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The Rev. Henry Lyons


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Job secure, Lyons turns to preaching

By DAVID BARSTOW and MIKE WILSON, Times Staff Writers
©St. Petersburg Times, published September 5, 1997

DENVER -- The Rev. Henry J. Lyons delivered an impassioned, back-to-basics address to 15,000 Baptists on Thursday, pledging to turn his organization's direction toward saving souls, not raising money.

"The National Baptist Convention will put fund raising aside," Lyons said. "We will put it on the back burner. The mortgage will have to wait. Our petty jealousies will become meaningless in the face of such a challenge -- to win this nation, the United States of America, for Jesus Christ."

Lyons' 45-minute speech, more sermon really than speech, built momentum as he went. At its height, Lyons was singing. He threw his head back and cried out. His lips were quivering, his voice quavering, his body shaking. He ran a white handkerchief across his face to catch the sweat.

He was screaming now, of facing spiritual crisis:

"They killed me. They killed me. They put my phone number in the newspaper. They put my name on the Internet. They killed me. They won't tell the truth. But you can't kill somebody who is already dead. The quicker I die, I know, the quicker I'll be resurrected."

A drum punctuated his words. An organ hummed. The crowd was on its feet, hands waving in the air. People sang out "Amen!" and "Yes, yes!"

A day after Lyons survived a serious challenge to his future as president of the National Baptist Convention USA, the 55-year-old preacher was received warmly during his yearly address to his followers on the last official day of their meeting in Denver.

Lyons, who for two months has faced allegations of financial mismanagement and personal failures, did not offer specifics about the convention reforms he has promised. Even as Lyons promised to turn the convention's attention away from fund raising, other organization leaders called on members to donate $900,000 in "crisis money" Thursday afternoon, with the prospect of shrinking corporate and individual donors.

The leadership battle was clearly over Thursday in the hall of the Colorado Convention Center, where the challenge to Lyons had erupted in screaming and shoving just a day earlier. Convention members cried, shook hands and sang as Lyons finished his sermon.

"He bared his soul," said the Rev. J.C. Armstrong of Memphis.

"Beautiful," said Samuel Reid, a delegate from Cheyenne, Wyo.

Even the Rev. J.J. Barfield, the Philadelphia minister who had been a vocal member of Lyons' opposition, said Lyons had offered a "good message."

"He's fantastic," said Mrs. O.M. Bowman, a Denver parishioner who wept as Lyons preached. "We're all wrestling with ourselves."

"Everything he was speaking about I believe. We've got to get back to basics."

Lyons told the story of Jacob, an Old Testament character Lyons called a "smooth-talking crook -- just like the media is trying to paint me."

Jacob, whose sons were the founders of the 12 tribes of Israel, bought his twin brother's birthright with a bowl of stew and later fooled his blind, aging father by pretending to be his brother. Jacob was a trickster, a deceiver, a supplanter, Lyons said.

"Time after time, I've discovered there's some Jacob in me," Lyons told the crowd.

As a boy in Gainesville, Lyons said, his grandmother grew tired of the influence of radio programs such as The Shadow and Amos & Andy. She finally turned off the radio one night and took to reading him passages from the Bible. Right away, Lyons disliked the stories of Jacob.

However, as he grew older, he said, his thoughts about Jacob began to change. "The feeling of repulsion has lost its venom."

The reason, he said, was the discovery of himself.

He said the Jacob within him has caused him to yield to the lure of politics and ambition and the enticement of money. He said people often try to hide their own personal Jacobs by using titles: doctor, pastor, newspaper reporter. "What we have to realizeis our first name is "Sinner' and our last name is "Saved By Grace.' "

What he has learned in the past two months -- in his words, the "blessed struggle" -- is that you must "get right with God."

Lyons said he was wounded and weak from all that had happened. "I would rather limp to heaven than sprint to hell wide open," he said, as the crowd called out Amen.

"I've got a limp. I've got a limp," he said again and again. "I've been touched by the Master's hand, but I've got a limp."

* * *

Lyons said his vision for the coming year is this: Churches opening day care centers and schools.

"We exist for the purpose of reaching the world for Jesus Christ," he said. "Everything else takes a back seat on the list of our priorities."

Earlier in the day, the convention hall had been used as a fund-raising center.

The Rev. E.V. Hill of Los Angeles spent the day urgently appealing to the crowd for "crisis money," saying the organization immediately needs $300,000 to pay its meeting bill and $600,000 more to pay the mortgage on the World Center, its Nashville headquarters.

"If we don't give $300,000 this afternoon there's one other thing the paper's going to write about," Hill told the crowd. "They didn't pay their bills.

"We have got to have some money here this afternoon."

State branch presidents lined the front of the stage. Pastors stepped up with checks, as wicker baskets were passed through the audience. Hill read off contributions. $1,000, then $3,000, then another $1,000.

Lyons did not say how much those efforts had raised.

"I want to say right now straight out how much I appreciate -- it took us a long time to raise that money, but I want to tell you we needed it," Lyons said. "We really were in bad shape and everything."

As delegates left Lyons' speech, they were handed copies of The National Voice, the official newspaper of the National Baptist Convention USA. In it, Brenda Harris, the executive directorof conventions and meetings, for the first time addressed stories about her relationship with Lyons.

Harris' neighbors in Nashville have told reporters that she introduced Lyons at a social function as her fiance. When she was hired by the convention, Lyons offered to help her buy a house. The help came in the form of a guarantee from the National Baptist Convention to secure up to a $300,000 mortgage, a document that has been described as a forgery.

"I am not "involved' with Dr. Lyons personally. He has been a dear friend, mentor and client," Harris wrote in a first-person article. "He has spent time advising me about my conduct with the convention because I was new to this convention and he was interested in seeing both me and our department succeed. I have stolen nothing, I have embezzled nothing and I have no history of doing such."
-- Researcher Carolyn Hardnett and staff writers Tim Roche, Craig Pittman and Monica Davey contributed to this report.

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