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Congregation stands by pastor of 25 years
By MIKE WILSON and STEPHEN NOHLGREN
©St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2006
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rev. Henry J. Lyons, just back from the jail after he was accused of being a racketeer and thief, could take comfort Wednesday in the prayers of his congregation and the continued support of the leadership of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc.
Members of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church poured into the sanctuary Wednesday night -- Ash Wednesday -- to support Lyons, pastor for more than 25 years.
Still, Lyons' arrest raised a new outcry among his critics, who have largely been quiet since convention members voted last September to retain him as president.
Lyons' main political rival within the convention, the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson of New York, said Lyons' arrest "is the saddest day in the 115-year history of the National Baptist Convention."
He called on Lyons to "separate his problems from that of the convention, so as not to further the suffering of the convention. . . . I hope his love for the work (of the convention) will be larger than a selfish agenda of holding on to the position."
But Lyons has insisted he will not resign, and top board members have done everything in their power to keep him in office.
At the convention's midwinter meeting last month in Los Angeles, the board voted "to stand in support of Dr. Henry J. Lyons as president until the complete and final closure" of his legal troubles.
Some Bethel members, reached before the meeting at the church, expressed disillusionment with Lyons and said they feared for the future of the congregation.
"I'm one of the ministers that still teach Sunday school, but I don't sit on the pulpit," said the Rev. Alvin Miller, an associate minister. "I just don't feel comfortable in that pulpit with him."
Miller said he believes the church will weather the crisis.
"We've got a good church family. They need to stay focused on Jesus Christ and don't place all your hopes on one man. We're all going to mess up, one way or another. That's the guideline, hold on to Christ," he said.
But Latas Edwards, a member since 1958, said he is "very much concerned" about Bethel's future.
"I want it to be God's church. And I think we should obey God in every instance," he said.
Asked whether he believes Lyons should stay on as pastor, Edwards said, "I wouldn't want to discuss that with you."
Lyons' supporters in the convention were cautious when asked for a reaction to the arrest.
"We are not familiar with the indictments," said the Rev. Richard Bifford, the convention's recording secretary and a staunch supporter of Lyons. Bifford was among those who voted to retain Lyons even if he is charged as a criminal. "We will wait to see what the outcome will be."
The Rev. C.L. Bachus of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Kansas City and a member of the convention's ethics committee said the board should meet to discuss the charges.
"I'm not on the board of directors, but I think the board is going to have to look at this differently now than they have in the past," he said.
But others are seeking a quicker resolution.
The Rev. Caesar Clark of Good Street Baptist Church in Dallas renewed his previous call for Lyons to step down.
"When you do wrong, you have to be prepared to suffer the consequences," said Clark, who ran against Lyons for the presidency in 1994.
"I believe the convention will take the proper steps to maintain the dignity and the right of the convention. The convention hasn't done anything. It's been the doings of the leader . . . and the price should be paid by the guilty."
The Rev. Moses Javis, pastor of the Dayspring Baptist Church in Jacksonville, said the convention will suffer financially as long as Lyons stays in office.
"We've got a lot of churches not giving money and maybe have lost churches from the convention," Javis said.
Javis said nobody knows how much money the convention raised last month in Los Angeles, but he said he doesn't think it was enough to pay the interest on the mortgage at the Baptist World Center in Nashville.
"I wish him well but I don't think he should be president," Javis said.
The Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Manhattan, said the charges might spark reform within the convention.
"'I pray that many of these allegations will do not prove as devastating as we believe they are, for his sake, for the sake of his family and for his congregation," Butts said. "But if these charges hold up and the Rev. Lyons is found guilty . . . it will begin to set the National Baptist Convention free from decades of abuse and exploitation by its leadership."
Butts said he does not expect the board of directors to move against Lyons, certainly not before the convention's annual meeting this September in Kansas City.
"They are just as guilty as he is, if not more so," Butts said. The board discontinued an internal investigation of Lyons last September and "refused in light of mounting evidence . . . to take any action of any substantive consequence to solve the problem," he said.
The charges show that "this was not just a racist media attack
on Henry Lyons," Butts said. "If you are going to expose Jimmy
Swaggart, if you are going to expose Jim Bakker, if you are going
to go after Bill Clinton. Then who does Henry Lyons think he is
to exploit poor people?"
©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.