Prison in past, Lyons hears God's call to lead

He is seeking to head a Florida Baptist group again. Now his candidacy is in churches' hands.

Published April 1, 2007

The Rev. Henry J. Lyons looked out at an Ocala congregation earlier this year and made his pitch.

Despite his persistent prayers, Lyons said, the Holy Spirit would not let him go. God had given him a mandate: Run for president of the Florida General Baptist Convention - again.

The Rev. Fred Maeweathers Sr. listened intently. As moderator of the 2nd Bethlehem Baptist Association, a collective of 59 Ocala-area churches, he had allowed Lyons to address the group at its February meeting.

Maeweathers considers Lyons a longtime friend and admires his preaching. He welcomed Lyons back to the ministry after his very public fall from grace ended in a prison sentence.

But Maeweathers is at odds with his friend.

"He needs to be among us, but not leading us," said the pastor of the Shady Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Ocala. "I'm concerned about things that may be out there that might have been put to rest that may wake up again. That worries a lot of us, not just me."

On Wednesday, Lyons will face two North Florida preachers in a race for the presidency during the group's state convention in Fort Lauderdale.

A Lyons victory threatens to split the state body, with some ministers saying they will not abide Lyons' leadership again.

Others are preaching calm.

"If we're going to get somebody elected who has never sinned, then we're not going to have a president," said the Rev. George McRae, the convention's current president.

Lyons' run is not symbolic. Leaders around the state say he has emerged as a front-runner. Still, his candidacy has many people scratching their heads. Why would he again seek the spotlight?

Pastor on probation

Lyons, 65, remains one of the most controversial and divisive figures among black Baptists around the country. In 1999, he was convicted of bilking corporations and charities of more than $5-million while president of the National Baptist Convention USA, a group that claims more than 7.5-million members nationwide.

For his misdeeds, Lyons spent more than four years in state prison. He now pastors the New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa and remains on probation until 2008.

Citing the advice of his lawyer, Lyons declined requests for interviews. Still he proffers charm and unfailing politeness to all, evidenced by his warm greetings to a reporter even though he did not wish to speak to the media.

Since announcing his candidacy last year, Lyons has been stumping at churches around the state. He calls himself "the people's candidate" and vows to take the state convention on a "return to excellence."

In a campaign brochure, Lyons compares his life to a ship that has "experienced much turbulence, trouble and trials" and likens himself to persecuted biblical figures such as Job, the Old Testament figure that God allowed Satan to persecute.

Some ministers and church leaders around the state say Lyons was recruited to run for the $10,000-a-year position by a group of prominent ministers. Others say Lyons' efforts are fueled by his own ambition to clear his name and to use the Florida post as a stepping stone to national office.

The Rev. Michael Johnson, one of Lyons' opponents in the state race, said his candidacy showcases the convention's belief in redemption. But it's also ill-advised.

"Dr. Lyons has a tremendous ministry to those pastors who have struggled and fallen," said Johnson, 43, pastor of the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Pensacola. "It may not be as relevant to some of us who have been really faithful to ministry and were really hurt by that. So there's a section that feels like redemption does not mean reclamation of what you were."

A third candidate, the Rev. James B. Sampson, 47, pastor of the First New Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Jacksonville, seems poised to be Lyons' greatest competition.

"There's a big majority of us that are with Sampson," said Maeweathers. "He's a young man with innovative ideas."

At Lyons' old church in St. Petersburg, Bethel Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, the minister who replaced him had little to say about Lyons' bid.

"Heaven is a free gift," said the Rev. Rickey L. Houston. "And this is a free country."

Path to prominence

Henry James Lyons was always something of a preaching prodigy. He was called to the ministry in 1961, a year after he graduated from Gainesville's Lincoln High School, and was ordained four years later.

Lyons began a swift rise to prominence, wowing congregations with his preaching and leadership skills.

By 35 he was vice president of the state convention. Five years later, he became president.

Lyons' current campaign literature touts his record. From 1982 to 1995, he says, he helped grow the convention to nearly 800 churches and laid the groundwork for a family retreat center in Palatka. When he left the state office for the national presidency in 1995, Lyons says, he left the group in solid fiscal shape.

Before long, though, things began to unravel for Lyons on the national stage. In 1997, his then-wife, Deborah, set fire to a $700,000 Tierra Verde home he owned with another woman. Investigators traced a series of financial improprieties to Lyons and Bernice Edwards, his alleged mistress.

In 1999, Lyons was found guilty of bilking the NBC's corporate partners of millions and went to prison. He resigned from the NBC, but has long maintained that he never hurt the organization. His missteps, he has said, occurred with the group's corporate partners.

Since his release from prison in 2003, Lyons has been working his way back up the ministerial chain. Besides leading a new flock in Tampa, he serves as a guest minister at churches around the state.

Lyons' supporters say they back him because of his record as a state leader. His prison experience, they say, helps him relate with the downtrodden.

"He was our president before and, out of over 100 years of the Florida Baptist Convention, he had the most outstanding record," said the Rev. Gilbert Stewart, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in West Palm Beach. "He's a good leader, a caring man and he's just a brilliant administrator. ... As far as we're concerned, he's paid his debt to society."

But Lyons will not cruise to victory and will have to win over not just pastors, but parishioners. Convention leaders would not release the number of eligible voters, but said churches get between three and 10 delegates each. The state group has about 400 to 500 member churches.

The Rev. George W. Lee, pastor of the Greater Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Ocala, said he asked Lyons to run.

"I'm somewhat confident that he will do an even better job than he did before," said Lee, 83.

A new mission

On a recent Sunday at the New Mount Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa, Lyons gave a rousing sermon from the first book of Corinthians about the virtues of being saved, the mistakes made by all and the forgiveness of God.

By the time Lyons' neared his sermon's end, much of the congregation had leapt to its feet.

"You can cuff me and stuff me, but I've still got joy," Lyons shouted from the pulpit. "You can talk about me, but I've still got joy. When you've been where I've been, when you've experienced what I've experienced, it doesn't take much to stir me up."

Lyons remains a mesmerizing orator. In the traditional call-and-response style popular in many black churches, the congregation shouted its approval.

Leaders at the Tampa church where Lyons became pastor in 2004 credit him with increasing their membership by 125 percent to 450.

"New Salem is very, very happy," said James Martin, a deacon and chairman of New Salem's Board of Trustees. "He's been doing a really good job, and we have no complaints."

As election day nears, speculations grows about Lyons' chances at the polls.

"I would not be surprised at all if he won," said Marva Dennard, a longtime member of St. Petersburg's Bethel Metropolitan.

Maeweathers, the Ocala pastor, has been praying, asking God to keep the state group together even if Lyons wins.

"It's not good for the organization," Maeweathers said of Lyons' candidacy. "Those of us that led churches, it was a difficult time in rocking that baby to sleep. It's going to wake up a giant."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Jeff Testerman contributed to this report. Sherri Day can be reached at sday@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

Lyons through the years
1982: Becomes president of Florida General Baptist Convention.
1994: Elected president of the National Baptist Convention USA.
July 1997: Wife sets fire to a Tierra Verde home. No one hurt.
February 1998: Arrested on state charges, including racketeering and grand theft; Lyons pleads not guilty.
July 1998: Grand jury indicts him on federal charges, including fraud and tax evasion.
February 1999: State jury convicts him of grand theft and racketeering.
March 1999: Resigns his NBC post; pleads guilty to five federal charges.
April 1999: Begins serving 5 1/2 years in prison on state charges.
June 1999: Sentenced to four years in prison on federal charges. Federal sentence runs concurrent with state sentence.
November 2003: Released from prison. Must serve five years probation and make $5.2-million in restitution.
2004: Becomes pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa.
2006: Announces candidacy for presidency of Florida General Baptist Convention.

Source: Times archives

Where are they now?
Henry Lyons
Former president of the National Baptist Convention USA
Age: 65
Action: Convicted of swindling more than $5.2-million from the convention’s business partners and donor charities.
Sentenced: To 5 1/2 years in state prison; four in federal; concurrent sentences. Released from prison in 2003; has repaid $111,779.94 in restitution fees, still owes $5.1-million.
Lives in: Lakeland with new wife, Willie Beatrice Lyons; pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa.

Deborah Lyons
Former wife of Henry Lyons
Age: 59
Action: Set fire to $700,000 Tierra Verde home after discovering her husband owned it with Bernice Edwards.
Sentenced: To five years’ probation; released in 2000.
Lives in: Largo; works as a job counselor; divorced Lyons in 2003.

Bernice Edwards
Lyons’ alleged mistress with whom he owned Tierra Verde home
Action: Acquitted of state charges, pleaded guilty to federal charges of tax evasion.
Sentenced: To 21 months in federal prison; died in custody in 2003 at age 46 of a chronic pulmonary condition.

Brenda Harris
NBC meeting planner and Lyons’ alleged mistress
Age: 56
Action: Pleaded guilty to failing to report the commission of a crime.
Sentenced: To 18 months of federal probation.
Now: Lives in Boulder City, Nev.

Compiled by Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Sherri Day