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Living large off the little people

By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 8, 1998


Jeanette Sippio, my 74-year-old mother, typifies the people allegedly abused by the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. The maltreatment of my mother and other Baptists like her would make Lyons the worst of sinners.

Never having earned more than $100 a week during her many years as a farm worker and a maid, my mother dutifully gave time and money to the NBC through her local church, which, in turn, sent huge sums to Lyons and his predecessors.

How many Friday nights and Saturday afternoons did she and other women in her prayer group sell homemade ice cream and cookies and roasted peanuts for the church? On many holidays, they washed cars to raise money for the choir to travel or to buy robes. How many fish did they catch, dress and fry to keep their leaders riding in Cadillacs, Lincolns and Mercedes-Benzes?

After I told her about the 56 federal charges against the good reverend, she said, "That's a shame before God. He took that money out of the pockets of poor people who don't have much to begin with."

Lyons' actions are unforgivable because he, along with his lawyer, Grady Irvin, denies that he stole from NBC members to finance a lavish lifestyle for himself, family members, associates and "paramours."

Federal authorities say that Lyons used money from a secret $5-million bank account called the Baptist Builder Fund, which only he was authorized to access, to buy, among other things, expensive jewelry and clothing, luxury cars, a waterfront mansion that he shared with a woman who is not his wife, a Lake Tahoe time share.

All along, he and his lawyer have claimed that the $5-million came exclusively from corporations trying to market products to the NBC's vast membership. Newly released evidence indicates, however, that Lyons funneled large amounts of individual, church and convention money into the account. Some of the money was intended for rebuilding burned black churches and for helping victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

To Lyons and his accomplices, one dollar is as green as the next. But to ordinary African-American Baptists -- whose lives center on the church -- their tithes, other donations and volunteer fund-raising represent love offerings to their spiritual leader, the person in whom they place their earthly trust.

Such faith is no small matter. For African-Americans, the church is an oasis, a spiritual refuge in a white-dominated society that is often hostile to their very existence.

So, for 51-year-old Rosa Forman, a lifelong Baptist, the charges against Lyons strike at the core of everything she holds sacred.

"I'm not prejudging the Rev. Lyons, but if he mishandled the people's money, he was wrong," said Forman, a nursing supervisor in St. Augustine. "Big people and big organizations prey on the little man and woman. They find these little churches, the weak links, and use them. They use all of these little women who stand up all night to wash and cook collard greens. These women go on their regular jobs, come home, clean and prepare chickens, make potato salad and other stuff so that they can help their church. They love the church. That's all they have to hang onto. It is their life."

Apparently not satisfied with merely misusing the cash of NBC members, Lyons has gone a step further. After being instructed that his $125,000 bail had to be guaranteed with property, Lyons persuaded several members of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, where he is pastor, to put up their modestly priced homes.

Dozens of other members, most of them old women, were transported by church vans to the federal courthouse in Tampa, where prosecutors indicted Lyons. As television cameras rolled, some of these women stumbled outside in the heat, trying to balance themselves. At least one supported herself with a cane. Others accepted a helping hand from younger parishioners.

Once again, Lyons had fleeced and misled the flock, the simple folk who love him.

His response? Listen to his attorney: "I hope the end result will be that the public will have a greater understanding of the inner workings of the black church in America and how many corporations target certain of its influential leaders for endorsements, both political and economic."

In other words, Lyons -- not the "little man and woman" from whom he may have stolen -- is the victim. He and Irvin have repeatedly accused the mainstream media, especially the St. Petersburg Times, of racism and harassment. Does this fallen man of the cloth have any shame?


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