The man expected to be in the running to become the first African-American in the No. 2 position of the nation's largest Protestant denomination didn't choose to become a Southern Baptist. By Fred Luter Jr.'s account, it just sort of happened.
In 1986, Luter was hired at the head pastor at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, a Southern Baptist Convention affiliate. Ever since, he has been breaking racial barriers in the predominantly white denomination.
In 1992, he was the first African-American elected to the executive board of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. In 2001, he was the first African-American to preach the convention sermon at the SBC annual meeting.
When the Southern Baptist Convention elects new officers at its annual conference in Phoenix beginning Tuesday, the 54-year-old Luter will be in the running for first vice-president. And some prominent Southern Baptist leaders already have said they hope that position will lead to his election as president next year when the 2012 convention is held in Luter's hometown.
Some Southern Baptists leaders have expressed hope his election will mean a rise to president next year when the 2012 convention is held in his hometown.
In recent years, the SBC has seen a decline in overall membership and attendance. At the meeting in Phoenix on Tuesday and Wednesday, delegates are considering a resolution that aims to help diversify the denomination.
Dwight McKissic, a black Texas pastor who has called for the denomination to be more proactive on inclusiveness, said he stayed home this year because he got tired of the dearth of minorities on the platform at the annual meeting.
McKissic, who pastors a predominantly black congregation, recently helped launch a new Southern Baptist church with a multicultural congregation.
McKissic and other Southern Baptist leaders hope the moves toward diversity will include the election of New Orleans pastor Fred Luter, an African-American, as first vice president. But even if Luter is elected president next year, as many are speculating, McKissic said there will still be more to do.
"The SBC (will have) really dealt seriously with their racial issues and past when they put a minority person in charge" of a mission board or seminary, he said.
The Rev. David Lema Jr., a Cuba native and associate director of theological education for Florida Baptists, said the Executive Committee's support for greater inclusiveness means the issue is no longer a matter of a "voice crying in the wilderness" but a more authoritative stance.
"I believe that the Southern Baptist Convention is turning a corner and it's turning a corner not just of awareness but it's a corner now of reality, of action," he said.
Southern Baptist leaders say half the churches started in the last decade were predominantly African-American or ethnic, and the number of churches with mostly minority membership increased from 13% to 18.5% between 1998 and 2008.
Ken Weathersby of the denomination's North American Mission Board said he encourages the more than two dozen ethnic groups affiliated with his agency to evangelize beyond their particular community.
"We are not commanded just to plant among people that look like us," he said. "We are commanded to plant churches and commanded to make disciples among all ethnics.