Pastor Takes Faith on the Road for Scattered Flock

Franklin Avenue Baptist Church has been gutted. i i

hide captionFranklin Avenue Baptist Church has been gutted.

Photos by Andrea Hsu, NPR
Franklin Avenue Baptist Church has been gutted.

Franklin Avenue Baptist Church has been gutted.

Photos by Andrea Hsu, NPR
Pastor Fred Luter hopes construction will begin later this spring.

hide captionPastor Fred Luter hopes construction will begin later this spring.

Pastor Fred Luter of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church tended to a congregation of 7,000 until Hurricane Katrina ravaged his church and scattered his flock. Luter is eager to get back to worshipping "on the avenue," but for now, he travels to Houston and Baton Rouge, La., to give his sermons.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

It's 7:30 on a Sunday morning and First Baptist Church of New Orleans is packed.

Unidentified Woman: How many of you know that God is a good God? Do I have any witnesses out there?

NORRIS: But the pews here are filled with members from a congregation across town. These itinerant worshippers would normally attend service at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, but that church in the storm-ravaged Gentilly neighborhood has been closed since Katrina.

Pastor FRED LUTER (First Baptist Church of New Orleans): Let me ask you a question this morning as we share in the word of God, how are you dealing with post-Katrina syndrome? How has it affected your relationship with your spouse? How has this thing affected your relationship with your children?

NORRIS: Pastor Fred Luter grew up in New Orleans' lower 9th Ward. He started there as a street preacher before founding Franklin Avenue Baptist in 1986. Katrina scattered his members across several states and since then, Luter has been desperately trying to keep his flock together.

Pastor LUTER: Once we found out where everybody was at, see I've been here 19 years and the only church I've ever pastored, started out with 65 members and pre-Katrina we had over 7,000 members, so I just, I miss the folks so much and what I did immediately after Katrina, every Sunday I would just preach in different places around the country where people were at: Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Monroe, Baton Rouge and so I just had to see them.

NORRIS: Nowadays, Pastor Luter preaches first and third Sundays in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and on the second and fourth Sundays he heads to Houston. I caught up with him on a visit to his battered church. It's really just a shell of a building now, stripped to the rafters because of water and mold. Now, the stained glass windows and the faulted ceilings are the only remnants of what this grand structure used to be. And Franklin Baptist was more than just a Sunday morning meeting place, its community center and indoor basketball court were bustling all through the week.

Pastor LUTER: When we first came in this community, drugs were rampant, crime was rampant, particularly next door in that park. People were afraid to sit out on their porches and thing like that. And by us coming here and we had no idea that the church was going to grow like it grew, it just, it gave the people in the community a sense of refuge, a sense of safety, particularly when we built this new sanctuary. A lot of them were just so impressed that we would build something like this in this neighborhood.

NORRIS: Now I understand you purchased a big tract of land in New Orleans.

Pastor LUTER: Just before, in June of 2005, we had just bought 90 acres of property right across from Six Flags and two weeks before Katrina hit, we showed on these screens, we had a DVD presentation of what we were going to put out there.

NORRIS: You showed that to the congregation?

Pastor LUTER: Yeah, to the congregation and all, people stood, they applauded, it was going to be unlike anything that this city has ever seen. It was just going to be phenomenal.

NORRIS: So, are you going to be able to expanded there and rebuild here?

Pastor LUTER: No. No, we are going to rebuild here because we don't know who's coming back. We don't know who's coming back. So we're going to rebuild here and just see who, because a lot of folk are not coming back, not only to our church, but just citywide. There are people who are now living in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Memphis, Tennessee. They're living in better homes, their kids are in better schools, less crime and they say we're not coming back and that's just, that's just a part of what we have to deal with post Katrina.

NORRIS: When you go to Atlanta and when you go to Houston, have you started to round that corner now? Do you realize that?

Pastor LUTER: Yeah, because some of them had just point black told me that, you know, we'll come visit every now and then, and some of them, I hate to lose them, some of them, I don't mind if they stay, but there's some of them I hate to lose because they were foundational members. They were pillars of this church and I just talked to one of the members this morning, Peggy Netter (ph), her mom, her dad was one of our Deacons, her mom was of our members, they just were role models for so many of our young couples. They're staying in Dallas, they're not coming back. They don't want to come back and start over again and have to go through this again, because hurricane season is going to be here in what three, four, five months and if this city floods again, it's going to be over. I really believe that.

NORRIS: That's it.

Pastor LUTER: That's it for New Orleans.

NORRIS: What's the hidden toll that we don't see?

Pastor LUTER: I think that just the mental and emotional pain that a lot of people are feeling. They don't show it in public. They don't show it on the Sunday morning in church, but those calls I get at 2:00 in the morning, at 5:00 in the morning. Those letters I get, those e-mails I get really tell the story about a lot of people not coping well, and that's what the city don't see.

NORRIS: Pastor Fred Luter says he can't wait for the day he can worship with his flock on the avenue again. Though given the state of his building and his neighborhood, that day may be a long time coming.

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