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  • Lyons answers to Baptist board members today

    By WAVENEY ANN MOORE and DAVID OLINGER

    ©St. Petersburg Times, published July 17, 1997


    NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The president of the nation's largest black religious organization will answer questions about his leadership and his finances today in a private meeting with top National Baptist Convention officials.

    The Rev. Henry J. Lyons announced the meeting last week at a news conference in which he declined to answer questions about his ownership of a $700,000 house with a woman other than his wife.

    "It is my full intention to give . . . a detailed report because I owe it" to the board, he said last week.

    But even as Lyons and other church leaders gathered here, new questions arose about the inclusiveness of this Baptist family gathering.

    Lyons' supporters said a broad invitation had been issued to people within the 8.5-million-member convention who have questions for their president. Some of Lyons' critics say they never received that invitation.

    No dramatic developments are expected to emerge from today's meeting. The board of directors has no power to remove Lyons but could make a recommendation about his future leadership. Only the entire convention, which meets in September, can choose a president.

    The crisis in Lyons' leadership began with a house fire. Police say it was set by his wife on July 6 while he was in Nigeria with a church delegation. The delegation included Bernice Edwards, who co-owns a $700,000, waterfront home in Tierra Verde with Lyons.

    Deborah Lyons set several fires in the house, tore pillows and broke lamps, then told investigators that her husband was having an affair with Edwards, police reported. Mrs. Lyons later said she set the fires accidentally.

    Her arrest was followed by revelations of Lyons' lifestyle, which included luxury cars, and Edwards' criminal conviction for embezzling money from an alternative high school in Milwaukee.

    Many of Lyons' allies will hear his explanation for those events today, but some key opponents will be absent. They said they will wait to exercise their clout at September's general meeting in Denver.

    Walter Cade Jr., the National Baptist World Center's executive director, denied Wednesday that Lyons' friends had been selective with their invitations.

    "That's not true," he said. "From what I have been informed, it is for the National Baptist Convention family. Pastors or any of the lay people can come."

    Cade said he expects 180 to 200 board members and "many others" at a meeting planned at the Renaissance Nashville Hotel.

    The Rev. J. J. Barfield of Philadelphia said he had hoped to attend today's meeting as a representative of convention members in Pennsylvania.

    "I want to go with the authority to speak for the state of Pennsylvania so that I can let them know that this is not some rubber-stamp committee to endorse a bunch of wrongs," he said Tuesday.

    That same day, he said, he learned that the Rev. James Hall, the convention's president in Pennsylvania, did not choose him as a representative. "He thought I was too radical," Barfield said.

    Barfield added that a nucleus of six people is forming an opposition to Lyons, but he declined to specify their plans.

    The Rev. E. V. Hill, a board member in Los Angeles, said he expects Lyons will have reasonable answers for the questions that have been raised recently. He added that Lyons should not be required to address everything from his car ownership to his marriage.

    "The one question before the convention is "Did you use any of the funds of the National Baptist Convention to do these things that you've been accused of?' According to the statements I have, we have no missing funds," Hill said.

    Lyons has emphatically denied having an affair with Edwards and has suggested that racism played a major role in the stories about his finances.

    Another church leader not in attendance is the Rev. Jasper Williams, an ex-board member who once ran against Lyons for the presidency. He said the convention's basic problem "is putting so much trust and confidence in one man."

    Williams said Lyons put him in charge of one of the four Armies of God, committees the president organized to raise money to reduce the mortgage on the convention's headquarters.

    "I worked for two years as one of the generals," Williams said, "but in terms of saying how much each army turned over, nobody knows. Because we were never privileged to make the announcement of funds raised. All I know is how much I raised."

    Williams said he raised $300,000 in two years by soliciting some of the organization's poorest churches.

    The scandal leading to today's meeting has hurt and disappointed many people, he said.


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