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Attorney says Lyons will retain a role with church

The pastor's name remains on the wall of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church even though he is in prison.

By TWILA DECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 2, 1999



A Ministry in Question: more Times coverage of the Rev. Henry Lyons


ST. PETERSBURG -- Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church will get a new pastor, but even from behind bars, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons will remain part of the church, one of his attorneys said Thursday.

A small committee is searching for a replacement for Lyons, sentenced Wednesday to 5 1/2 years in prison for racketeering and grand theft, but the church will give him an honorary position while he serves his time, attorney Jay Hebert said.

"He'll probably be something like pastor emeritus," said Hebert, who expects a new pastor to be named soon.

Hebert didn't know whether Lyons or his wife, Deborah, would be paid by the church during his prison term. Mrs. Lyons did not return phone calls Thursday.

Church members have stood solidly behind Lyons during his troubles. Several on Thursday refused to discuss what the church will do now that its beloved preacher of 28 years is in prison.

"We haven't had a meeting yet. That's all I'm going to say," said Rosalie Moore, 95, a church member since 1919 who spoke on Lyons' behalf Wednesday at his sentencing hearing.

"We're going to go on just like we have," said Marva Dennard, a vocal supporter of Lyons.

The Rev. Anderson L. Clark, a former associate pastor at Bethel Metropolitan who resigned two years ago after becoming frustrated with Lyons' behavior, says he doesn't think church leaders were prepared for Lyons to be sent directly to prison after his sentencing. They had hoped the judge would allow him to remain free until his June sentencing on separate federal charges.

"I ran into a deacon this morning, and it is my understanding that they are all messed up. They're in a real tight (spot)," Clark said. "Basically, (Lyons) stayed in the pulpit until this week and never tried to get anything in order for when he left."

An official in the church's office declined to comment about the church's future and told a reporter to fax questions to Lyons, who has begun serving his sentence. He did not respond.

The fallen preacher's name still hangs outside the church.

Many churches might consider it a scarlet letter to have a felon's name on their wall, but Bethel Metropolitan seems undaunted.

The Rev. Manuel Sykes, a Lyons supporter and pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church, says he thinks Lyons' name will remain on the church for years and that Lyons will return to its pulpit once he gets out of prison.

"I believe they will try to wait for his release," Sykes said. "They have that kind of loyalty to him. They are probably hoping that at some point he will get some time off for good behavior or parole or something."

Under state law, Lyons must serve at least 85 percent of his sentence. He could face additional time on federal charges to which he has pleaded guilty.

The church on 26th Avenue S has been ground zero for the rise and fall of Lyons, who recently resigned as president of the National Baptist Convention USA.

Bethel Metropolitan's resolve to keep Lyons as its pastor, despite his criminal troubles, has baffled outsiders.

To understand the loyalty, Sykes said, one must first understand the African-American church, which has always been the one place disenfranchised blacks could count on for support.

"The church is a family. It is much more than an organization," Sykes said. "The pastor is seen as the father figure of that family, especially when they have been there as long as Lyons has.

"The work of the pastor is about putting lives back together. When he stumbles or has a problem in his life, that is not the time to abandon him. . . .

"For African-Americans, we tend to pull even closer together when someone is wounded."

But Clark says it is ludicrous for church members to continue to support Lyons.

 

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