Baptists want leader replaced Marylanders back rival to president of national group

November 21, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

A group of Marylanders who belong to the National Baptist Convention USA, the nation's largest African-American church denomination, has formed a coalition to back a rival candidate to the convention's embattled president, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons.

The committee of prominent ministers and lay people supports the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson of Mount Vernon, N.Y., who is among a half dozen candidates who will be running against Lyons when representatives of the 8.2-million-member convention meet in September in Tampa, Fla.

Lyons, 56, of St. Petersburg, Fla., is running for re-election despite having been indicted on federal and state charges that include racketeering, grand theft and extortion involving the misuse of church funds.

Richardson, 49, a former convention general secretary who is running on a platform advocating reform of the convention's presidency and finances, visited Baltimore this week, speaking Thursday night at Enon Baptist Church in West Baltimore as part of a series of town meetings he is holding across the country to build support for his candidacy.

Among Richardson's supporters at the Baltimore town meeting were the Rev. Robert T. Hurte, president of the United Baptist Missionary Convention of Maryland; the Rev. Carl T. Washington, president-elect of the Baptist Ministers Conference, Baltimore and vicinity; the Rev. John L. Wright, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Guilford and past president of the Maryland convention; the Rev. James B. Gray Jr., pastor of Northpoint's Pleasant Zion Baptist Church; and the Rev. Arnold W. Howard, pastor of Enon Baptist Church and a past president of the influential Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.

"If I didn't believe in Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, I would not be standing here," Wright said Thursday.

"We need someone who has integrity, someone who is honest, someone who understands the plight of African-Americans."

Richardson, who lost a 1994 bid for the presidency to Lyons in a disputed election, has not been endorsed by the entire United Baptist Missionary Convention of Maryland, but he has the support of more than half of its members, said Gray, vice president of the statewide ministers group and Richardson's Maryland campaign manager. Maryland is recognized in the convention as a small but influential state.

Another prominent challenger, who also unsuccessfully ran against Lyons in 1994, is the Rev. William Shaw of Philadelphia.

Richardson said in an interview that he wants "to bring healing to a convention that's deeply hurt. I'm trying to get people to look beyond the tragedy and scandal and understand it's just a phase we're passing through."

The crux of the problem for the National Baptist Convention lies with a presidency that has too little accountability, he said. The convention still has what he calls an "imperial paradigm" for its presidency that was developed when the organization was formed in 1895. At that time, he said, "the whole culture had a different understanding of leadership: more unilateral, more autocratic, more imperial."

Lyons' problems started when his wife was arrested on charges of burning down a $700,000 St. Petersburg home that he allegedly had bought using church funds, for a lover. He also is charged with bilking corporations, which mistakenly thought they were dealing with the convention, out of $5 million. Lyons allegedly used the money to buy jewelry, cars and other luxuries. He has pleaded innocent to the charges.

Richardson said the unchecked power afforded the presidency made abuses such as those Lyons is charged with easier.

"What has happened in the last 100 years is that paradigm of leadership has been rejected. One of the last places it still exists is the National Baptist Convention," he said. "As a result, the current administration has exploited the paradigm to its limit. [Lyons] inherited it, but he abused it more than anyone else."

Richardson said he would like to lower the limit of two five-year terms to two four-year terms or three three-year terms.

In addition, he favors hiring a full-time comptroller who would monitor the convention's finances. The president would be able to sign vouchers, not checks, eliminating accessibility to the convention's funds and reducing the possibility of theft.

"I'm not calling for a weaker president," he said. "I'm calling for a president who is more accountable."

The survival of the National Baptist Convention depends on its ability to reform itself, Richardson said.

"The only future for the National Baptist Convention is a servant future," he said. "If we do not serve the churches, it will go out of business. People will stop sending money."

Pub Date: 11/21/98

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