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Lyons gets handshakes, hugs at church

The Rev. Henry J. Lyons stops in at Bethel Metropolitan before his stepgrandmother's funeral.

By WAYNE WASHINGTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 1, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- Handshakes turned to hugs at Bethel Metropolitan Church on Sunday as the Rev. Henry J. Lyons soaked in the solace offered by people who came to greet him the day after he was convicted of racketeering and grand theft.

The National Baptist Convention president, who faces three to eight years in prison under sentencing guidelines, was allowed to remain free on bail, and Sunday he planned to travel to Gainesville for the funeral of his 81-year-old stepgrandmother, Minnie Lyons, who helped raise him.

But before leaving for Gainesville, he stopped at Bethel Metropolitan, the church he pastors, although he did not preach Sunday's sermon.

His wife, Deborah Lyons, was already there when he arrived, sitting in the front pew and wearing a black and silver dress with a tall black hat. Fellow churchgoers offered comfort, patting her on the back and rubbing her shoulder.

The service was underway before Lyons took his seat next to the pulpit as the choir sang Lift Him Up.

Worshipers hugged him and let their feelings be known with a quick and loud "Amen" any time there was mention of overcoming hard times. Songs like Jesus Will Fix It For You and If You Just Hold Out 'Til Tomorrow seemed to take on added meaning.

Lyons did not stay long or say much at the service.

Speaking in an even tone somewhere between his fiery preacher's voice and the somber monotone he used at times during his six-week trial, Lyons thanked the congregation for its support.

"Please pray for us," he said. "We're running a bit behind. I don't want to make a public statement."

After another speaker said church members should not lose faith, Lyons announced the church would hold a membership meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday. No topic was outlined, though it seemed clear his legal troubles would be discussed.

"We find it necessary to come together to talk, to get together as a family to determine what direction we want to go in in light of the current circumstances," Lyons said.

No one mentioned Saturday's verdicts directly. And after the service, churchgoers would not answer a reporter's questions about Lyons' legal problems.

Jurors decided Saturday that Lyons had abused his convention position to enrich himself and his friends, and he awaits sentencing on those convictions. He also faces dozens of federal charges along with co-defendant Bernice Edwards, his former convention aide. She was acquitted Saturday on a racketeering charge. Both will be tried in federal court in April.

Before leaving the church Sunday, Lyons again thanked the congregation for its prayers, and then another minister delivered the sermon.

It centered on Romans 10:14, which reads: "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?"

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