The Rev. Henry Lyons
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Lyons, back in the pulpit, preaches on persecution
Deborah Lyons is greeted by well-wishers outside Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church following Sunday's service. Mrs. Lyons sat in a front pew for her husbands sermon.
Times photo: Andrew Innerarity
By WAYNE WASHINGTON
©St. Petersburg Times, published July 14, 1997
ST. PETERSBURG -- Bathed in the brilliant light of the stained-glass windows at Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons preached Sunday of a troubling time for two of God's disciples.
Peter and John were persecuted -- eventually arrested. But they stood firm in the face of the threatening world around them.
"Don't you worry about the world -- they'll arrest you, they'll hold you up, they'll even hold you down," Lyons said. "They'll put your name on the sign posts of life and may not ever take it down. Don't worry about that. God knows what's going on."
With his wife, Deborah, on the front pew, Lyons preached of Peter and John. Of remaining close to one's roots, of praying together and of staying together.
When his impassioned sermon was done, when the amens and the hallelujahs had faded, Lyons walked to the entrance of the church and was swallowed up by the hugs and kisses and well-wishes of a congregation that seemed very much in his corner.
Outside, television camera crews hovered just off the property, springing to action when Bethel's doors opened and its determined members spilled out.
Several said Lyons preached as he always preaches. This service, coming a week after Lyons' wife was arrested for burglary and arson inside a Tierra Verde home Lyons co-owns with a convicted embezzler, was not unlike others, they said.
But there were several pointed asides to the wealth Lyons has acquired since becoming head of the National Baptist Convention USA, an organization of more than 8-million Baptists across the country.
Joking as he told the congregation of a family outing that will offer hot dogs, fish and ice cream, he said with a laugh: "That fish won't cost you a thing. That (ice cream) won't cost you a thing. This isn't about money." Later, though, during his sermon, Lyons reminded his congregation that Peter and John weren't poor and that they weren't less righteous because of that.
"Keep in mind, Peter and John, them boys had boats," he said to loud laughter. "They had boats. They had nets. They were commercial fishermen. They fished by night. They sold what they caught by day. They was doing pretty good."
That Lyons himself is doing so good didn't seem to bother his congregation on Sunday.
Church members offered quick amens during his sermon and verbal backing afterward.
Lyons did not speak to the media. But his lawyer, Grady Irvin, came out to thank reporters for not disrupting the services.
"Church was great this morning," Irvin said. "Dr. Lyons was very well-received. He feels very good to be back home and the parishioners seemed to accept Dr. Lyons with open arms and understanding. There won't be much to say about this and we won't expect many of the members to have very much to say as they come out of the congregation this morning. That is basically all we have to say today."
The few who did speak out on the controversy spoke up for Lyons.
"I still love him and support him," said Chris Haugabook, a 10-year member of Bethel. "A lot of people are judging him, but if he was your pastor, you'd be supporting him, too."
Others around the country haven't been as willing to overlook the controversy. Some Baptist ministers, most prominently the Rev. E. V. Hill, pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Los Angeles, have said they will withhold contributions to the National Baptist Convention USA.
Rev. W. James Favorite of Tampa's Beulah Baptist Institutional Church said he will not follow Hill's lead.
"Hill is being very small," Favorite said. "Preachers should not prejudge and make the assumption that funds are not going to the convention, but to Henry Lyons. It think it's sad. I'm shocked that he said that."
Favorite also chose not to address the issue from the pulpit on Sunday.
"I don't come to preach about people," Favorite said. "I come to preach about Christ. We won't be saved talking about Henry Lyons' life, his contributions, or the mistakes he might have made."
Another local minister, Rev. Chico Dials of St. Petersburg's Mt. Zion Baptist Church, preached about greed, lust and a lack of contrition.
Dials, Mt. Zion's associate pastor, delivered Sunday's sermon in the absence of its pastor, Wilkins Garrett Jr., who was out of town. Garrett has described himself as Lyons' best friend.
"I don't care who is doing wrong," Dials said during his sermon. "If you're wrong, you're wrong."
Afterward, though, Dials insisted he did not want his words to be misconstrued to fit the events of the past week.
"That's why you didn't hear me say any names," he said. "This was for the people of Mount Zion."
The people of Bethel Metropolitan got no such message. Rather, they tried to send a message to Lyons.
"I think he's as good as any of us," Morgan said. "I'm not going to another church. I grew up in this church. If church members are hurt, it's because they were expecting something and were disappointed. All I expected was to hear the word of God."
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