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As critics seek resignation, backers offer their support

Several express concern about what the guilty verdict will do to Lyons' denomination.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 1999

The conviction of the Rev. Henry J. Lyons brought demands for his immediate resignation as president of the National Baptist Convention USA as well as pledges of unswerving loyalty and quiet expressions of sympathy.

"I've always thought that he should step aside, at the very least until this was all over. Now it is even clearer," said the Rev. Kenneth T. Whalum, an NBC board member and pastor of Olivet Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn.

Whalum said he had expected a guilty verdict, adding: "My only surprise is that the lady (Bernice Edwards) didn't get anything.

"I have difficulty believing in her innocence in the face of his guilt, because it was a team effort."

Also calling for Lyons' resignation was the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson of Mount Vernon, N.Y., one of two major candidates hoping to unseat Lyons as NBC president during the organization's annual meeting this fall in Tampa.

Lyons should "release the convention from being a partner with him in this dismal ordeal," he said.

Should Lyons refuse to resign, Richardson vowed to call on the convention's board of directors to force his ouster.

"If he does not act, they must act to save us and show that we are a people of accountability and responsibility and integrity," he said. "We don't need a president who is on his way to jail."

The Rev. Arlene Churn, pastor of an NBC church in Camden, N.J., for 17 years, also is adamant that Lyons should step aside.

"It is certainly a sad day for Baptists and Christendom throughout our country," said Churn, speaking by telephone from Philadelpia. "In the name of God, he should resign immediately."

But supporters are standing firmly behind the embattled leader.

One is the Rev. George W. Lee, executive secretary of NBC's Unified Plan, which allows member churches to send monthly tithes to support the convention.

Almost every morning of the trial, Lee came from his Ocala home to the Pinellas County courtroom where his longtime friend was on trial.

Lee, the pastor of the Greater Hopewell Baptist Church in Ocala, sat with his head bowed after the verdict was read.

"I am at a loss. I am surprised," he said after a while. "I am 100 percent behind him."

Even one of the pastors who was victimized by Lyons offered support.

"I have no complaint against him," said the Rev. Woodson Lewis, 94 of Boligee, Ala. He was one of six Alabama pastors who got $10,000 or less from the NBC to rebuild their burned churches, even though a letter bearing Lyons' signature told the Anti-Defamation League that each church received $35,000 of the ADL's donated money.

At least one local minister thinks Lyons' conviction will have a negative impact on the black church.

"Even before this," said the Rev. M. Mason Walker, "the larger society didn't see us as a real church, so anything that would support that view would necessarily be negative."

Walker, who has known Lyons since 1972, added that his conviction reflects poorly on all clergy.

The Rev. Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church, who hugged Deborah Lyons in the courtroom Thursday before sitting with members of the Lyons family, said he "wanted to reach out and comfort them in some way. I felt that there wasn't very much else I could do."

Perhaps Lyons could have helped himself by testifying, he said.

"I think that must have been the pivotal reason why Miss Edwards wasn't convicted. She was able to show that she is a human being who made a mistake, not a criminal," Sykes said.

Sandy Martin, a professor of religion at the University of Georgia and an African-American Baptist, said he hopes the trial leads to reforms in the NBC and prompts church members of all denominations to rein in pastors with too much power.

"There are many ministers that teach a theology of leadership that feeds into this idea that the pastor is a person sent by God and, therefore, what he says is gold," Martin said in an interview before the verdict. "That carries over to this kind of shoddy accountability system."

Darren Sherkat, a professor of the sociology of religion at Vanderbilt University's Divinity School, predicts there will be some changes in the convention as a result of the case, although like Martin, he said he isn't sure the changes will go far enough.

"(The NBC) has been run much more like a kingdom or an empire governed by whoever is elected," Sherkat said Friday. "It is really in a state of transition and has been for a very long time. It has always been loosely structured."
-- Times staff writers Twila Decker and Mike Brassfield contributed to this report.

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