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When God calls, with his hand stuck out

By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 1999


Whatever else may be said of the Rev. Henry Lyons, he is a con man of principle.

He never suggested he was out for anybody but himself.

You can't say even that of Greater Ministries International. The people behind this alleged pyramid scheme were cruel enough to say they were in the God game for other people.

Federal agents in Tampa last week arrested seven leaders of this supposed church and charged them with conspiracy, money laundering and fraud, for promising to double the money of their thousands of devout, and now much poorer, Christian investors.

It was uncertain Monday whether the inconvenience of an indictment tripped up business at the church offices in Sulphur Springs, in central Tampa. Most of their phones went unanswered, although one man who did pick up identified himself by stealing from Dr. Seuss. The man said he was "Sam-I-am."

The recorded line was still accepting prayer requests and promised the peace that surpasses all understanding.

The front door of the church's office was locked and a sign told everybody and anybody connected with the law that they were not allowed in.

The parking lot contained cars with tags from as far away as New Jersey and Tennessee and several small trucks with the logo and 800 number of a Greater Ministries ministry I had not heard of, the Share-Time Ministry. (The 800 number turned out to be disconnected.)

A couple with deeply lined, pale faces were sitting in their sedan. The man said he knew of the indictment and that they had invested no money in Greater Ministries.

Not yet.

The woman said they had come to see their "contact person." She also wanted a tour of the place. She said this in a tone you'd expect from somebody approaching holy ground, or at least Harry Truman's homestead.

This lady would be easy to ridicule. Too easy.

Much more interesting is to ponder this unholy trinity of God, the gullible, and the con.

They're linked by faith.

Religion is a leap of faith to start with, a dream of something better coming. And something better be coming, if you don't have much to begin with, and never will, unless some miracle as good as the one that multiplied the loaves and fishes comes along.

That's the kind of people cons prefer. They're the sort whose faith cons can cash in on.

You read about this, about people who were fooled into giving away retirement savings that were the product of a lifetime of sacrificing small pleasures, and you think how dumb could they be?

It seems so obvious from the outside. What church would boast of corporate offices in Grand Cayman Island, where there are no income or capital gains taxes and bank transactions are absolutely secret?

Like it or not, Greater Ministries International's victims may only be as dumb as the rest of us. We put our faith in office football pools, herbal cures, airplane pilots, political candidates, and in sweet numbskull notions like:

I'll get the promotion, because I earned it.

If I'm good to my kids, they won't go bad.

If I sit by the phone, he'll call.

Put it another way: The rest of us may only be smart enough not to be suckered out of our money.

I never did find out more about the elderly couple in the parking lot.

A man with a voice full of what might have been years of barroom cigarette smoke shooed me off the Greater Ministries property.

He threatened -- oh, my -- to call the law.

He was wearing a shiny blue jacket, the kind high school kids wear when they're on the same team.

The jacket carried the Greater Ministries logo on the front and on the back, the words GOD SQUAD.

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