platform facing the audience of 15,000 to 20,000 when Luter began to preach.

"They were electrified," he said. "You could tell by their body language he had them in the palm of his hand."

As Luter tells it, that conference put him on the map and he soon started getting invitations to preach all over the country. Some members of his congregation worried he would leave them for a better offer, but Luter has remained devoted to Franklin Avenue.

Many Southern Baptist leaders, when speaking of Luter, mention how respected he is for his determination to stay in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, destroying Franklin Avenue and scattering its members.

Luter said the disaster shook his faith and he didn't know at first if the church could recover. A photograph from that time shows Luter on a helicopter tour of the city, wiping tears from his eyes as he gazed at the flooded buildings and vans of his church.

He told the Baptist Press the tragedy showed him that "life is like a vapor on this side of eternity. What you have today could be gone tomorrow. You can't put your trust in earthly things."

Scattered flock

Despite the loss of his home and church, Luter never missed a Sunday preaching and soon began driving a circuit to reach his scattered flock.

"Everywhere I went I would see people from my church and it was like a family reunion, with me crying and wiping snot from my nose," he said.

Those members still in New Orleans started meeting at a white church, First Baptist New Orleans, where the two congregations soon formed close ties that remained even after Franklin Avenue reopened in 2008. First Baptist pastor David Crosby will nominate Luter for president at the SBC meeting.

The tragedy even resulted in two new Franklin Avenue churches being formed, one in Houston and one in Baton Rouge, La., both cities where many former members remain.

Despite huge membership losses at Franklin Avenue in New Orleans after Katrina, about 5,000 people attend services each week and a recent Sunday found people standing along the walls with the sanctuary filled to capacity. To cheers and applause, Luter invited them all to come to the city's convention center and witness a historic moment where their pastor would be elected as the first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

His election is not guaranteed, but with the SBC's annual meeting a week away, Luter so far has no challengers for the position. Although his likely election will be historic for Southern Baptists, Luter's many admirers say he is in no way a token.

As Crosby, of First Baptist New Orleans, puts it: "It's such a note of grace and favor from God that a man of this caliber would step forward to become the first African-American president of the SBC."

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