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Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church replaces its leader of 25 years, now in prison, with a man with legal troubles in his past.
By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2000
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rev. Henry J. Lyons, once head of the largest black church organization in the country, was ousted late Friday as pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church.
In a closed vote, church members voted 200-49 to remove Lyons, who headed the congregation for more than 25 years and now is in prison for racketeering and grand theft.
In his place, the board elected Joaquin Marvin, 35, an associate minister at Greater Union Baptist Church in Pensacola, who has a criminal past from a decade ago.
"We found a young man who was open about his past life, but that is in his past and as he said, there's skeletons in his closet but there's no meat on them," said longtime church member Marva Dennard. "I find this man to be a very honorable person."
The Rev. Joseph Harvey, an assistant minister who worked to oust Lyons, said Marvin's criminal past is unimportant.
"Everybody's got something in their background that they don't want us to know," Harvey said late Friday night. "He put everything on the table. He didn't try to hide anything. They did a criminal investigation. They did an FBI check, and he came in clean."
State records show Marvin was sentenced to two years of community control in 1991 for passing forged checks.
Records from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement indicate that Marvin also was arrested several times between 1986 and 1991 in Pensacola and Escambia County on charges of petit larceny, possession of crack and marijuana, shoplifting, assault, showing a weapon, and violating his probation.
The FDLE records show that he pleaded no contest to several criminal charges.
Marvin could not be reached late Friday for comment.
"What's in his background, in 1990, he wrote some bad checks and he made restitution," said Harvey, the assistant minister. "There wasn't anything in his background that we felt was detrimental to Bethel."
Dennard, the longtime member of Bethel Metropolitan, supports the new pastor.
"He said, "How can you talk to these young people about what's out there if you don't know about it? How can you talk to these kids about jail if you haven't been there?' The man is just awesome, and I am just so happy to have this man as my pastor."
Deacon Booker Marshall, a member of the search committee, said Marvin visited Bethel twice, "and the church received him well."
A member of Bethel for 22 years, Marshall added, "I think we've brought closure to an issue that's been open for the past 24 months."
The vote ends a troubling chapter in the church's history.
Lyons' problems began in 1997 when his wife, Deborah Lyons, was arrested for setting fire to a Tierra Verde home after she discovered her husband had purchased it with another woman, Bernice Edwards.
At the time, Lyons was president of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., considered the largest black church organization in the country.
That arson set in motion two years of revelations about 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.
For months, church members have debated whether the pulpit should be left open for Lyons or filled by someone else.
- Times researchers Caryn Baird and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.