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  • Lyons controversy casts shadow over friend

    By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Staff Writer
    ©St. Petersburg Times, published August 17, 1997

    ST. PETERSBURG -- Except for the single gray scar in the fold of his left arm, time has faded the Rev. Wilkins Garrett's track marks.

    The heroin addiction he overcame more than 15 years ago is much more than a memory, though. Garrett's sermons at Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church repeatedly mention how low he once was. He preaches empowerment, hard work and redemption, and he uses his own spotty history as a lesson.

    He tells his congregation: Jesus never gave up; neither should you!

    Garrett stepped up to the pulpit of a 300-member church 17 years ago and helped it grow to the largest African-American congregation in the city, with at least 2,500 members. Through Mount Zion, he built a virtually unmatched community outreach network, feeding the hungry, educating children and building houses.

    But for one of St. Petersburg's highest profile community leaders, the public spotlight has become increasingly awkward.

    Garrett, 47, is under fire at his church for his steadfast support of his best friend and mentor, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, the beleaguered president of the 8.5-million member National Baptist Convention USA. Some church leaders have let Garrett know that his close relationship with Lyons and the public attention he has brought on himself are not appreciated.

    "We have asked him to cut loose from (Lyons)," said Mount Zion deacon William Ruth. "These things lately are getting in his way. It's not becoming of a pastor."

    As if the longtime association with Lyons weren't already raising eyebrows, on Aug. 7, Garrett drove his black 1995 Mercedes-Benz E300 into a sabal palm. He apologized to his congregation last week, saying he was distraught about Lyons' troubles and had been drinking. He expects to be charged with driving under the influence, though police are awaiting the results of a blood test.

    "Probably, if they gave me a Breathalyzer, the machine would have exploded," Garrett said Friday.

    Garrett is making no promises about distancing himself from Lyons. But even as he ardently defends his longtime friend against allegations of infidelity and misuse of convention money, he also distances himself.

    "He's my friend, and he was always there for us," Garrett said. "I hate that all this has come up, but I'm not going to abandon him now that it has."

    Later in the same conversation: "I'm squeaky clean. I'm not a Dr. Lyons. He and I are friends, but we're not at all alike, not in our focus, not in our style of pastoring."

    'Definitely his vision'

    Walk through Mount Zion's busy facilities any day of the week, and Garrett's lesson of overcoming adversity is echoed repeatedly among the staff of nearly 40. So-and-so was living on the streets before she found Jesus. That person was a crack head, nearly lost her kids, until she got it together. Him? Another former crack smoker.

    Mount Zion, at 955 20th St. S, is today part of a multimillion-dollar complex that includes a church, day care center, elementary school, housing and social service building. The church and its social service arm offer everything from mentoring young men to substance abuse counseling. Three years ago, Garrett and his social ministry were featured in a glowing CBS documentary narrated by Walter Cronkite.

    Garrett is largely responsible for Mount Zion's social activism, though church members say health problems during the past two years have slowed both him and his programs.

    "It was definitely his vision, because there were many programs that he spearheaded there that he stepped out on a limb to get started," said Chico Dials, an associate pastor at Mount Zion.

    Dials was among those expressing concern recently about Garrett's close association with Lyons, but he is also a strong admirer of his pastor.

    Dials had been hustling drugs a few blocks from the church until one afternoon a few years ago, when he decided to walk into Garrett's office. "It's a down-to-earth ministry, and he can talk in the homeboy language," said Dials, now president of MasterStitch Embroidery Co. "Because of where he's been and where he's come from, he has a real ability to communicate with young people."

    Where Garrett came from makes Mount Zion's dramatic growth all the more remarkable.

    Through most of the 1970s, the Greenville, S.C., native was a heroine user, albeit a functioning one, supporting his family while working for insurance and manufacturing companies in Indiana and Pennsylvania.

    Family connections drew him to Florida. Brenda Paul Garrett, whom he married while both were students at Indiana University, had family living in Tampa, and the Garretts opted for the warmer climate. Then known as Bill, he spent about a year working as one of Crown Pontiac's first black salesmen. Then a death changed his life.

    He wasn't yet ordained -- Lyons would later perform that ceremony -- when, as a 31-year-old car salesman in 1981, Garrett was tapped to succeed the late Rev. L. S. McRee as pastor of Mount Zion.

    Garrett's father-in-law, Rupert Paul, of Tampa, attended the Rev. McRee's funeral and, in talking later to some church leaders, noted that his son-in-law had a knack for preaching and might make a good successor to McRee. The congregation met Garrett, liked him and offered him the job. Church leaders did not know then that their energetic new preacher was on probation for a 1979 federal conviction for conspiracy to transport stolen goods. Garrett had tried to sell stolen pipe fittings for more than $6,000, according to federal court records.

    "I was on drugs then; I needed the money," said Garrett. He was sentenced to five years probation, paid $2,800 in restitution and underwent a four-month rehabilitation program to snuff out his heroin addiction, he said.

    As a burly young preacher, Garrett easily could bring a congregation to its feet with his hoarse bellowing, his stomping and singing. As an administrator, his ambition showed quickly as he promptly drove the fast-growing church into community outreach efforts.

    "Until he got sick (last year), he spoke as good as any man you've ever heard," marvelled Willie C. Carter, who heads the deacon board. "He has this ability to encourage and persuade people. If he talks with you, that's it."

    If Garrett has been good to the church, it has likewise been good to him. It provides him an $85,000 annual salary, and it employs his wife and four children. His Mercedes, originally priced at about $40,000, is registered in the church's name.

    For years, the Garretts have lived in a modest ranch house on 62nd Avenue S, but he is now building a $250,000 house in the Bay Vista subdivision that Mount Zion is developing off 54th Avenue S and Sixth Street. He crashed the Mercedes two blocks from that property.

    'Very vibrant, active force'

    From the start of his career as a preacher, Garrett thought big. Three years after joining the church, he started making headlines with his ambitious plans to start a credit union to serve the potentially vast economic power of black congregations. Along with Lyons and a handful of other community leaders, Garrett in 1984 started the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance Federal Credit Union.

    It never took off. After six years of chronically weak performance, federal regulators took over the credit union in 1990 and folded it into a larger credit union.

    Later, the credit union was at the center of a federal bank fraud investigation, involving three counterfeit certificates of deposit issued by IMA in 1988 to help Lyons obtain an $85,000 bank loan for the Florida General Baptist Convention, which Lyons then headed.

    Neither Lyons nor Garrett were charged in the bank fraud case, though Lyons was ordered to pay $85,000 restitution and both had to go through a yearlong pretrial intervention program.

    The lack of success at the credit union did nothing to slow the growth of Garrett's church and its social services arm, Mount Zion Human Services. The church building where he started has been converted to a bustling day care center, and part of it doubles as a soup kitchen.

    Across the street, a new church built in 1991 is beside a 2-year-old, four-story "family life center" that houses an elementary school, a half-court gym and a cavernous banquet hall.

    Grants have been crucial to Mount Zion's outreach, and few other church groups in St. Petersburg have been as successful at winning government money. Public records show that, since 1991, Mount Zion has received more than $1.3-million in grants through state, county and city governments and agencies.

    "Their track record is excellent. They've been the most successful (non-profit housing developer) we've ever had," said Jill McReynolds, a city housing official who monitors how Mount Zion spends housing dollars allocated by the city. All told, Mount Zion estimates it has rehabilitated more than 40 houses in the city and is working with the city on a dozen more.

    Mount Zion's social service efforts became so active three years ago that one of its primary sources of money, the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board, allocated more than $80,000 to help develop a more solid "administrative capacity."

    "We were concerned and didn't want them to fail because it was a very vibrant and active force in the community," said JWB executive director James Mills.

    That effort had limited success, though. An alternative education program for kids suspended from school is struggling to continue amid funding problems. And JWB is rescinding a budgeted $62,000 grant for Garrett's mentoring program for African-American boys because Mount Zion has repeatedly failed to provide audits.

    Accountability problems notwithstanding, Mills remains a Garrett admirer.

    "He is an incredibly high-energy person. He has a real vision for the church to play an active role in community life. He scrambled for every one of these programs, and he worked very hard to engage church members," Mills said.

    'The very nature of our faith'

    It is the assertiveness of the local outreach efforts that sets Garrett apart as a pastor, most notably from his friend Lyons, whose local impact has been limited.

    "That's the very nature of our faith," Garrett said. "Our faith says that God meets needs. I can't stand up and preach and then not try and meet any."

    Lyons' only news conference on the controversies engulfing him was July 11. Garrett stood immediately behind him, earnestly nodding his head at his longtime friend's denials.

    The two pastors have been allies for nearly two decades, both in St. Petersburg and outside local circles. Garrett worked closely with Lyons on the state Baptist convention and campaigned hard for Lyons to become president of the National Baptist Convention.

    Garrett said he has received "not a dime" from any NBC activities. He is listed as a special assistant to the president of the NBC and has been actively involved in Trusted Partners, a program Lyons started that is aimed at making black men better husbands and fathers.

    Garrett is stunningly blunt as he defends Lyons against the myriad questions involving Lyons' personal and business dealings.

    Pastors living lavishly? Common practice for the head of the NBC, he said, and even a source of pride for many NBC members. Pastors committing adultery? Common practice, Garrett said.

    He was criticized recently for the way in which he insisted that Lyons' relationship was strictly business with Bernice Edwards, an NBC staffer with whom Lyons has been revealed to own a Tierra Verde house and other property: "Now, he may have a mistress, but not her. She's too damn ugly."

    Garrett said that, when he first became a pastor in St. Petersburg, he was all but told that adultery was expected of him.

    "I learned that that was not the way," Garrett said. "When I started being faithful to my wife is when our church started to take off."

    Garrett's recent troubles at his church have surfaced just as the pastor appeared to be starting a comeback of sorts. A serious illness nearly killed him last year. "I lost so much weight, everybody thought I had AIDS," he said, describing the illness as pneumonia.

    The illness took at least 25 pounds from his frame and some of the energy from his preaching. Longtime members, though, say his old fire seemed to be returning recently along with his weight.

    Then the controversy surrounding Henry Lyons started casting a shadow over the activities at Mount Zion.

    "I don't know if he'll (Garrett) survive it or not, but there are a lot of people concerned about this," said Ruth, the Mount Zion deacon.

    Mount Zion Deacon Cater spoke of the duty of Christians to forgive: "With all this talk about this friendship of his, nobody's talking about what God says about it. God says if we do his word, he will take care of the situation."
    -- Times researcher Barbara Oliver contributed to this report, which also includes information from Times files.

    ©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.