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  • Bethel Metropolitan transcends publicity


    ©St. Petersburg Times, published July 12, 1997

    ST. PETERSBURG -- The tiny congregation that founded Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church could not have imagined that its place of worship would become the focal point for thousands of black Baptists statewide and millions across the nation.

    Nor could the members have foreseen that their humble institution -- once only 12 members strong -- would become involved in controversy. Deborah Lyons was arrested Sunday and accused of setting a fire at a house she told officials her husband -- the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, Bethel's pastor since 1972 -- owns with another woman.

    On Monday evening Mrs. Lyons recanted that story, but public records confirmed Lyons owned the Tierra Verde house with Bernice V. Edwards, a convicted embezzler with numerous aliases and Social Security numbers.

    The pastor was investigated on bank fraud charges in 1991 but paid $85,000 in restitution and entered a pretrial intervention program. Records also show Lyons owns homes and property worth more than $1-million and seven vehicles.

    "My parents would really be shocked," said Calvin Hicks, 65, who no longer attends the church where his family were members. Hicks left Bethel in 1986 after a disagreement with Lyons.

    "He had me taken off the board, and at that time I was the head of the deacon board and the building committee that built the church," Hicks said. "And prior to that I had been head of the trustee board for seven years. And I had been superintendent of the Sunday school."

    Bethel Metropolitan was founded in September 1903. Its congregation declined to a dozen members by 1907 but eventually began to thrive, and relocated from Second Avenue near Ninth Street S to 301 10th St. S. Membership was more than 600 by the time the church dedicated its expanded facility in 1953.

    Black-and-white photographs in a souvenir book show smartly dressed women wearing Sunday hats and carrying Queen Elizabeth-style handbags.

    There is a notice from the Women's Christian Temperance Union inviting others to join in pledging to "abstain from all fermented liquors including wine, beer and malts, and to discourage the use and traffic in the same."

    Marva Dennard, a business and media consultant and community activist, was a young child during these years. She has fond memories of the 10th Street church. It is where her parents took her to worship. She was baptized there and was a member of the children's choir, the Sunshine Band.

    "I can remember sitting in the front pew of the church," she said. "That is where we always sat. I remember you couldn't chew gum in church. The ushers would come with their white gloves and put the fan in front of your face, and you had to put the gum on the fan."

    In those days before air conditioning, she said, McRae's Funeral Home supplied members with fans.

    "They had pretty pictures on them," said Dennard, recalling also that members of the McRae family were a prestigious addition to the church.

    As a child, she added: "I thought they were millionaires. I thought they were the richest people in the world."

    Some of the children with whom Dennard said she attended Sunday School also would become well-known in the city. Watson Haynes ran for City Council and now is a vice president at Operation PAR, a drug treatment and rehabilitation program. Rudolph Bradley became a Florida representative. Barbara Anders is one of the key people behind the founding of Academy Prep, an alternative school scheduled to open this fall.

    Sundays were long days, Dennard said. "We'd go to church every Sunday and all day," she said with a chuckle.

    Sunday school was followed by church service. Then it was home for lunch only to be back at church at 5:30 p.m. for a group meeting and evening service.

    "It was only two or three of us who had to go all day long," Dennard said. "Other children got to go to the movies."

    But Dennard said she believes she and other children who attended Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church learned a great deal of discipline back then. They felt a sense of reverence when they entered the church building, for instance.

    "You didn't write in church," she said. "You sat straight and looked at the preacher."

    Other things also have changed since then.

    The 10th Street church no longer is standing. In 1981, Bethel Metropolitan was one of three black churches slated for relocation when the city took over the Gas Plant area for the proposed Major League Baseball stadium. Church members moved into their new quarters at 3455 26th Ave. S in 1985.

    "It was awesome to move from that building to a brand new facility," said Hicks. "It was really a feeling of accomplishment in one sense and a sense of loss in another."

    Dennard also was sad about the move.

    "You always want to see progress, but you lose a sense of history," she explained.

    Such progress seemed to come with the arrival of the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, who became pastor of Bethel Metropolitan in 1972. Within 10 years of moving in, the 1,500-member congregation was able to pay off its mortgage, Dennard said.

    Additionally, Lyons also ensured the church's prestige when he became head of the Florida Baptist General Convention and in 1994, president of the 8.5-million-member National Baptist Convention U.S.A.

    "He is an ambitious man. He is an ambitious leader, always looking to see what can be done next," Dennard said of her pastor.

    His high profile among black Baptists was advantageous to Bethel Metropolitan, she added.

    "The church became a role model," she said. "That meant that conventions were held at Bethel. It was the host church for state and national meetings."

    The Rev. Jesse Jackson and first lady Hillary Clinton also chose to visit.

    For some, that history and tradition transcend the troubles of their pastor.

    "Bethel means a lot to me," said Vivian Hurst, a retired housekeeper and longtime member. "I love the friendship that we have between members."

    Hicks is familiar with that feeling, for it was there when he was growing up.

    "Everybody was concerned about everybody else," he said. "Everybody knew everybody. They knew if they were sick or if they had troubles. The church reached out."

    And Dennard, whose grandparents, parents and children have worshiped at the church, refuses to be alienated from it because of negative publicity.

    "I still feel that it is my church, and it is my family's church," she said. "Every church has problems. Why leave one and go to another? No matter what happens, we will stay with our church. We wouldn't forsake our church. That is our home."

    ©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.