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Despite protest, Lyons will speak

By MONICA DAVEY and DAVID BARSTOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 3, 2006


Weeks ago, a conference of Philadelphia ministers invited the Rev. Henry J. Lyons to preach during their April meeting. It was to take place at the Mount Olivet Tabernacle Baptist Church, where the Rev. Marshall L. Shepard, a member of the conference, has long been pastor.

But Shepard's congregation has rebelled. A majority of his 400 church members voted against Lyons' appearance at their place of worship. The 28-member deacon board issued this ominous statement:

"It was communicated (to Rev. Shepard) that if the conference failed to cancel this event then the deacons and the congregation intended to prevent this event by any peaceful means necessary."

When Lyons, the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. president from St. Petersburg who is charged with racketeering and grand theft, arrives at Mount Olivet this Saturday afternoon, he is likely to find members of Mount Olivet and other Philadelphia churches protesting. To object to the embattled Baptist leader, the churchgoers will sing and pray on the sidewalk outside, according to Carey G. Sims, the chairman of Mount Olivet's deacon board.

Shepard, meanwhile, refuses to alter the plans even as Lyons' appearance threatens to separate him from his congregation. All this, even though Shepard and his church are not members of the National Baptist Convention.

"He will give the sermon," Shepard told the Times Thursday. "Basically, our church has always been open to all people, whether their causes are popular or not. If a church is to be worth its salt, it should be able to lend voice to unpopular causes. Anyway, thoughtful people know that a person is innocent until proven guilty."

Lyons will not go to trial until 1999, but Mount Olivet's deacon board says it does not want to be seen as condoning the acts he is accused of: skimming millions of dollars from the Baptist convention using secret bank accounts.

During the 2 p.m. meeting Saturday, the Independent Ministers Conference of Pennsylvania and Vicinity, a 3-month-old interdenominational alliance of about 30 ministers, will induct its officers. The group unanimously selected Lyons to give the keynote sermon during the meeting, Shepard said.

"There was nothing political about it," Shepard said. "He is a very good preacher. Our group is independent and includes many denominations so we have no political aspects. We are concerned only in the fact that he is a brother beloved."

Lyons' travel expenses will be paid by the group, but he will receive no fee for speaking or contribution to his legal defense fund, the conference said.

Since the controversy surrounding Lyons began last summer, Philadelphia has been one focal point for opposition to Lyons' leadership of the National Baptist Convention. It was there that the first organized effort to unseat Lyons formed last fall. About 50 ministers, including several influential convention members -- the Rev. James Allen and the Rev. James Hall -- called for Lyons to step aside.

Similar forces, Shepard says, have led to the latest controversy over Saturday's meeting. "The opposition to Dr. Lyons is centered here, and that is fueling all of this trouble. They will use any tactic to try to embarrass him."

Lyons could not be reached for comment Thursday.

He will not cancel his appearance at Mount Olivet, Shepard said. "He is quite aware of the opposition that he has in this city, and he is not concerned at all."

Shepard, too, is unconcerned about his future as pastor of the church, despite the current rift with his membership.

In its 97 years, the church has had just three pastors. Shepard, 72, has led Mount Olivet for 41 years. The pastor before that was Shepard's father.


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