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As NBC gathers, legacy lingers

The imprisoned Rev. Henry Lyons won't be among the thousands of Baptists gathering in Tampa this week, but his presence will be felt.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 5, 1999

TAMPA -- A prophet is never appreciated in his hometown, Jesus said, but this was the week that the Rev. Henry J. Lyons planned to prove that wrong.

As president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., the St. Petersburg minister used his clout to schedule the historically important group's annual meeting in Tampa, friendly territory that would help ensure his re-election to a second five-year term.

His plans went badly awry, however. And this week, instead of presiding over adoring throngs in Tampa, Lyons will be languishing in a prison cell near Ocala.

Meanwhile, the business of the convention continues. An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 black Baptists are expected to attend, said Vicki Isley of the Tampa/Hillsborough Convention & Visitors Association.

It is the largest convention to come to the Tampa Bay area, she said, and one of the largest gatherings in local history, too. The Final Four last March attracted 40,000 people, Isley said, and the Super Bowl in 2001 is expected to draw 75,000.

The crush of visitors heading to the Ice Palace and Tampa Convention Center has prompted city officials to issue an advisory to businesses and commuters. Thursday, the day convention crowds are expected to swell for the election of a new leader, would be a good day for downtown commuters to stay home, they say.

Eleven men, including several Lyons allies, are seeking the presidency he relinquished in March. For the most part, they are talking about the future, vowing to leave the Lyons scandal behind and restore the good name of their 104-year-old organization, which has a tradition of evangelization, social justice and education.

"This is an absolutely critical moment of truth for the convention to reflect upon its fundamental purpose, values and goals in relation to its historic mission for black Americans," said Cain Hope Felder, professor of biblical studies at the Howard University School of Divinity.

The Tampa meeting is crucial to the convention's recovery from the damage that was done to its credibility during Lyons' tenure, Felder said. It is as crucial as the meeting in 1961, when Martin Luther King Jr. tried -- and failed -- to get the convention to make the largest black denomination in the United States the base for the civil rights movement.

As they contemplate the future, convention leaders hope to pull the denomination out of its financial quagmire. They have an ambitious campaign to raise $4-million by week's end. The money would be used to pay off the $2.8-million mortgage on the convention's cavernous Nashville headquarters and repay thousands of dollars borrowed from church members to satisfy lawsuits and other debts.

The next few days promise controversy. Some delegates are unhappy with the Tampa venue, citing a shortage of hotel rooms near the mammoth gathering. And a dispute simmers over alleged election irregularities that could prevent qualified delegates from voting Thursday.

A century of prominence

"I think the most important thing to remember about black Baptists is that they represent the earliest expression of black-led Christian churches among the African-American slaves in North America," said Gayraud S. Wilmore, retired professor of church history at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta and author of the book Black Religion and Black Radicalism

Founded in 1895 with the merging of three church groups, the National Baptist Convention USA became the largest black church organization of its time, with an estimated membership of more than 2-million. Though its size is disputed now, with estimates ranging from fewer than 1-million to 8-million members, it still is considered the largest black church group.

Its history is defined by a time line of battles and splits. The first occurred in 1897. A second, in 1915, created the National Baptist Convention of America, now the second-largest black church group.

Perhaps the most notable fissure came in 1961, when King and Gardener Taylor challenged president J.H. Jackson's leadership and attempted to get his support for the young civil rights movement. That quarrel created the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

More recently, in 1993, another break resulted in the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship.

Although the NBC has long been one of the most important institutions in black America, it wasn't until Lyons became president -- and disgraced it -- that the organization became more widely known.

It was Lyons who hobnobbed with Bill and Hillary Clinton. It was Lyons who used the convention's good name to swindle more than $4-million from corporations eager to market everything from funeral plots to life insurance to the NBC's members. It was Lyons who pocketed most of the $244,500 the Anti-Defamation League gave him to distribute to burned black churches. It was Lyons who spent the convention's money on mistresses, jewelry and fancy real estate.

For months, Lyons steadfastly clung to his job, resigning only after he was convicted on state racketeering and grand theft charges in February. In March, he pleaded guilty to tax evasion and fraud in federal court. He is now serving a 51/2-year sentence in state prison.

Big budgets and slick brochures

Although Lyons is gone, his legacy will figure prominently this week as the NBC delegates elect his successor.

Delegates from approximately 3,500 churches will find familiar names on the ballot. The battle for top place is thought to be among the Rev. E.V. Hill of Los Angeles, who some regard as Lyons' hand-picked successor, and the Revs. W. Franklyn Richardson of Mount Vernon, N.Y., and William J. Shaw of Philadelphia, who both ran against Lyons in 1994.

There are a few relatively unknown candidates, each defiantly eschewing the big budgets, slick brochures and campaign handlers of their better-heeled rivals.

For example, the Rev. Matthew V. Johnson of Greensboro, N.C., at 37 the youngest of the candidates, has vowed not to adhere to "the same big-fish-eat-the-little-fish kind of rules."

The Rev. John D. Kelly from Detroit has not attended any candidate forums and has not spent any money, but thinks he has "as good a chance as anybody running."

Perhaps the title for most intrepid should go to Cleo McConnell, a deacon from Homer, La., who claims to be the first lay person in the history of the clergy-dominated convention to run for president.

The campaign has produced three distinct themes: financial and organizational reform; spiritual renewal, and socioeconomic advocacy.

Interestingly, the Rev. Roscoe D. Cooper Jr., Lyons' faithful general secretary, is emphasizing a return to the convention's spiritual mandate.

"I believe we need leadership that is willing to submit to the authority of God," said Cooper, who remained loyal to Lyons even after Lyons was accused of forging Cooper's signature to several documents.

Cooper concedes that he does not have "a ghost of a chance" of winning this week's vote. The odds, he said, favor Hill.

"Dr. Hill kind of has the endorsement of Dr. Lyons. When Dr. Lyons resigned, people who had managed Dr. Lyons' campaign put forward Dr. Hill," Cooper said. "E.V. Hill is sort of an heir to the Lyons legacy."

A Republican who counts Jerry Falwell among his friends, Hill helped Lyons keep the presidency during two tumultuous years of state and federal investigations.

Richardson thinks Hill's steadfast defense of Lyons will hurt his chances.

"Lyons led us to this, and the people who are associated with him do not receive a mantle of honor. The rank and file want to see this convention rebuilt, reformed and renewed," said Richardson, whose jet-hopping campaign has been criticized by rivals.

The Mount Vernon, N.Y., minister declined to say how much he has spent in his bid to capture the seat he lost so narrowly five years ago.

Hill, on the other hand, acknowledged spending about $50,000. Some of that money will help pay for a five-minute, in-room commercial that will air at the Hyatt Regency Tampa, the convention's hotel headquarters.

Cooper is aghast at the deep pockets of some candidates.

"Who made the jet available?" he asked of the planes Richardson used.

"We know that those things don't come for nothing. We know from Dr. Lyons' time that when the bills come due, the convention's got to pay. . . . Why would you spend over a quarter-million or half a million dollars to win this job? Why, when the honorarium is $50,000?" asked Cooper, who said he has spent about $10,000 for his campaign.

"I am not running for a job," said Richardson, a Yale-educated pastor with a home in Scarsdale, the affluent Westchester County suburb outside New York City.

"I am one of the best-paid ministers in the denomination. I'm not running for a nice house or a nice car. I'm very secure as a person. I'm running to save what I think is one of the most important institutions in the African-American community and whatever amount of money it takes to get that job done, it is worth it."

As the Rev. Jasper Williams Jr. of Atlanta sees it, the convention should be completely overhauled.

He is among the candidates who think the NBC should work to alleviate social and economic problems in black communities.

According to the Rev. Acen L. Phillips of Denver, another candidate, "Real religion is putting bread on people's table. You just can't have a convention that is just concerned with the spiritual side of life."

The past two years of scandal have been tortuous for the NBC, though Thursday's election holds hope for a new beginning, said the Rev. Arlene Churn of Philadelphia.

"We certainly want this process over so a healing process can begin," Churn said, "and so we can catch up on our delayed agenda for the presence and power of our denomination as we approach and enter the next century."

-- Times researchers Cathy Wos and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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