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The Rev. Henry Lyons

 

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Lyons' Big Lie

By MONICA DAVEY, MIKE WILSON and DAVID BARSTOW

©St. Petersburg Times, published October 25, 1997


Security officers guarded the ballroom doors. Only those with credentials got past. Inside, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons was speaking, pleading, explaining, and then explaining some more.

His audience, some 150 National Baptist Convention USA board members, had questions. Among them: Why all these marketing deals? Why had Lyons sold the convention's membership to the highest corporate bidders? Credit cards, insurance, funeral services -- what did these have to do with saving souls?

Lyons had an answer. Good works cost money, he said, and he couldn't rely on members alone. The truth, he said, is that the convention is far, far smaller than publicized. Forget the claim it has 33,000 dues-paying churches. He inherited 4,800 churches, he said. That's it. Marketing deals brought new revenue.

He was willing to speak the truth behind closed doors at a Denver hotel last month. But for years Lyons has knowingly misled the public about the size of the convention. Even now, Lyons propagates the fiction that the convention has 8.5-million members.

The group's own records suggest it has fewer than 1-million members.

But the exaggeration is repeated on every letter Lyons sends. Membership 8,500,000, his letterhead proclaims.

Lyons didn't create the lie; his predecessor did. But Lyons marketed it for personal profit and political gain.

It is the basis for his claim that the convention is the nation's largest black religious group -- and thus a seductive target for corporations and political leaders hungry to reach black Americans.

But first, they have to court Henry J. Lyons, gatekeeper to those alleged 8.5-million. And the gatekeeper expects to be paid, be it with lucrative commissions or with a hug from President Clinton.

Now, facing criminal investigation and financial hardship, the fake number is haunting Lyons and the convention.

Corporations that paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to reach millions of non-existent NBC members are ending their deals, or taking legal action.

Prosecutors are subpoenaing documents about the membership claims.

"Anyone who knowingly makes a materially false representation in order to get money from someone is committing a crime," said Clearwater lawyer George Tragos, a former state and federal prosecutor.

To convict such a person, the prosecutor would have to prove that he lied, that he knew he was lying, and that the lie would have made a difference to the other party involved in the deal, Tragos said.

Lyons and his lawyers this week declined to respond to written questions about the membership.

"Unfortunately, I cannot see the purpose behind your inquiry," attorney Grady Irvin wrote. "However, if your newspaper is seeking to do a positive newspaper article on the many, many good works of the convention's millions of hardworking and prayerful members and their families, my office will gladly endeavor to have the convention or its president provide you with an appropriate response."

Asked about his membership figures in a taped interview this summer, Lyons said, "Listen, listen, it ain't about no 33,000 churches. When I took the convention, they gave me 4,800 churches."

What about the claim of 8.5-million people? Lyons laughed, then sidestepped, "Don't get me in no trouble."

Is the group smaller than 8.5-million?

"Yeah, it ain't there," he said. "It is not there."

Far fewer than 8.5-million members

There is no complete list of NBC members. It is not for lack of effort.

Lyons has concocted all sorts of fund-raising appeals to entice individual donations -- and, in so doing, to build a data base of members. He has asked the convention's statistician to track membership. He has asked church pastors to provide their own membership lists.

The efforts failed. One problem: Many pastors refused to supply the information.

That hasn't stopped Lyons from asserting the convention is more than 8-million strong, a statistic reporters have unquestioningly repeated.

"I believe it's time we used our numbers, 8-million and 33,000 churches, to exercise our political muscle!" Lyons said in his 1995 annual address.

And a year later. "With over 8.5-million constituents under my purview as president of the National Baptist Convention, I am always concerned about individual's basic needs such as employment," Lyons wrote in 1996 to Quincy Farms, a Panhandle mushroom seller that sought his help in a labor dispute.

If Lyons' membership figures were accurate, the National Baptist Convention would be awash with money. Take Solidarity Day -- but one of dozens of fund-raising appeals. This is the day each convention member is asked to donate $1. With 8.5-million members, that should mean an $8.5-million payday, enough to pay off the convention's largest debt, the mortgage on its Nashville headquarters, with several million to spare.

Instead, the convention struggles to pay for the World Center.

The Rev. Richard P. Bifford, the convention recording secretary, estimated membership at 4.25-million. But even that figure appears to be vastly exaggerated, based on the convention's own documents.

Under the convention's revised constitution, an individual can be a member in one of three ways: You can pay $200 for a "life membership." You can pay $10 for an "annual membership." Or you can be selected as a delegate to represent your church or local convention branch, as long as they've paid their dues.

The convention's 1996-97 annual report lists fewer than 1,400 contributions from individuals.

The report lists donations or monthly tithes from about 3,700 dues-paying churches. It is unclear how many people from those churches were selected as delegates.

But assuming those churches average 250 members -- as convention officials estimate -- and assuming that every one of those people were considered delegates or lifetime members, the National Baptist Convention would have 925,000 members.

Consider a couple more numbers:

The convention newspaper, the National Baptist Voice, has a circulation of just 25,000.

In the 1994 election for convention president, fewer than 11,000 votes were cast.

Lyons received about 3,500 votes -- not even half a percent of the 8.5-million constituents he now claims to lead.

Counting church members is tough

The fiction of 8.5-million members originated with Lyons' predecessor, the Rev. T.J. Jemison of Louisiana, who led the convention for 12 years.

His administration simply added up the number of churches that belonged to each of the state Baptist conventions. The great majority of those churches don't give money to the national organization, which means they are not members.

They were counted anyway.

The total: 33,000.

Jemison's aides then estimated the churches averaged 250 members. They multiplied 33,000 by 250 and arrived at 8.25-million. Since then, the number has drifted up to 8.5-million and, even more recently, to 9-million.

The numbers went unchallenged. There's no easy way to independently verify the true numbers of any large religious group. The U.S. Census Bureau doesn't ask people their religion. The only information about membership comes from the organizations themselves.

Some give more reliable figures than others.

The Southern Baptist Convention claims precisely 15,694,050 members. The SBC has a sort of mini-census bureau that conducts an annual survey of its 40 state conventions and fellowships.

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America says it represents 1.5-million people, but spokeswoman Nikki Stephanopolous acknowledges that the church doesn't actually count. The 1.5-million figure equals the number of paid subscribers to the church newspaper, multiplied "by about six," she said.

"It's a very educated guess."

C. Eric Lincoln, a retired Duke University professor, spent 14 years researching a book about the black church. Determining the membership of any black denomination, he said, was "the biggest quagmire."

The numbers cited by the various black Baptist denominations prove it. The National Baptist Convention of America claims 3.5-million, and both the Progressive National Baptist Convention and the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America claim 2.5-million.

Yet all these denominations acknowledge that they are smaller than Lyons' group, which appears to have fewer than 1-million.

Indeed, Lyons' convention may not be the nation's largest black religious group, or even the second largest. The Church of God in Christ claims 5.5-million members, the African Methodist Episcopal Church 3.5-million.

The AME Church gets the figure by asking pastors to report the number of members they have.

"We have the bragging membership, and then there's the actual membership," says the Rev. Cecil Howard, the denomination's general secretary. "When they give a report, they're going to report the bragging membership."

The Rev. Ricky Spain, the AME Church's newspaper editor, once took over a church with a list of 600 members. When he crossed off the names of the dead and the long gone, the membership was half that.

Lyons profited from corporate deals

Lyons knew he didn't have 33,000 churches. He knew 8.5-million was a mirage. He knew he lacked even a decent mailing list.

None of those things stopped him from dangling fake membership numbers before corporate America. Along the way, he lined his own pockets and boosted his political power.

Lyons, who has supported both Democrats and Republicans, endorsed President Clinton in 1996 only after the White House courted him with telephone calls and an appearance at his church by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The same year, while fighting a union movement, Quincy Farms sought support from influential black leaders. That's when Lyons wrote his letter -- on behalf of "8.5-million constituents" -- supporting management. Lyons says Quincy Farms paid $10,000, half of which Lyons kept himself "for promotions and travel."

Florida's sugar industry also sought out black leaders, including Lyons, to help it defeat a ballot initiative to tax sugar. Of the $25,000 Lyons says the sugar industry paid the convention, he kept $10,000 himself for "promotions."

He pursued corporations with even greater relish, aided by a cast of characters that included a tax cheat, a preacher with a rap sheet, and a Miami business-man with a trail of bad debt. More instrumental were convicted embezzler Bernice Edwards and the Rev. Fred Demps, an ex-janitor.

In less than three years, Lyons cut more than a dozen marketing deals with corporations. The companies paid big money for the right to market cars, credit cards, funeral services, magazines, life insurance, health insurance, phone service, electricity, gospel music and even communion cups to the convention membership.

By Lyons' accounting, the deals generated more than $1.5-million in corporate payments for the convention. He says he paid himself and his friends 75 percent as "commissions" for setting up some of the deals. He admits paying himself more than $200,000.

Always, at the heart of their sales pitch, was the promise that they could deliver a marketer's dream -- millions and millions of hard-working, churchgoing, law-abiding Baptists.

"The National Baptist Convention held out a 14-karat-gold carrot," says Nikki Grossman, the Broward County tourism director, explaining why she supported the group's since-failed efforts to build a $61-million hotel on public land in Fort Lauderdale.

"I recall them throwing out their membership numbers, which was enticing to us," said Debbie Chuckas, senior vice president of marketing for National Telephone & Communications, a long-distance phone company in Irvine, Calif.

In 1995, the convention said it would market NTC services in the churches in exchange for part of the profits. With 250,000 subscribers, NTC delighted at the prospect of 8.5-million Baptists being exhorted by their leader to sign up for its phone service.

"If we got even one percent of their members," Chuckas said, "that would be a great thing."

NTC printed brochures and produced custom calling cards. The millions of new customers never materialized.

But then, what NTC didn't know was that Lyons was promoting another long-distance company at the same time -- the fledgling Nettele Systems Corp. of Virginia.

Nettele -- which also thought it had an exclusive deal with the convention -- was also lured by the possibility of signing up millions of black Baptists, founder Py Lam said. Demps, Lyons' friend and business partner, put the number of convention members at 8-million, Lam recalled.

"That really was the whole key draw," Demps said in a recent interview.

Lam said he spent about a year and several hundred thousand dollars trying to get convention members to sign up for his phone service, but got only about 200 to do so.

"A lot of honest churchgoers believe in that Baptist church," he said. "They are so honest and so faithful. But they trust the whole thing to a bunch of -- I cannot say."

After Lam complained he wasn't reaching people, the convention gave him what it said was a partial list of members. Lam checked the list. It appeared to him the names had been taken from the phone book. To be sure, he asked his staff to call some of the people on the list.

"They're not even members of the church," he said. "Some of them were not even black."

In at least one deal, Lyons has acknowledged that he supplied a corporate partner with 9-million names from a source other than the convention membership.

His aides simply purchased the names, he said.

No, they weren't Baptist names, but his partner, Globe Life and Accident Insurance Co., understood that, he said. All Globe wanted, he said, was to buy a mailing list of 9-million "black names," along with his endorsement of its insurance products.

Globe appears to have thought it was getting a list of NBC members.

Asked if Globe understood it was buying "black names" -- not an NBC membership list -- Globe's general counsel responded by faxing a page from the Statistical Abstract of the United States, published by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The page shows the NBC had 8-million members in 1992. What the page does not show: The figure was "self-reported" by the convention.

If Lyons exploited big businesses, he did so with their consent.

He dealt mostly with corporate giants like General Moters, not mom-and-pop companies, and these corporations surely knew more about deal-making than any Florida preacher. There was something in the deals for both sides. Lyons and the convention got money; the businesses bought easy access to a large, untapped, highly coveted consumer group.

Or so they believed.

These white-controlled corporations also got something else -- a chance to burnish their images. When Norwest Corp. announced it was going into the mortgage business with the convention and four other black church groups, the company said it hoped to "spur home ownership among the nation's minority population."

Norwest wasn't just in it for the money; it wanted to do good in society.

Plans for 10-million members by 2000

Lyons' foray into big business has backfired on him. Many of his former corporate partners feel ripped off. Two have sued and at least one other is talking to a lawyer. Most ominously, some of the companies that once cozied up to Lyons are now handing over documents to prosecutors.

And still he soldiers on. He boldly claims he has increased the convention from 4,800 churches to 17,000 churches since taking office.

The assertion is contradicted by his own annual reports. They show only 3,700 dues-paying churches, a 22 percent decrease.

Undaunted, Lyons announced at the convention's annual meeting in Denver last month that he has "beseeched the Lord" for guidance in expanding membership still more.

"God heard my cry and my call," Lyons wrote in his annual address. "Now, because of this rare privilege to come so close to His presence, that I might know His will, I therefore give to this Convention His will for 2000: "TEN MILLION BY 2000.' "

Lyons called on the convention statistician to conduct "a church-by-church search until we find and identify every member of this great body."

"At the rate of growth that we are currently experiencing, we can reach 10,000,000 members in three years," he wrote.

"This is the goal. This is our focus."


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