NEW ORLEANS (AP) — At the end of the day Wednesday, the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention will pass to an African-American pastor for the first time.
The nation's largest Protestant denomination voted Tuesday to elect the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. to lead them, an important step for a denomination that was formed on the wrong side of slavery before the Civil War and had a reputation for supporting segregation and racism during much of the last century.
In a news conference after the vote, Luter said he doesn't think his election is some kind of token gesture.
"If we stop appointing African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics to leadership positions after this, we've failed," he said. "... I promise you I'm going to do all that I can to make sure this is not just a one-and-done deal."
Faced with declining membership, the SBC has been making efforts to appeal to a more diverse group of believers.
Delegates to the SBC annual meeting also voted to adopt an alternative name for churches that feel the "Southern Baptist" title could be a turn-off to potential believers.
Those who supported the optional name "Great Commission Baptists" argued it would help missionaries and church planters to reach more people for Christ.
The Great Commission refers to Jesus's command to his apostles to go forth and make disciples of all nations. Delegates voted on Tuesday but the results were not announced until Wednesday morning. They approved the motion by 2,546 to 2,232.
Luter was unopposed when he was elected shortly before the name vote by thousands of enthusiastic delegates in his hometown of New Orleans.
At a news conference afterward, he spoke about the decline in SBC membership. He described his own efforts to grow his church, which included intensive outreach to men, and he expressed his concern that men in his inner-city neighborhood were not taking responsibility for their children.
He began to cry as he recalled growing up with a divorced mother and no father in the house, saying he asked God, "Let me be that role model to my son that I didn't have." And he recounted how his son followed him into ministry and asked Luter to be his best man at his wedding.
Luter described what he hopes to achieve for the convention, saying he has always had the ability to get along with everyone. He plans to use that skill to bring denominational leaders together to discuss how they can leave aside their differences and work together to spread the Gospel.
He said it was unrealistic to think that the SBC would become less political, but he prays "we can do it in a way that won't offend other people."
Pastor David Crosby of First Baptist New Orleans nominated Luter, calling him a "fire-breathing, miracle-working pastor" who "would likely be a candidate for sainthood if he were Catholic."
Crosby said the SBC needs Luter at the head of the table as it increasingly focuses on diversifying its membership.
"Many leaders are convinced this nomination is happening now by the provenance of God," he said.
Luter wiped tears from his eyes as he accepted the position. Two female ushers from the Franklin Avenue congregation embraced, swaying and weeping with joy.
"I think I'm just too overwhelmed by it right now to speak," said another member, Malva Marsalis.
A minister from Luter's church, Darren Martin, said the SBC's past support of slavery and segregation are well known, but Luter's election was "a true sign ... that change from within has really come. ...Christ is at the center of the SBC."
The proposal to adopt an alternative name was more controversial than Luter's election. The Tuesday vote was too close to call by a show of hands so paper ballots were cast.
Speaking against the motion, delegate Gary Hunnicutt of First Baptist Church in Benton, Ark., said, "We have a much longer history of doing good than we did of supporting slavery. We have a good name — a good brand. ...If it's not broke, don't fix it."
Delegate Susie Hawkins of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, urged the crowd to vote in favor.
"Our brothers and sisters in Christ, in these pioneer areas, in diverse communities, have said ... it would be useful to them," she said. " ... We should do everything we can to advance the kingdom of God."
Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting: http://www.sbcannualmeeting.net/sbc12/default.asp