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Lyons gets back into pulpit at Tampa church

Now out of prison, the Rev. Henry Lyons will serve as interim pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church.

Published March 27, 2004

Less than four months after getting out of prison, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons is taking two major steps in his life.

The former leader of St. Petersburg's Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church has accepted a position as interim pastor with a struggling Tampa congregation.

And he's getting remarried.

Lyons and Willie Beatrice Thomas applied for a marriage license Wednesday in Polk County, where she owns a home, according to public records. Thomas, a former member of his St. Petersburg congregation, bought a house in a Lakeland subdivision in July 2002 while Lyons was serving his sentence in that same county.

Neither Lyons, 62, nor Thomas, 47, could be reached for comment.

Lyons, former president of the National Baptist Convention USA, is now the interim pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church at 405 N Oregon Ave. in Tampa. The church is still suffering from a conflict that split the congregation several years ago.

Sanford Ross, a former deacon, said Lyons is trying to reconcile the two sides in the disagreement that pitted the church's younger members against its older ones. The dispute centered on a previous pastor, who left the church, but the matter ended up in court.

"We split like in 1998 and since he's been there, we've all received letters to reunite and to plan on healing. He's trying to get the church to reunite," said Ross, one of those who left New Salem over the disagreement.

Ross, a teacher at Jefferson High School, said a small group met with Lyons at the church Thursday evening.

"He was not the moderator, but he gave good advice and he showed remorse for his situation, for his downfall from the past and was trying to get the church to be forgiving on both sides," said Ross, who had attended New Salem for more than 50 years.

"He is really trying to call everybody back in there."

Earlier this year, Lyons applied for his old job as pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, which has been without a pastor since Lyons' replacement was fired last year.

Lyons rose to prominence when he became president of the National Baptist Convention USA, but his downfall began in July 1997, after his then wife, Deborah, set a fire at a $700,000 Tierra Verde home he owned with another woman.

That incident launched an investigation into his finances. On Feb. 27, 1999, a Pinellas-Pasco jury convicted Lyons of state 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. The last months of his sentence were served at the Bartow Work Release Center. Lyons is on federal probation for at least three years.

He filed for divorce from his wife in 2001. The couple reached an amicable divorce agreement early last year. Deborah Lyons, though, is suing her former husband for breach of contract in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.

- Researchers John Martin and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

[Last modified March 27, 2004, 06:15:11]

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