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Lyons says Churches didn't need funds

By DAVID BARSTOW and MONICA DAVEY, Times Staff Writers
©St. Petersburg Times, published September 16, 1997

The Rev. Henry J. Lyons explained for the first time Monday why he withheld $189,500 in donations to rebuild seven burned-out Alabama churches:

"Many of the churches, in my considered opinion, just did not need the funds," Lyons said, explaining that his "fact-finding" and "investigation" determined the churches had plenty of money to rebuild.

"Are these churches destitute as the media says? I don't think so. I know they're not," Lyons told WTVT-Ch. 13 in an interview.

Several people involved in rebuilding the Alabama churches, which were burned during a rash of church arsons throughout the Southeast, were astonished when told of Lyons' comments.

"He said what?" asked Mary Hodge, of the tiny Rising Star Baptist Church in Greensboro, Ala. "I tell you what, we're still building. Does that tell you anything?"

"Every day, there's a different story," said Abraham Foxman, national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League. The group raised the donations and then asked Lyons to distribute the money as president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., the nation's largest black church organization.

"To get up and say this, it is so disingenuous," Foxman said.

If the churches really were not in need, he asked, why didn't Lyons tell the organization so? Why did Lyons send a letter promising the money would go to the churches? Why, for 10 months, didn't he tell the organization the money wasn't needed?

"Why didn't he send back the money to us and suggest that we apply it elsewhere, to other needs? Or call us back?" Foxman said.

"Months have gone by. He could have called us to let us know all this before he was embarrassed."

Asked in the television interview why he allowed the money to languish in convention bank accounts, Lyons replied: "That I don't really, really know."

Lyons described himself as a responsible financial steward. "We did not just want to send those funds out for the sake of sending the money out."

Several people directly involved in the rebuilding effort could not recall a fact-finding mission by Lyons. They did, however, recall struggles to raise money for their small, sometimes impoverished parishes.

"We're not rich," said the Rev. Arthur Coleman, whose church burned on Jan. 11, 1996.

Coleman said it took months of fund raising to come up with the $140,000 to rebuild Mount Zoar Missionary Baptist Church in Boligee, Ala. Forty people attend the country church. "Word got around, and people came forward," Coleman said.

"The church has been rebuilt now, but back then, we could have used the money. People can always do something good with money." Foxman recalled meeting three of the Alabama ministers at a formal ceremony in New York to announce the donations.

"They all sounded like they needed help," Foxman said. It was at that ceremony, in November 1996, that the League presented Lyons a check for $225,000. A few weeks later the group received a letter bearing Lyons' signature. The letter named six churches that "to this date" had been given $35,000 each.

The letter said Lyons already had completed a thorough study of the churches, found them in dire need and even requested additional donations for a seventh church.

"I have spent a great deal of time in travel and phone conversation working with seven (7) churches ... " the letter said. "After a close investigation, it has been determined that (the seventh church) ... is in great need of financial assistance. Therefore, I am sending out a nationwide appeal to help this congregation. If you know of any additional funds, please forward them to the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. at the above address."

In the interview with newscasters Denise White and Kathy Fountain, Lyons said he dictated the letter, but never meant for it to be sent. He said someone else, perhaps his secretary, stamped his signature on the letter.

"The letter was never to be sent. I questioned my secretary over and over again."

She couldn't remember what happened to it, he said.

"The letter was sent out prematurely without my knowledge."

Lyons said the donation money was deposited into an "operating account" of the National Baptist Convention. He denied diverting the money to other convention uses, as his attorney, Grady Irvin, was quoted as saying last week.

In a published report, Irvin said some of the money was used for unspecified "emergency situations" at black colleges supported by the convention. Anti-Defamation League officials said Irvin told them the same thing.

On Monday, Lyons said Irvin made those comments without consulting him.

While faulting his attorney and staff, Lyons said he accepts blame for the controversy: "I am the one responsible for this, the problems here, the mistakes, the errors." He also claimed credit for placing new, unspecified financial controls over convention money.

"It's not business as usual. We have put in some drastic reforms for check writing, money spending, even money receiving," Lyons told the television station. "All of this was at my initiative."

In the meantime, Lyons said, the $189,500 he withheld from the churches will be refunded to the Anti-Defamation League. "The money is en route to New York by way of Federal Express," he said.

Foxman said late Monday the check had not arrived.


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