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League asks Lyons what became of its donation

By MONICA DAVEY and DAVID BARSTOW

©St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 1997


As the fires struck African-American churches through the South, the Anti-Defamation League issued a plea for aid in national newspaper ads: "We have all been hurt by these acts of hate."

Thousands of Americans responded. They sent sympathy letters. They sent money, whatever they could afford. For some, that was a dollar.

When the Anti-Defamation League had raised all it could -- nearly $350,000 -- it asked two black church organizations to help disburse the money to the needy churches. One of those organizations was the National Baptist Convention USA, led by the Rev. Henry J. Lyons.

But several of the burned churches have received tens of thousands of dollars less than was reported in a November 1996 letter bearing Lyons' signature.

The letter reported that six Alabama churches "have been given $35,000 each." But pastors in some of the churches say they never got $35,000. Some got $10,000. Some say they got nothing.

"Good people tried to assuage hurt and pain and anguish, and if someone took advantage of it, that's very distressing," said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League. "I'm feeling sad at this point. I am disappointed."

On Thursday, Foxman sent a letter to Lyons demanding an immediate and "complete accounting" of the $244,500 the National Baptist Convention received from the Anti-Defamation League to pass on to churches.

"We are shocked and extremely troubled," Foxman wrote. "We had every faith that the funds would reach churches in need."

Lyons, through his lawyer, acknowledged that not all of the $244,500 went to the churches, but denied that any of it was used for personal expenses. The lawyer, Grady Irvin, said the letter was sent by mistake. He could not say how much of the total was spent to repair churches, or how much remains.

Irvin said he called the Anti-Defamation League on Thursday and requested a meeting "as soon as possible" to give a full accounting of the money.

"We are informing the ADL that the convention is prepared to immediately dispense the balance of the $244,500 contribution to all churches who would submit to the convention an invoice outlining reconstruction costs," Irvin said.

"In the alternative, the ADL can request that we issue the balance of the money directly to the ADL, and we will gladly comply with that. In other words, the money is there. The money has never been used for any personal gain or personal purpose. Not one dime of the money was spent to benefit any one person personally."

Foxman wants a thorough explanation.

"Our concern is that the money reach the people who needed it," he said. "If it did not, there is ample time to repair that now. . . . We have a fiduciary trust to uphold."

When fires began breaking out in 1995 at churches in Tennessee, Texas, South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama, the Anti-Defamation League paired up with the National Urban League to take a stand against the violence.

"People, all kinds of people, sent us letters expressing how they felt. We put them in a book to show kids in school how good people respond to such acts," Foxman said. Thousands more sent contributions, ranging from $1 to $12,500. The average contribution was for $50.

In 1996, the Anti-Defamation League called on the National Baptist Convention USA and the Congress of National Black Churches to distribute the money.

"We were not in a position to implement it," Foxman said. "So we turned to two responsible, respected, respectable church umbrella organizations and asked whether they would be willing to be the conduit."

During a meeting in New York in late 1996, the Anti-Defamation League gave Lyons a check for $225,000, made out to the National Baptist Convention USA. With Lyons that day were three Alabama pastors, men who had lost their tiny churches to fires and were searching for ways to rebuild.

Lyons posed for photos with a giant copy of the check and leaders from the Anti-Defamation League and the National Urban League.

In November, the letter bearing Lyons' signature was sent to the leaders of the Anti-Defamation League and Urban League.

The New Liberty Baptist Church in Alabama was one of the churches that the letter described as getting $35,000 from the National Baptist Convention.

That's news to the Rev. L.C. Pettway, pastor of the tiny, 25-member church for 28 years. "I ain't heard nothing from Henry Lyons," Pettway said. "Ain't seen him. Don't know him. Never met him.

"Nobody never told me nothing about any $35,000."

Pettway said that all contributions were deposited at the local Southtrust Bank branch under the stewardship of Ed Livingston, the bank's executive vice president and a main organizer of the rebuilding effort.

In an interview Thursday, Livingston said about $100,000 in contributions passed through the rebuilding account -- but not a dollar of that came from the National Baptist Convention.

"I am pretty much aware of everything that went into that account," he said. "I think without question if $35,000 had been donated to the New Liberty Baptist Church I would have known about it."

The church reopened in February, a year after it was burned by a white teenager who helped in the reconstruction. Though the construction work is over, Pettway said New Liberty remains in dire need of financial help.

"We got a light bill to pay. We got a water bill. We got an insurance bill to pay next week. The money would do us good. I could use that money."

Another church named in the letter as receiving $35,000 is led by the Rev. Levi Pickens. Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Boligee, Ala., received just $10,000 from the National Baptist Convention, Picken said.

Mount Zion's fire, after dark on Dec. 22, 1995, was the first of four in the area.

It cost about $100,000 to rebuild Pickens' 40-member church, which had been founded in 1796. Several thousand dollars came from insurance. More came from individual contributors. It was not easy, Pickens said. "People had to donate a lot."

The Rev. Arthur Coleman also received just $10,000, he said, not the $35,000 the letter reported.

When his church, Mount Zoar Missionary Baptist, burned in Boligee, Ala., on Jan. 11, 1996, the price of rebuilding was $140,000. A year ago last Sunday, Coleman's 40 parishioners celebrated at the opening of the new one. "People sent donations from all over the country to make this happen," Coleman said.

And Coleman had been among the pastors who traveled with Lyons to New York. "We stood up while he spoke," Coleman said. "I'm certain about the $10,000. That's all we got. That's it."

The same night, a few miles away, Little Zion Baptist Church also burned. The damage was estimated at $185,000. The Rev. Woodson Lewis, 93, said he recalls receiving $10,000 from the National Baptist Convention. He may have received other checks from the group too, he said. He does not recall it being as much as $35,000, however.

"I wouldn't know cause I don't know where all the money came from," he said. "I wouldn't argue with (Lyons' version of events) cause he was mighty nice to me."

Officials at two other Alabama churches -- Mount Lebanon Baptist Church and Rising Star Baptist Church -- also disputed the letter's claim that they received $35,000.

Mount Lebanon officials said the convention gave a $1,000 donation. Rising Star officials said they got no money from the convention. "We didn't get a thing," said John Hodge, a deacon at the church, which still needs landscaping, new windows and paint.

According to the 1996 letter to the Anti-Defamation League, a seventh Alabama church -- Sunlight Baptist -- was to soon receive what was left of the $225,000. If the other six churches had received $35,000, there would have been $15,000.

But the Rev. Jesse Montgomery of Sunlight Baptist said his church received more than that from Lyons. Montgomery got a check for $25,000.

He recalled Lyons promising him the sum at a meeting of pastors who knew of Montgomery's troubles. "Dr. Lyons had me stand up, and he committed to $25,000 right there," Montgomery said. Months later, the check arrived.

The 111-year-old church was set on fire on Oct. 27, 1996. "It was burned to the ground. Nothing but ash." Montgomery hopes it will reopen on the anniversary of the fire next month.

Irvin, the attorney for Lyons, acknowledged Thursday that not all of the money was spent as the letter specified. "The checks never got disbursed as set forth in the letter," Irvin said.

The letter, he said, was a "draft outline" that was sent by mistake. It was intended, he said, to describe how the National Baptist Convention planned to distribute the money.

"Dr. Lyons was unaware that that letter had gone out," Irvin said. The signature on the letter came from a stamp, he said. "Had he been aware the letter had gone out I'm quite sure he would have retracted the letter."

Why didn't the convention distribute the money as described in the letter? "That I don't have an answer for," Irvin said.

A second letter on Lyons' stationery, sent Feb. 11, described his plans for spending an additional $19,500 provided by the ADL for burned out churches. The letter said Lyons was evaluating damaged churches and would notify the league once he made awards.

Irvin said the total of the two ADL payments -- $244,500 -- has been held in a Baptist Convention bank account, available to churches that submitted requests for construction funds.

"Any money that was used was used for a worthwhile and needy cause such as the rebuilding of churches," he said.

Two senior leaders of the National Baptist Convention USA said Thursday that they were unaware the convention had received the funds. Nor did they know how that money had been spent.

"I'm not able to answer that question. I don't know anything about that," said the Rev. A.H. Newman, chairman of the convention.

"I don't know anything about this," said the Rev. Roscoe Cooper, the convention's general secretary. Asked whether he was aware the convention had been entrusted with nearly $250,000 to help rebuild burned churches, Cooper replied: "No, I did not. No, I did not."

The convention has made a cause out of helping burned churches. Convention officials touted their accomplishments in the organization's 1996 annual report:

"Within our own Convention family, we provided financial, spiritual and material support to those churches damaged or destroyed by the burnings. We collected special offerings and encouraged local pastors and churches to "adopt' burned churches and participate in their rebuilding efforts. We also proposed that our churches form local "watch' groups to protect one another from future arson attacks."

Cooper said he plans to speak with Lyons as soon as possible about the $244,500.


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