The largest Protestant denomination is poised to elect the first black president in its 167-year history, just weeks after the predominately white religious group reprimanded one of its officials for making racially insensitive remarks.
Church leaders said choosing New Orleans pastor Fred Luter Jr. to head the Southern Baptist Convention would make an important statement about the denomination's efforts to distance itself from its racist past and become more diverse.
"I'm really pumped about this," Luter said in a telephone interview with Reuters. "My church is so excited man. Because they know my common background, they know where I came from. ... I'm really excited for them."
First Baptist New Orleans Pastor David Crosby, who will nominate Luter, said the move is a statement that "we not only love people of color, we want them in our leadership."
"We need his perspective. We need him at the table to help us understand who we are as Southern Baptists in this new era."
Luter, 55, has already served as the first African-American in various leadership positions within the convention, including as its current first vice president.
The New Orleans civic and religious leader said he is both optimistic and realistic about what he can accomplish during his short tenure. His leadership role will initially last just one year but can be extended for a second, he said.
Luter said his hope is to "let people know that ... we're open minded, and it's open to different ethnic groups."
The vote will be held on Tuesday during the convention's annual meeting in New Orleans, home to the church Luter rebuilt into the denomination's largest congregation in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina devastated it in 2005.
With no opposition so far, his likely election comes as the Southern Baptist Convention considers ways to become more inclusive and less identified with slavery, ties to which led to its founding in 1845. Southern Baptists split off from the First Baptist Church in America in the pre-Civil War days over the issue of slave ownership.
The thousands of Baptists expected at the New Orleans meeting will also vote on a proposal to adopt the descriptor "Great Commission Baptists" as an informal alternative for churches seeking a moniker less affiliated with the South and its racially divided history.
In 1995, the convention issued a resolution repudiating slavery and denouncing racism.
GROWING MINORITY MEMBERSHIP
Church officials said race relations suffered again earlier this year when the group's longtime ethics chief accused U.S. black leaders of trying to use the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin by a white and Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida for political gain.
Calling Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land's remarks "hurtful, irresponsible, insensitive and racially charged," commission leaders said in a June 1 reprimand that, "We must now redouble our efforts to regain lost ground."
Luter's election to the convention's top post won't provide an immediate fix, said Danny Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. But it marks a step forward for a denomination now seeing its greatest growth among ethnic minorities, he said.
Though still a robust Christian tradition with about 16 million members, the convention's churches reported a decline in total membership in 2011 for the fifth straight year, according to the Baptist Press.
Of the 45,700 congregations that comprise the Southern Baptist Convention, 3,500 are African-American churches. Akin said he expected the denomination to focus more on getting minorities on seminary faculties and in leadership roles.
"I really think our convention will look significantly different, in a good way, 15 years from now, and I think most Southern Baptists would welcome and applaud that," he said.
Luter, who was born and raised by his church-going mother in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward, is widely respected for his passionate preaching style and commitment to his hometown after losing both his church and house to Katrina.
During his nearly 26 years as pastor at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, the congregation grew from 50 members to almost 8,000 before the storm. Members scattered afterward, but the church reopened in 2008 and now has almost 5,000 members.
Luter said his goal as convention president was "not necessarily to proselytize people from other denominations," but he hoped his leadership would help clear up some misconceptions about Southern Baptists.
"We're not the convention that we used to be," Luter said.
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; editing by Todd Eastham)