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Lyons' former church debates his leadership

The convicted minister has kept in touch with his church in St. Petersburg, but some in the congregation want to move on.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rev. Henry J. Lyons, former head of the National Baptist Convention USA, already has been stripped of his freedom and his national stature.

Now, a debate will determine whether Lyons could lose perhaps one of his last credentials as a religious leader: the pulpit at Bethel Metropolitan Church in St. Petersburg.

About 250 people turned out at the church for a 21/2-hour meeting Thursday to argue whether Lyons, imprisoned on racketeering and grand theft convictions, should have a role in leading the 1,500-member congregation.

The argument focuses on whether the pulpit should be left open for Lyons or filled by someone else. Some Lyons opponents say loyalists still control key positions in the church and are being manipulated by the imprisoned minister.

That criticism continued after the meeting ended Thursday, with Lyons opponents complaining they were not allowed to vote on the church's future.

"We saw dictatorship in its rarest form in the Baptist church," said Joseph Harvey, an assistant minister who hopes to oust Lyons.

He said the meeting was very contentious, with Lyons' backers in control. Reporters were not allowed inside.

Harvey said his group hopes to be able to vote on whether to retain current key leaders at a church business meeting scheduled for Sept. 29. Those who oppose the current leadership were asked to write down their concerns and submit them to the church's deacon board.

Ronald Davis, chairman of Bethel's deacon board, refused to comment before the meeting Thursday.

Lyons' troubles began in 1997 when his wife, Deborah Lyons, was arrested for setting fire to a Tierra Verde home she discovered her husband had purchased with another woman, Bernice Edwards.

That arson set in motion two years of revelations about the then-president of the nation's largest black church organization and his financial dealings using the convention's name.

In 1999, he was convicted of racketeering and grand theft and began serving his sentence in a prison near Ocala.

But Lyons has remained involved in the church, and regularly calls associates, according to Harvey.

For years, as a driver and an assistant, Harvey accompanied Lyons as he headed the Florida Baptist General Convention. He traveled with Lyons as a special assistant and was a confidant when Lyons was elected president of the NBC.

And Harvey continued to stand by Lyons right up to the day the preacher was sent to prison for five years.

Now, Harvey thinks the church, which celebrates its 97th anniversary this month, should end all association with Lyons, though he acknowledges that could be a formidable task.

"There are a lot of supporters of the previous administration under Dr. Lyons, who are for, some reason or another, indebted to Dr. Lyons and desire to have him come back," Harvey said.

"But according to the bylaws and constitution of our church, once someone has committed an act like he has, basically it severs and cuts all ties from the church. A lot of people really don't see that. They misconstrue the Scriptures."

Harvey said a pulpit search committee, in place for about a year, has done little toward hiring a replacement for Lyons.

Shortly after the minister was sent to prison, a congregational meeting was held and the majority of church members said they wanted a new pastor, Harvey said.

"The deacon board at that time was trying to insist that the church keep the pulpit open. There was such an uproar that night that the deacons backed down," he said.

At that same gathering, members voted to take Lyons' name off the church building, its buses and his office door, Harvey added.

But such actions did not diminish Lyons' power, according to Harvey and another assistant pastor, Shawn Washington. Lyons continued to run the church from prison, giving instructions by phone and in person to the people he trusted.

"He calls three times a week," Harvey said. "I know definitely he calls every Wednesday. I've answered the phone. He calls collect."

Harvey and his supporters also insist that key officials at the church are expecting Lyons to be put on a work-release program in January and hope the preacher will be allowed to fulfill that obligation at the church.

Recently, attorneys for the former Baptist leader filed court papers seeking to cut as much as 16 months from his five-year state prison sentence, arguing that Lyons should serve his sentence under older, more generous prison rules granting inmates time off for good behavior.

"We have no comments in regards to any of the pending legal issues," Jay Hebert, Lyons' attorney, said Thursday when asked about the work-release program.

"It is certainly Rev. Lyons' strong desire to return to St. Petersburg. It is his home and he very much would like to return to pastoring," Hebert said.

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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