WAVENEY ANN MOORE
Bethel Metropolitan went from one mess to another. Can it forgive and forget?
ST. PETERSBURG - The Rev. Henry J. Lyons, released from prison less than three months ago, has apparently applied for his old job as pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, one of the city's most prominent black congregations.
The church has been without a permanent pastor for a year. Bethel Metropolitan is searching for a minister to replace the Rev. Joaquin Marvin, hired to take over the pulpit months after Lyons was imprisoned for racketeering and grand theft.
Marvin, who was fired a year ago, has sued the church, alleging breach of contract. He is seeking unspecified damages. In the weeks before his firing, Marvin accused detractors of plotting to reinstate Lyons, who had led Bethel Metropolitan for more than 25 years.
Jerome Smith, chairman of the deacon board and owner of Smith Funeral Home, said the search for a new pastor is being handled by the church's pulpit committee.
"We feel that we are close," he said.
As to whether Lyons, 62, is being considered by members of the search committee, Smith said: "I believe that he has submitted a resume and I'm not sure where they are with him. ... There is no special consideration for Dr. Lyons."
Smith said the committee will make a selection and take the candidate before the congregation for a vote.
Neither Lyons nor Marvin could be reached for comment.
The 100-year-old church is facing a fight with Marvin. The 39-year-old pastor, who was fired during a congregational meeting last February, filed a lawsuit in November claiming the church breached its agreement with him by terminating his employment prematurely and without good cause. In the suit, filed in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, Marvin claims he suffered monetary damages for loss of salary, health and life insurance, an IRA, housing and gas allowances, convention expenses, relocation expenses and an anniversary gift.
Marvin's Pensacola attorney said he could not comment.
In the response it filed to Marvin's suit, Bethel Metropolitan claims that the church had no employment contract with him and that it did have grounds to fire him. Among them, the church says Marvin physically attacked Lynda B. Smith, wife of the chairman of the deacon board. The church said Marvin also physically attacked longtime member and former City Council candidate Marva Dennard in its fellowship hall.
In its court papers, Bethel Metropolitan also says Marvin made numerous unauthorized purchases from Home Depot and received $250 for lodging in Gainesville while his granddaughter underwent surgery. The church contends that the surgery did not take place and that Marvin did not return the money.
Ian Stanislaus Gomez, attorney for Bethel Metropolitan, declined to discuss the lawsuit, saying that the deacon board wants to keep the matter out of the press.
Like Lyons, Marvin has had his share of legal troubles. Soon after arriving to fill Lyons' place in Bethel Metropolitan's pulpit, his legal problems became public. In 1991, he had been sentenced to two years of community control for forgery. State records indicate that he also was arrested several times between 1986 and 1991 on charges that included shoplifting, assault, and possession of crack and marijuana. Shortly after arriving in St. Petersburg, he was arrested in Escambia County for violating two outstanding warrants. He has since completed probation.
Lyons, hired as pastor of Bethel Metropolitan in 1972, went on to lead it to its current home at 3455 26th Ave S. He made his congregation proud when he rose to become president of the National Baptist Convention USA, but a July 1997 fire set by his then wife, Deborah, at a $700,000 Tierra Verde home he owned with another woman marked the beginning of his downfall.
On Feb. 27, 1999, a Pinellas-Pasco jury convicted Lyons of grand theft and racketeering charges and concluded that he swindled millions from the convention's corporate partners. Lyons also was convicted of stealing money from the Anti-Defamation League meant for rebuilding burned black churches. He was sentenced to 51/2 years in prison and was released on Nov. 30. He is on federal probation for at least three years.
That Lyons served time in prison should not prohibit him from returning to Bethel Metropolitan, said the Rev. James Macon, an associate minister.
"If Dr. Lyons is the man God puts there, then I'll serve under him," said Macon, who has seen the pastor once since his release.
"You know that Paul, one of the greatest apostles that ever lived, he was a murderer, and David took a man's wife and impregnated her and had him killed and the Lord forgave him. I'm not in a position to hold anything against him (Lyons)."
Leon Highsmith, a member of the deacon board, also spoke of forgiveness.
"We all need forgiveness at one time," said Highsmith, who has seen Lyons occasionally since he left prison.
Highsmith denies that there is a campaign to drum up support for Lyons' rehiring. The decision is in the hands of pulpit committee members, he said.
Their job, he said, is to select the best candidate possible.
- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.THE CHURCH
Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church
3455 26th Ave. S, St. Petersburg
Membership: About 300 active members.
Run by: A board of deacons
Who chooses the pastor? Pulpit committee selects a candidate, who is approved by the congregation.
Who's preaching now? Associate ministers conduct Sunday servicesJOAQUIN MARVIN, 39
The news: Has sued his former church, alleging breach of contract.
Pastor at Bethel: December 2000 to Feb. 28, 2003
Reason for departure: Fired.
Where is he now: Unclear, but reports place him at a Panhandle churchHENRY LYONS, 62
The news: Has submitted his resume to his old church
Pastor at Bethel: 1972 to 2000
Reason for departure: Prison.
Where is he now? He was released to a home in the Pinellas Point area, according to the Florida Department of Corrections website.
More coverage of the Rev. Henry Lyons