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Church can take steps to rebuild trust

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By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2000


Except for the rare Pentecostal, my relatives are hard-core Baptists. My mother may be the most loyal of them all.

Until three years ago, when health problems slowed her down, she and five other church women would work all day Friday preparing fried chicken, spare ribs, ham, greens, potato salad, sweet potatoes, green beans, macaroni and cheese, corn bread, pies, cakes and lemonade to sell for the benefit of their church.

They spent their own money on these projects, and they gave every cent earned to the church. I would estimate that they donated more than $20,000 to their beloved New Hope Baptist Church over the years.

And, needless to say, they adored the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, former president of the National Baptist Convention USA and then-pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. Like most other loyal Baptists, my mother believed that Lyons could do no wrong. After he was convicted of racketeering and grand theft and was sent to prison, she was devastated.

I offer this background to let readers, especially members of Bethel Metropolitan, know that I care about what happens to the Baptist church -- if for no other reason than for the sake of my mother and her fellow willing workers.

Lyons was a crook, and he abused the trust of the faithful. Why would Bethel Metropolitan parishioners hire a minister with a criminal past to replace Lyons? Indeed, why did they hire the Rev. Joaquin Marvin, the 35-year-old former associate minister of Pensacola's Greater Union Baptist Church who was sentenced to two years of community control in 1991 for forgery? Between 1986 and 1991, Marvin also was arrested several times on charges of showing a weapon, shoplifting, possession of marijuana and crack cocaine, petty larceny, assault and violating parole.

Church leaders did a lousy job of vetting Marvin's background, which was stupid given what is at stake. Even worse, after Marvin's real record came to light, church elders dug in their heels -- like Lyons did after being confronted with his crimes -- and are trying to finesse the public and the press by standing by their man no matter what.

They should have fired Lyons as soon as he was convicted. After the firing, they should have gone straight to the top and hired a minister with a record as clean as that of Pope John Paul II.

Let me state why: Bethel Metropolitan does not exist in a vacuum. It is an important institution connected to both religious and secular segments of society.

Unfortunately, Marvin, during a meeting with members on Saturday, presented an insular view of the church: "You got a good strong church here and we're going to get stronger. Let's move forward. . . . We're going to be a unified church. . . . Don't put your business on the street. Together we stand, but divided we fall."

In other words, to hell with the outside world. This is the same wrongheaded strategy that prolonged Lyon's transparent dissembling and finger-pointing for so many months. A little bit of sunshine would help the new shepherd and his media-shy flock.

More than 80 percent of a church's religious and social capital -- its power to do good work for the greatest number of people -- is its ability to engender and maintain public trust. Before his troubles, Lyons could summon the president of the United States. He could get the City of St. Petersburg to help construct a residential facility for the elderly. He could persuade Broward County Commissioners to help him build a black convention center. He could telephone Jewish organizations and persuade them to give him money to rebuild black churches destroyed during a spate of burnings several years ago.

Now, Bethel Metropolitan, along with other churches affected by the Lyons mess, cannot muster such clout and may not be able to do so for many years to come. Who in government or corporate America will trust Marvin, a man who let his criminal past trickle out? If the church wants to live in a bubble, then members should not put their business on the street, as Marvin advises.

But if the church wants to regain any semblance of public trust, it needs to rid itself of its self-righteous paranoia. It needs to know that it -- and it alone -- can put an end to its problems. All that said, Marvin may succeed. Perhaps his crimes can be attributed to youthful indiscretion. Perhaps he is reformed. He may become a great minister. To do so, though, he and his parishioners need to learn that willing workers, such as my mother, deserve some unadulterated truth for a change.

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