Lyons loses bid for old job
Congregants choose a new leader over the pastor, who left office in disgrace.
By SHERRI DAY
Published April 5, 2007
FORT LAUDERDALE - In a landslide, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons lost his bid Wednesday to regain the presidency of the Florida General Baptist Convention.
The victory by the Rev. James B. Sampson put to rest concerns that the convention would split if the controversial Lyons were re-elected.
Lyons, 65, resigned as head of the National Baptist Convention USA in 1999 after he was convicted of grand theft and racketeering for swindling more than $5.2-million from the convention's corporate partners. He spent nearly five years in state prison before his release in 2003.
Lyons, who now pastors the New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa, announced last year that he intended to run for the state presidency, which he held until 1995 when he took the national job.
His candidacy was a lightning rod at the convention, with many delegates expressing shock at his decision to again seek office. Some pastors threatened to leave the convention if delegates elected Lyons.
In his acceptance speech Wednesday, Sampson said Lyons was still his "brother."
"We can say what we want to say about the Rev. Dr. Henry J. Lyons," Sampson said. "In my opinion he is still one of God's anointed."
Sampson, of First New Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Jacksonville, won 539 of the 1,012 votes. Lyons ran a distant second with 306. The Rev. Michael Johnson of Pensacola came third with 167.
Convention delegates began flooding the polling site, the Mount Herman AME Church, at 7 a.m. For much of the day, a steady stream of congregants stood along the church's walls in a line that snaked though the sanctuary and into the fellowship hall where poll workers manned electronic voting machines.
Each of the convention's 400 to 500 member churches received one to 10 voting delegates before coming to the convention, which claims to represent 400,000 to 500,000 black Baptists in Florida. The National Baptist Convention claims more than 7.5-million members.
Inside the church, many of the women donned all white outfits, topped by a dazzling array of white bonnets. The men, a great many of them preachers, wore their Sunday best.
Several voters declined to say who received their support, but expressed pleasure with the festive, collegial atmosphere. Some delegates accused the media of trying to reopen old wounds by covering Lyons' bid at the convention. Others said they gave Lyons' candidacy little thought.
Early in the day, Joyce Ransom and Annette LaTour, both members of First New Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Jacksonville, claimed victory for Sampson.
"This is already won," Ransom said. "We just came back to get the victory. Pastor Sampson is the man."
Lyons' supporters were decidedly low-key, largely given to casting their votes with little fanfare.
But one supporter, the Rev. Michael Murphy, made an early prediction.
"Have you ever heard the story about the two big dogs fighting over a bone?" asked Murphy, head of Spark Level Missionary Baptist Church in Cherry Lake. "While the big ones are fighting over it, the little dog just comes up and gets the bone. ... I went with the underdog."
Murphy, 45, said he broke ranks with his voting bloc and decided to support Lyons because he believes in forgiveness, restoration and the offering of a second chance.
The Rev. Howard Coleman, pastor of Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Pierce, also backed Lyons.
"He knows the problems he's had, and he knows he needs to redeem himself," Coleman said. "And sometimes when you need to redeem yourself, you have to work through it or it will plague you the rest of your life."
The Rev. Gary L. Williams Sr., pastor of First Baptist Church of Mandarin in Jacksonville, was opposed to Lyons' run. He said a Lyons' win would have likely meant his church would have pulled out of the convention.
"It's time for new leadership, time for integrity, time to keep the convention from being the laughingstock of the state and the country," Williams said.
"I've forgiven him, but forgiving and forgetting are two different things," he said.
On Tuesday night, Lyons enjoyed top billing as the featured speaker for the convention's late service. Meanwhile, Johnson and Sampson had dueling campaign rallies at different churches, where each claimed to have a packed house.
Lyons spoke to about 150 people, a good crowd for a service that started at 10 p.m. and ended around midnight, organizers said. As congregants entered the church, a Lyons' supporter passed out handbills emblazoned with his face and slogan, "The People's Candidate."
Lyons preached from Matthew about the parable of the hidden treasure and the pearl. The sermon, titled "Seeking for the Best," was chock full of references to his campaign.
"God is the kind of God that will put you up," Lyons said. "He's the kind of God that will take you down. And, he's the kind of God who will put you back up. ... Restore means to put it back like it was. Put it back like it was. Did ya'll get that? Now you can shake somebody's hand and say 'I got the message.' "
As midnight approached it was clear that Lyons, who had earlier complained of sinus trouble, had hit his stride. Much of the crowd stood on its feet. Caught up in the Holy Spirit, the preacher did a holy dance. But first, he reminded congregants about the election.
"I'll see you at the polls in the morning, bright and early because I'm going to be out there looking for my pearl," Lyons said.
Sherri Day can be reached at 813-226-3405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.