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  • Clergy urge Lyons to step aside

    By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
    ©St. Petersburg Times, published August 16, 1997

    PHILADELPHIA -- Here, in the shadows of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, the first stirrings of revolt have begun.

    About 50 Baptist ministers huddled for two hours Friday and then unanimously called for the Rev. Henry J. Lyons to relinquish control of the National Baptist Convention USA -- at least for now.

    The convention's executive board, at Lyons' urging, appointed an ad hoc commission Aug. 2 to investigate Lyons' affluent lifestyle, his romantic links to two convention employees and his stewardship of church funds.

    Lyons "should step aside and give that commission full freedom to do a full and thorough investigation that will be credible and that the convention can have confidence in," said the Rev. James Allen, a spokesman for the Philadelphia group.

    Lyons could not be reached Friday for comment, nor could his lawyer, Grady Irvin.

    Since Lyons' wife was accused last month of setting fire to a Tierra Verde home he owned with another woman, ministers around the country have criticized him, with some calling for his resignation.

    However, the Philadelphia meeting was the first semblance of organized and public pressure.

    Attending were several ministers of influence.

    Allen is a board member of the national convention and also heads Philadelphia's Human Rights Commission. He called the meeting along with the Rev. James Hall, president of the Pennsylvania State Baptist Convention, who lent his Triumph Baptist Church in north Philadelphia for the meeting.

    Allen, Hall and others said the group was representative of the African-American Baptist clergy in the Philadelphia area, who serve from 100,000 to 150,000 parishioners. Traditionally, Philadelphians contribute heavily to the national convention's Foreign Mission Board, which is headquartered here.

    With a reported membership of 8.5-million, the National Baptist Convention is the largest African-American church group in the country. Lyons, who was elected president in 1994, appoints most convention officers and exercises broad control over policy and spending.

    He can be removed only by a vote of the general convention membership, which will have its annual meeting Sept. 1-4 in Denver.

    Attending Friday's meeting was the Rev. Albert Campbell, a Philadelphia minister who was appointed to the 18-member investigative committee. Allen said Campbell would urge the investigative committee to ask Lyons to step aside before the annual meeting.

    Most of the Philadelphia ministers were circumspect during curbside interviews before and after the meeting.

    Lyons "has been good for the convention," said the Rev. Cleveland Edwards of St. Jude's Baptist Church. "He brought us a (ministers') pension fund. He lowered the debt. It was $4-million when he came in. Now it's $2-million. He's a good man."

    A few were openly critical.

    "I think Lyons' reputation has been damaged so much that he needs to resign," said the Rev. David Weeks Jr. of Shalom Baptist Church. "I don't think the newspaper would have printed these things if they didn't have truth to them. They would get sued."

    This week, the Times reported that Lyons used money from church accounts to pay part of the down payment of the Tierra Verde house, which he owns with convention publicist Bernice Edwards, a convicted embezzler from Milwaukee.

    Lyons secured the mortgage on the home with a lease from the National Baptist Convention promising to pay $4,000 a month as tenant. One of the two convention officials whose name appears on that lease said he knew nothing about it.

    Other stories showed that Lyons bought a Lake Tahoe time-share condo with Edwards and used church accounts to help buy her a $36,200 diamond ring and a $135,000 Mercedes-Benz.

    Controversy over Lyons is tainting other ministers in the convention, Weeks said, and anti-Lyons sentiment is growing around the country.

    "When church folks get dissatisfied, they cut off the money," Weeks said. "He's painted all of us and I'm not that way."

    The Rev. Willie Graves of St. Phillip's Baptist Church agreed that Lyons, the president, may be too damaged to maintain his position. But he offered sympathy for Lyons, the man.

    "If his church forgives him and his wife forgives him, and certainly God forgives him, then we can forgive him."

    The role of the investigative committee, called the Commission on Ethics, Integrity and Accountability, was outlined in a letter, dated Aug. 4, signed by Lyons; Dr. A.H. Newman, chairman of the board of directors; Dr. Roscoe D. Cooper Jr., general secretary; and Dr. H. Devore Chapman, secretary of the board of directors.

    The commission "will establish procedures and processes and conduct its investigation independent of the office of the president and the Board of Directors," the letter says. "The president, officers, staff and members of the Board of Directors of the convention are expected to fully cooperate and provide information as requested by the commission."

    One commission member, the Rev. Calvin McKinney of Passaic, N.J., said the probe likely will include an examination of financial records and other documents. "We're going to be looking into everything," he said.

    The commission is to report its findings at the convention's annual meeting in Denver, the first week of September.

    "We encourage all pastors and churches of our convention to designate every Saturday and Sunday between now and our Denver Annual Session as Special Days of Prayer for our president and his family, and our convention," the letter states.

    The commission consists of 16 men and two women. It includes both clergy and lay members from 16 states. None of Lyons' six vice presidents or convention officers are on the commission, nor are any of the commission members from Florida.

    McKinney said the group is a mix of convention leaders -- Lyons' advocates, opponents and people somewhere in the middle. "It varies," McKinney said. "Most of the men were chosen because they represent people of leadership and integrity."

    Several commission members referred questions to commission chairman E.V. Hill, a prominent Los Angeles pastor who has long been a major figure within the convention.

    Hill could not be reached Friday.


    -- Times staff writers David Barstow and Monica Davey contributed to this report.

     
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