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  • Lyons has shared spotlight as Friend of Bill

    By MIKE WILSON

    ©St. Petersburg Times, published July 8, 1997


    ST. PETERSBURG -- Of all the black religious leaders in America, few have more followers -- or better connections -- than the Rev. Dr. Henry James Lyons.

    The National Baptist Convention USA, of which Lyons is president, claims 8.5-million members, making it the largest black church group in the country.

    Since taking over the presidency three years ago, Lyons has cultivated a relationship with President Clinton that has worked to the advantage of both men.

    When Clinton wanted to appeal to black voters during the 1996 campaign, he used a National Baptist Convention meeting in Orlando as the backdrop. Lyons basked in the glory of having brought him there.

    On Monday, with the news of turmoil in Lyons' personal life, some in the Nashville-based church group were concerned about his future.

    "Certainly America will be looking at this because he has the strongest position of any African-American (pastor) in this country," said the Rev. F. Brannan Jackson, a member of the National Baptist Convention board. "I've always found him to be straight up. If there's anything different in all these years, it hasn't been known to me."

    For 25 years, Lyons has been pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, which has 1,500 members. But he is perhaps best known for his work on the national stage.

    In 1995, Lyons founded Trusted Partners, a black Christian men's ministry similar to Colorado-based Promise Keepers, which seeks to help men become better husbands and fathers. More than 4,000 attended Trusted Partners' inaugural meeting in Atlanta, but the movement never gathered the momentum of Promise Keepers.

    Last year, Lyons' church group joined four other major black religious organizations to endorse the Revelation Corp. of America, which hopes to harness African-Americans' economic power and then pour money back into black communities.

    Lyons' association with the Clintons dates to September 1994, when President Clinton addressed the church group's annual meeting in New Orleans. It was there that Lyons, formerly the head of the Florida General Baptist Convention, was elected president of the National Baptist Convention USA.

    A month later, Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared at Lyons' church while campaigning for her younger brother, Hugh Rodham, who was running for the U.S. Senate. After the service, Mrs. Clinton said she found comfort in Lyons' spiritual message.

    "That sermon about personal responsibility was something I wish could be piped into every home in America," she said.

    Lyons remained a Clinton ally. When Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan organized the Million Man March in October 1995, Lyons refused to endorse it. Like Clinton, he decried Farrakhan's record of anti-Semitic remarks.

    When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered that November, Lyons was among those whom Clinton invited to the funeral. And when St. Petersburg erupted in violence last October after a white police officer shot and killed a black motorist, Lyons was among the local leaders Clinton called. Clinton later invited Lyons to breakfast at a Tampa hotel to discuss what happened.

    "I was very glad to see he was genuinely concerned," Lyons said then. "He looked me in the eye. The concern was real."


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