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  • Lyons' crisis cuts funds for college


    ©St. Petersburg Times, published February 7, 1998

    In a sign of financial distress brought on by scandal, the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. has stopped supporting its 700-student Bible college, causing a "severe financial crisis" at the school, the president of the college said Friday.

    Conditions are so grave that Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr., president of the American Baptist College in Nashville, Tenn., has worked without pay for more than a month.

    Other school officials have missed paychecks, too. Administrators are teaching some classes because the school can't afford professors. Repairs have been put off. A hiring freeze is in effect.

    "It has been a struggle and a sacrifice," Lafayette said.

    The college, founded in 1924, had been receiving from the convention about $50,000 a month, or nearly half the school's monthly operating expenses.

    Those payments ended in October, after months of revelations about lavish spending by convention president Henry J. Lyons, who is the target of state and federal investigations.

    "Dr. Lyons explained to me that the funds coming in were not enough for the convention to continue (the payments) at this time," Lafayette said, adding that it is common knowledge in the convention that many churches are withholding donations from Lyons' administration.

    In recent years, the convention budgeted $600,000 annually for the college. Lafayette said it will take "more than a miracle" to get the same support this year.

    "I can't expect anything," he said. "We're in a crisis mode, so we can't make any assumptions at this point. . . . But it is now clear we should not expect major support to come from the convention."

    Adding to Lafayette's troubles, another religious organization last summer ended its support of the college under an agreement predating Lyons' difficulties. The Southern Baptist Convention had given $30,000 a month.

    "I don't foresee at this time that the school is in danger of closing," Lafayette said. "Individual churches are stepping up (with donations.) Things are in the process of turning around. This is solvable."

    "There are some things that we have to do ourselves, and we can't depend on other people to do them for us," Lafayette said.

    Lyons could not be reached for comment Friday. But during the convention's midwinter board meeting in Los Angeles last month, he expressed frustration about the school's financial condition.

    His hope, Lyons said, was that the convention's financial help for American Baptist College would be the icing on a cake of other funding sources.

    "It is just not my concept that we are to actually be the cake" for the college, Lyons told a group that included Lafayette.

    "It's just not my idea that you can run a college off of church offerings," he said.

    Lyons asked every convention church to take up a collection for the school on March 8, his annual American Baptist College fund-raising day, which raised $170,000 last year.

    What else, he asked board members, could be done to raise funds for the hurting school? What, he asked Lafayette, would the school do to raise its own funds? What was the "real good constructive" plan?

    Lyons also complained that because of the public scrutiny he had received during the past year, American Baptist College students were wrongly blaming him for the condition of the school. They think it "is because of me."

    "I'm not giving enough money. The National Baptist Convention is not giving enough."

    Lyons asked Lafayette to get the students together and "give them some understanding" about that. "I'm not going to allow them (the students) to drag my name in the mud. I'm not going to have that."

    On Friday, Lafayette did just that, meeting with about 50 students, some of whom expressed anger that Lyons was shopping for expensive jewelry, luxury cars and mansions while they shivered through winter nights without adequate heat.

    "They are saying that more resources should come to the school," Lafayette said. "I understand that feeling."

    An accredited Bible school, the American Baptist College offers undergraduate degrees in theology. Its purpose is to prepare students for careers as Baptist preachers and educators. About 130 of the school's 700 students live on its campus, which consists of a men's dormitory, a library, an administration building, two small units for women and apartments for married students. Tuition is about $1,200 a semester; housing is $600.

    At Friday's meeting, Lafayette agreed that the college buildings need major renovations, including a $200,000 replacement of the plumbing and electrical systems in the 72-year-old men's dorm. But he blamed some problems on sloppy housekeeping by students.

    "They have to learn to respect where they live," he said.

    Lafayette also defended Lyons, pointing to Lyons' years of support to the school.

    One example: After Lyons was elected president of the convention in 1994, he threw a inauguration banquet. By tradition, the newly elected convention president keeps all the money raised during the banquet as a "love offering," Lafayette said.

    Lyons gave all the money from the banquet -- about $100,000 -- to the school.

    "We enjoyed his support," he said.

    After meeting with the students, Lafayette met with Nashville Fire Marshal John Petty, who had come for an inspection. Petty said the inspection resulted from a phone call by a Tampa Tribune reporter, who wrote about conditions at the college this week.

    Petty cited the school's dormitory for 16 deficiencies, including faulty emergency lighting, non-functional smoke detectors, missing covers on electrical outlets and light switches, and a lack of automatically closing doors in the stairwells.

    "None were life-threatening," Petty said. "In no place inside there did we think that students were in any danger. If we had, we could have closed the building."

    Is the school safe?

    "Absolutely," Petty said. "If my daughter, whom I love more than anything in the world, were there, I'd be comfortable."

    School officials will now be allowed 30 days to repair the problems, or at least show a good faith effort. Otherwise Petty could fine the school $67.50 for each deficiency, each day, until the problems are fixed.

    Said Lafayette: "There's nothing here that we can't correct in 30 days."

    Times staff writer Mike Wilson contributed to this report.

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