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Lyons plans to resume ministry

Although his release from prison is more than a year off, he's looking for a new church to lead.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 21, 2002


Although his release from prison is more than a year off, he's looking for a new church to lead.

The Rev. Henry J. Lyons won't get out of prison for another 19 months, but he's already looking for work.

A Baptist minister for nearly 40 years, Lyons wants to continue in that role when he regains his freedom, despite the controversy of the past five years.

Lyons was rejected this week by a Tampa church looking for a new pastor. But supporters are confident that, once out of prison, he'll find a church willing to bring him aboard.

"I'm sure that doors are going to be opened for him, and he'll move on with his life," said Marva Dennard, a longtime member of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, where Lyons preached for 25 years. "He has what it takes to be a good pastor. We all do well if we learn from the mistakes we've made, and I'm sure he has."

Lyons, who recently turned 60 behind bars, once ran this country's largest black church organization. He is now entering the final third of a 51/2-year sentence for racketeering and theft. He's in a Corrections Department work camp in Polk County. He's due for release in January 2004.

"At this point, Rev. Lyons is biding his time and paying his debt to society," said his attorney, Larry D. Hardaway of Lakeland. "He's eager to get out and make some positive contribution. His faith and profession is pastoring churches, and that would be a natural for him."

Lyons recently wrote a letter to Victory Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, at 2716 34th St. N in Tampa. The church has been searching for a pastor, and Lyons expressed interest in the job.

Lyons never had any direct contact with church officials. Instead, an intermediary contacted him about the job, Lyons' attorney said.

"It began with an individual who had some conversation with one of the leaders of that particular church," Hardaway said. "This individual spoke to Rev. Lyons in prison. It was an opportunity that was presented to him."

Sylvester Moten, chairman of the deacon board at Victory Tabernacle in Tampa, said church leaders discussed Lyons at a meeting Sunday. But Moten refused to say anything further.

On Thursday, the church faxed a brief statement saying it would not consider Lyons as pastor because the church learned of Lyons' interest after the recruitment deadline for the job had passed, and because the church had not received Lyons' resume.

While Lyons may consider other options, he won't be returning to Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, which ousted him as pastor after he went to prison.

Lyons was convicted in 1999 of swindling $4-million from companies doing business with the National Baptist Convention USA, the nation's largest black church organization. He was funding a lavish lifestyle that included a mistress, jewelry and waterfront property.

Lyons proved to be a gifted preacher and a charismatic leader, but he remains a divisive figure in the NBC. His detractors think churches should be wary of him.

"I know we serve a God of another chance. I do not wish any lifelong punishment for him," said the Rev. Arlene Churn of Philadelphia, who was pastor of an NBC church for 17 years. "But in spite of his professional charisma, there is still a pattern of totally unacceptable misconduct -- the extramarital affairs, the questionable business activities."

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