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Bethel needs to let Lyons go

The church should not hold the pulpit open for the imprisoned pastor's return, as he is asking it to do.

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© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2000

Whenever someone who has pulled himself from obscurity to the brink of greatness falls, the sound is sickening.

It is the droning wail of unfulfilled promise, the heart-rending sound of respectability shattering, the whimper of admiration painfully giving birth to contempt.

It is the reverberating sound of the Rev. Henry Lyons' fall from grace, of the esteemed becoming the pathetic.

[Times photo: Fred Victorin]
On July 11, 1997, Henry Lyons holds a press conference upon his return from Africa. He said he was innocent, the victim of reporters attacking him because of his race.
In the end, it is a sound that we must listen to, put in perspective, and move on.

Fail that and the sound can shape emotions that dominate reason. Mistakes are built that way, mistakes like the one Lyons' old church, Bethel Metropolitan Baptist in St. Petersburg, runs the risk of making.

Roughly a year and a half into his five-year federal prison sentence, Henry Lyons wants his old job back. In a handwritten letter, he is asking the "Church Family and Official Board" to save the pulpit for him. Incredibly, some members want to. Several of them are key figures in Bethel's leadership who risk losing their positions trying to save his, so great is the division within the church.

The tragedy of Henry Lyons' fall, it would seem, is still finding victims.

* * *

"When I think about how good God has been to me. The work he placed in my hands. For me to repay the Lord with such foolish behavior on my part. To let so many people down and ruin my Father's good name which I labored so hard to exalt. Oh, how foolish, how foolish I was!"

* * *

Those words are from the letter dated Sept. 30 that Lyons sent to members of his church.

They arrived more than three years late.

They would have been strong words when Lyons returned from a trip to Africa to a world clamoring for answers after a fire exposed a shady, but not yet criminal, side to his life.

Instead, at a press conference orchestrated in a manner more befitting John Gotti than a man of God, he chose denial and the shallow accusation that the media were digging up his dirt because he was a prosperous black man.

The sound was sickening.

In more than 20 years of interviewing everything from baby killers to Klansmen, from rapists of children to wife beaters, I have often felt disgust and revulsion. But I had never been left feeling so personally offended.

Times reporters accumulated a considerable amount of information on Lyons' life and questionable dealings. I searched for holes in it.

I talked often with the reporters -- most of them white -- studying them for signs of too much glee when some new, unflattering revelation was uncovered.

It was important to assure myself that the newspaper with which I was associated was not guilty of overzealously pursuing a villain because he was black. It was not. It was pursuing Lyons because he was prominent and he messed up.

Lyons' claim of racism insulted the multitudes of its real victims, but that was not his greatest offense.

That came when he used his legendary prowess on the pulpit, his standing in the eyes of his congregation and the veneer of piety to deceive his church into supporting his lies. He deceived people who looked to him for guidance.

His recent letter leaves the same feeling that the sermon he called a press conference did, except that it owns up to wrongdoing. It begins with contrition and repentance, and Lyons' assertion that God has spoken directly to him in prison, to confer His forgiveness.

In short order, it moves to castigating the church for declaring the pulpit vacant before he had a chance to exhaust his appeals. Then he asks his former congregation to hold his job open for him.

The letter, like the press conference and the life choices that started his troubles, is selfish and pompous. Worse, it has his former church in an uproar.

Notes from a recent church meeting indicate that five church officials are in danger of losing their positions for steadfastly trying to hold the pulpit for Lyons' return. Members who attended that meeting voted overwhelmingly to relieve those key church leaders of their duties.

Attempts to discuss any of this with church leaders not only failed, but failed to turn up a church leader.

A woman who answered the phone at the church would not identify herself before she transferred the call to another woman, who also would not identify herself. "You need to address any questions about that to the chairman of the church board," she said. And who is that person? She said that question and any others needed to be faxed to the church, and they would be given to the right person.

The response to the faxed questions was short: "Our church's business is not public business. Therefore, there will be no comment made from the officials of this church to questions listed in your fax."

It is an understandable response. This is a proud church, with a history that stretches almost a century, with a congregation that numbers 1,500 strong. Though it has performed innumerable services for its community, it has not been a darling of the press in the last couple of years.

But its negative press was by association, and as long as Henry Lyons remains affiliated with the church, its business, unfortunately, will be public business.

That is why it needs to let go of Henry Lyons.

That is also why Henry Lyons needs to let go of the church. Some members loyal to him need him to do that.

The church can't remain great in its hunkered-down posture.

It would be refreshing to see someone at Bethel soon stand up and say, "Bethel is a great church that had a great pastor who made some mistakes. Now Bethel is a great church with a new pastor."

And it would be a pleasant, positive sound for a change to hear that once-great pastor put the needs of his beloved Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church ahead of his own and seek to recapture his greatness somewhere else.

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