A time to cry, a time to heal

Scandal: Staggered by the "terrific blow" of the Henry Lyons affair, the National Baptist Convention faces a mighty challenge in trying to repair its image.

April 11, 1999|By John Rivera

THE REV. Henry J. Lyons has had his day of reckoning, and now he's sitting in prison. About two weeks ago, a Florida judge sentenced the former president of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., the nation's largest black religious nomination, to a 5-year jail term for embezzling $4 million. In June, he faces additional prison time when he's sentenced on related federal charges.

For the National Baptist Convention, which has been bitterly divided between Lyons loyalists and those who wanted to replace the St. Petersburg pastor after he was indicted, it is time for healing. The organization must recoup the money that Lyons stole, reconcile its membership and repair its tattered image.

Even those who opposed Lyons' leadership and called for him to resign took no pleasure in his conviction.

"It was a terrific blow. I felt very sad that it occurred, even if you thought it was going to be the final result," said the Rev. John L. Wright, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Guilford in Columbia, who was part of a group of Baltimore-area ministers who joined an effort to oust Lyons at the September 1997 annual meeting in Denver.

"We're all deeply hurt by what happened," Wright said. "It's a very sad moment for our convention, and it's a very sad moment for the faith community."

"I hate to see him go down like that," said the Rev. James B. Gray Jr., pastor of Pleasant Zion Baptist Church in Northpoint. "I wish he'd admitted it earlier. He would have gotten more help. He was in a state of denial."

The Lyons affair was a bitter blow for a denomination with a proud history. It was formed in Atlanta, Ga., in 1895 and claims to have 8.5 million members, though some scholars believe that figure might be inflated. There are about 200 churches in the United Baptist Missionary Convention of Maryland, which is affiliated with the National Baptist Convention.

Lyons was convicted in a Florida state court in February of stealing millions of dollars of church money, which he spent on expensive jewelry, a Mercedes-Benz, travel and a $700,000 waterfront home for his mistress, Bernice Edwards, who was a public relations director for the convention. The scandal came to light after Lyons' wife, Deborah Lyons, was charged with arson in July 1997 after setting fire to the house.

Lyons got the money by swindling corporations seeking to do business with the convention by selling cemetery plots, life insurance policies and credit cards to convention members. He also diverted $250,000 donated by the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League intended to rebuild burned Southern black churches. In addition to his 5-year prison sentence, which he began serving immediately after his sentencing, Lyons was ordered to repay $2.5 million of the $4 million he stole.

After the state conviction, Lyons struck a deal with federal prosecutors, pleading guilty last month to five charges, including failing to pay taxes on $1.3 million in income, defrauding a bank and making false statements to a financial institution and federal housing officials. In exchange, 49 other counts, including extortion, money laundering and conspiracy, were dismissed. He is scheduled to be sentenced June 18, and his lawyers say they expect him to serve a total of about seven years.

Two weeks after the Feb. 27 state conviction, Lyons tearfully resigned as president of the National Baptist Convention. "I'm just so sorry about all of this," Lyons said as he faced the press in front of his Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. "I'm truly repentant about it. I hate that I hurt so many people."

There is no doubt that Lyons brought considerable harm to the convention he was elected to lead.

"I think the damage has been considerable, very considerable," said C. Eric Lincoln, a retired Duke University professor of religion. "It comes at a time when the church organizations are just beginning to explore working relationships that are entrepreneurial with various companies and corporations. Many of those potentially will either be put on hold or scrapped altogether.

"Also, it's damaging from the point of view that the denomination is embarrassed, tremendously embarrassed," Lincoln said. "Thirdly, the black church has spent the whole post-war era, so to speak, in finding a new kind of self-confidence and self-worth that had perhaps eluded it up to this time.

"Up to, let's say, World War II, the black church had measured itself in terms of the white church. If you wanted to know how worthy, how good, how accomplished a black church was, the standard of measure was by the white church. Well, the black church left that and measured itself as a church by itself."

The negative publicity generated by Lyons dealt that sense of self-worth a blow, Lincoln said.

Compounding the damage

Many observers believe that Lyons compounded the damage by staying on as convention president after he was indicted.

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