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'I hate that I've hurt so many people'

A repentant Rev. Henry Lyons gives up the presidency of the National Baptist Convention.

By DAVID BARSTOW and WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- They bade farewell to their leader as a hero, not a felon.

They hugged him, gripped his hand, slapped his back, whispered everlasting affection into his ear. They begged him not to leave. When he insisted he must, they promised to take care of his family when he's in prison, and they railed against the injustice of it all.

For the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, the moment of denouement came with love.

Flanked by his attorneys, embraced by his wife, wrapped in a cocoon of loyal lieutenants, Lyons announced his resignation Tuesday as president of the National Baptist Convention USA.

"I felt that I had to resign, I should resign, and therefore I did resign, and they respected my wishes to do that, reluctantly," Lyons said in a news conference outside Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, where he met with his board of directors.

"I want to say to all those that came and again to this community, St. Petersburg, and to Florida and to the United States of America, black Americans, Christians everywhere, that again, I'm just so sorry about all of this. I'm truly repentant about it. I hate that I've hurt so many people."

At that moment, Lyons' face crumpled. He backed away from the microphone, his lips quivering. It was a vivid image of contrition, an image he may further burnish today if, as expected, he pleads guilty in federal court to five additional crimes, including tax evasion and fraud. Those charges will join Lyons' state convictions for racketeering and grand theft.

"It's all right, Doc," someone called out.

"There's a lot of love behind you," said another.

His voice hoarse and cracking, Lyons introduced the man he hopes will succeed him as leader of the nation's largest black church group, the Rev. E.V. Hill of Los Angeles.

Hill is a Reagan Republican who counts Jerry Falwell among his friends. He also asserts that Lyons is the victim of a white conspiracy to eliminate black leaders.

"Dr. Lyons, may I say to you, that you have given the National Baptist Convention much more than you have ever caused it to be embarrassed," Hill told Lyons, placing a steadying hand on the minister, who had tears streaming down his cheeks. "We are not embarrassed. We did not think that you were the Messiah. We knew you were a man. We knew you were subject to error. We are with you."

Hill insisted he is undecided on whether he will join the already crowded field of men running for president.

Hill promised only to support the interim president, the Rev. S.C. Cureton, a 68-year-old former math teacher from South Carolina who said he will serve only until the next election, to be held in September in Tampa.

"We know our convention needs much healing," Cureton said of his agenda. "Therefore, I commit myself as an instrument in the hand of an omnipotent God to lead this convention in the healing process."

Cureton hailed Lyons for his "outstanding leadership." He said Lyons leaves a legacy of accomplishment: reduced debt on the Baptist World Center in Nashville; increased support for black colleges; regular tithing by member churches.

Like most other NBC leaders in St. Petersburg Tuesday, Cureton skirted discussion of the weak financial controls that, according to prosecutors, allowed Lyons to transform the venerable 119-year-old convention into a criminal racket. On that subject, Cureton said only this: "We pledge to be accountable for every dollar."

But the mood was not so forgiving at the Baptist World Center in Nashville, where two dozen NBC ministers held a news conference Tuesday to criticize Lyons for "desecrating" the convention.

"We will never again be subjected to one-man rule," said the Rev. Kenneth Whalum of Memphis, who called for tighter fiscal controls. One reason: Over several years, records show, Lyons funneled millions of convention dollars through an account in St. Petersburg that he kept hidden from his auditors and his finance committee.

"We've got to do radical surgery," Whalum said.

Even in St. Petersburg there were dissenters, such as the Rev. Warren H. Stewart Sr. of Phoenix who circulated this statement to NBC board members: "OUR CREDIBILITY IS SHOT! We have become the "laughing stock' of Christendom and looked upon with disdain by many entities."

And when the Rev. Roscoe Cooper, the NBC's general secretary, claimed that the board of directors unanimously passed a resolution asking Lyons to remain as president, there were scattered cries of protest.

"It was not unanimous," Stewart called out. "Tell the truth, Roscoe."

For Lyons, the resignation marked the end of lifelong ambition to lead the National Baptist Convention, an ambition he relentlessly pursued for years by traveling from city to city, preaching in revival tents and country churches and urban mega-churches.

"When you've wanted something all your life and you get it and then it ends up in the ashes, that's a painful, hurting thing," said the Rev. Michael P. Williams of Joy Tabernacle in Houston. "He's humiliated."

The humiliation is not over. Still ahead for Lyons is the question of prison -- where and for how long.

He faces three to eight years in prison for his state convictions. His attorneys estimate he will face between 70 and 87 months in prison for the federal offenses he plans to admit.

But will he serve time in a state or federal prison? On this point, Lyons' many attorneys were long on TV face-time but short on answers Tuesday.

One by one, they appeared at Bethel to pay homage to Lyons and to milk the last valuable drops of free publicity from this remarkable case. At one point, defense attorneys Denis de Vlaming, Jay Hebert, Grady Irvin Jr. and Jeff Brown were offering separate but simultaneous news conferences to whichever microphones were closest.

It was a tableau of legal ambition and infighting, with Brown insisting that Irvin no longer has the authority to speak for Lyons, while Irvin criticized a 20/20 interview brokered by de Vlaming.

De Vlaming, meanwhile, said Lyons has come to terms with his impending punishment.

"I think the acceptance aspect part of it has been made by him. There has been a lot of uncertainty. A lot of questioning himself," he said.

As Lyons prepares to meet his fate, members of the convention are debating the damage he will leave behind. Convention financial reports have shown a sharp drop-off in the number of contributing churches. Budgets have been slashed.

E.V. Hill insisted the convention is strong. "'All auxiliaries are functioning," he said. "All boards are functioning. All commissions are functioning. We are not a cult, dependent upon one person. We are a convention well-organized. I don't believe during Clinton's trial that any department in the United States closed up. Well, none did in the National Baptist Convention and none will."

Others were less sanguine.

"We are concerned about bringing those factions back together that have disappeared and stopped participating from a financial support as well as other support," Cureton said.

"We are not saying that they are sheep that have wandered away, but we need to bring them back together because without everybody's support in this convention then this convention will not continue to prosper as it has done and it will continue to do."

Cureton said he does not know the convention's financial condition, or whether it is in arrears. But there is one expense convention officials said they are determined to pay -- a stipend of up to $100,000 a year to Lyons and his family while he is in prison.

"Our prison ministry stands ready to visit not only him . . . wherever he may be," said the Rev. John A. Evans Sr. of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg.

"He is my friend."

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