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Deborah Lyons basks in goodwill

By MIKE WILSON and WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writers
©St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 1997

DENVER -- Forget about the disheveled and seemingly bewildered woman in the police booking photo: This week, accused arsonist Deborah L. Lyons has appeared comfortable and relaxed, her shiny-black hair released from the incarceration of its French roll.

Mrs. Lyons is a new woman. On Friday she wore purple.

"Regal," gushed Martha Vinton of Brooklyn, still atwitter after encountering Mrs. Lyons at a meeting of the women's auxiliary. "She looked absolutely regal."

It has been a week of redemption not just for the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, but also for his wife. Just as the delegates of the National Baptist Convention USA chose to overlook their president's dubious personal and financial dealings, they also pardoned the first lady for dropping the match that touched off the controversy.

Everywhere Mrs. Lyons went she forgave and was forgiven, confessed and heard confessions, and gave love and received the same in return. At one point she acknowledged that she is a recovering alcoholic and was cheered for her candor.

The next day, before 15,000 delegates in the Colorado Convention Center, the Rev. J.E. Miller of Kentucky referred to Mrs. Lyons as "a lady of ladies. A lady of all seasons. A lady who stood up in the person of Sister Lyons and said, "I am a recovering addict.'

"Sister Lyons, I want to say to you that all of us are recovering addicts. All of us got sin," Miller said, and the delegates applauded and shouted amen.

Another speaker, Virgie Davis, presented Mrs. Lyons with a bouquet and said, "A woman who loveth the Lord, she shall be praised."

Still, the week has seen some trials and embarrassments. The National Baptist Voice, the official convention newspaper, carried an interview with Lyons in which he was pressed to say that he and Bernice Edwards "are very good friends, but we are not lovers."

Edwards, a convicted embezzler with a long history of bankruptcies, is listed as the owner, with Lyons, of the $700,000 Tierra Verde house that Mrs. Lyons set afire on July 6. Mrs. Lyons first said she set the blaze in a fit of jealousy, but later said the fire was an accident.

The same issue of the Voice featured a front-page article by convention meeting planner Brenda Harris of Nashville, who, neighbors say, once introduced Lyons as her husband at a social gathering.

"I am not "involved' with Dr. Lyons personally," Harris wrote. She added, "I, for one, will be praying for the president, Mrs. Lyons and their family through all of this."

Mrs. Lyons did not respond to requests for interviews. But in an open letter to the women of the convention, she acknowledged that the last few weeks -- in which her husband became the subject of two criminal investigations and countless newspaper stories -- have been "extremely difficult."

"But through the Grace of our Lord, we are walking tall, together, and moving forward by Faith, trusting in His Word," she wrote in the Voice.

She also vouched for Lyons, saying, "Sisters, I have known Dr. Henry J. Lyons for 27 years, and in that time I have never known him to intentionally do any harm to any individual or organization that he is associated with. He is a good man and a God-fearing man."

Mrs. Lyons was treated warmly from the moment she and her husband arrived in town. At a Sunday night prayer meeting in the Marriott City Center Hotel, a woman sang, "Bless our president tonight. Bless his wife tonight."

But her greatest moment came Wednesday, when she helped Lyons beat back a challenge to his presidency. After dissidents called for Lyons to step aside, the normally retiring Mrs. Lyons stepped to the microphone to defend him.

She acknowledged her drinking problem and told of how Lyons helped her to overcome it.

"That took a lot of guts," said the Rev. Leonard N. Smith of Virginia, who was present for the speech. "I am sure that it was extremely difficult for her to publicly acknowledge a human frailty. That is a difficult thing for anyone to do."

Lyons' detractors saw the speech as a political ploy.

"Dr. Lyons is fortunate to have a wife who can be programed to retreat without the truth being told," said the Rev. Arlene Churn of Philadelphia.

She said she owes Mrs. Lyons a thank-you card and a sympathy card -- a thank-you card for setting the fire that exposed Lyons' dealings and a sympathy card because Mrs. Lyons has stayed with "that excuse for a man."

Another delegate, the Rev. Charles Kenyatta of New York, said, "When your husband has been begging the convention to forgive him, and when you were one of the main factors in bringing him to this, how can you go back and try to make an appeal to save him?"

He added, "The damage has already been done. When she set the house on fire, she opened a can of worms."

The speech was Mrs. Lyons' only foray into convention business. The National Baptist Convention is run entirely by men, with women in supporting roles.

This week, the women's department met in a building across the street from the convention center. There, they could buy various books and pamphlets, including copies of a sermon reminding them of the biblical teaching that men must be the heads of their families.

On Friday, Mrs. Lyons appeared before the convention women, sharing the stage with Bunny Wilson, author of such books as Betrayal's Baby, about forgiveness, and Liberated Through Submission, about the role of women in marriage.

Wilson said in an interview that Mrs. Lyons, as a Christian, had no choice but to forgive her husband.

"Forgiveness is a decision to give up your right to judge why another person did what he did," she said. Those who put their faith in God know that "ultimately, justice will be applied in every situation."

Wilson said she knows that some women don't blame Mrs. Lyons for setting the fire. But she said the only way Mrs. Lyons could gain power was to forgive, and let God do the rest.

"A Christian lifestyle sometimes defies worldly logic," Wilson said.


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