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The Rev. Henry Lyons



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Lyons losing support of black caucus in Congress


©St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 1997

WASHINGTON -- The Rev. Henry Lyons' financial scandals have tarnished his image among African-Americans in Congress, and two black lawmakers say he should step aside because of the continuing disclosures.

New Jersey Rep. Donald Payne, immediate past president of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Lyons' troubles are "definitely damaging" to the National Baptist Convention USA that the St. Petersburg minister leads.

"It's a divisive issue, and I'm very disheartened and I am very surprised that he was re-elected, shocked almost," said Payne, who is a Baptist.

"I think that whenever a leader brings conflict and confusion to a movement that divides a movement, if he's primarily interested in the movement, then perhaps he should eliminate himself from the situation until it's cleared up," Payne added.

The second critical lawmaker, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, said Lyons should relinquish his presidency until the investigations are completed because he is supposed to be a role model to young people.

"I don't know if he's guilty or not, but I don't think it's the image that we ought to have in a leadership position, especially in a religious leader," she said. "I belong to a Baptist church and I have said it has really made me question whether I should let my membership remain."

Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., a Chicago congressman and son of the civil rights leader, carefully explained that he was keeping an open mind about Lyons, but said he was concerned about the future of the convention.

"I'm very concerned about the integrity of the institution, and the head of a very large, quite possibly the largest, African-American denomination, should not have the kind of questions about his character or her character that could undermine the institution itself," said Jackson, who is a Baptist minister.

As the head of the nation's largest black church organization, Lyons is no stranger to members of Congressional Black Caucus. Several lawmakers who gathered in Washington through Saturday for the caucus' annual legislative conference said they have been following disclosures about his finances and personal life.

Lyons spent church money on a number of luxury items, had a close relationship with a woman who is a convicted embezzler and kept an account that was a secret to many of his convention's top officials. The Pinellas-Pasco state attorney and federal prosecutors are investigating, but the Baptist convention itself decided this month that Lyons can remain the group's president.

To gauge the political impact of the disclosures, the Times interviewed 15 members of the 39-member Black Caucus last week. Of the 15, five lawmakers expressed concern about the future of the convention, Lyons himself or his previous lobbying for the controversial military regime in Nigeria.

Most of the remaining 15 interviewed were noncommittal, or refused to speak about the matter. The only firm voice of support came from Jacksonville-area Rep. Corrine Brown, a longtime ally of Lyons.

"I'm sure it's hurt him and it's hurt his family," Brown said. "He'll come back. He's a good person, with a good heart, a great leader and he will continue to be a great leader."

Caucus chairwoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said she is watching what is happening to Lyons "very carefully."

"I think the unfolding stories about Rev. Lyons are troubling," Waters said during a quick interview at the busy caucus event.

"I think that people are waiting before they make total judgment," she said. "They want more information. They want to see whether or not there are going to be indictments. They want to see whether or not there is going to be a court case."

Rep. Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat, was cautious as well. The senior Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the IRS, Rangel said the law clearly prohibits non-profit organizations such as churches from spending money on unauthorized luxury items.

But he refused to speak directly about Lyons' case.

"Those people deal with a higher authority than I do," Rangel said.

"The man's wife said he didn't do it," he said, adding with a shrug of his shoulders: "Hey!"

Congressman Jackson recalled that Lyons' financial troubles are only the latest in a string of problems to hit the National Baptist Convention. In the past, ministers upset with the disorganization or the direction of the Baptist group have split and formed their own conventions, Jackson said.

So the Lyons' controversy could be a catalyst for a new offshoot. "It could create another convention, and that's why the convention itself will have to make a determination because there's a history here,' Jackson said.

He noted that the Rev. E. V. Hill, head of a commission appointed to investigate the irregularities, found that Lyons did not misappropriate church funds. Hill's commission did raise questions about some of the transactions.

"Who am I to argue or raise a concern about Rev. E. V. Hill's findings?" Jackson asked. "I've known Rev. E. V. Hill all my life. I trust Rev. E. V. Hill."

Jackson drew a parallel between the convention's reaction to Lyons and the financial irregularities of fallen televangelists Jimmy Swaggert and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.

"If this were Jimmy Swaggert or this were the Bakkers, what would the reaction be?" he asked, speaking of black Baptists' response to those infamous cases. "Should we have a different set of standards for the heads of our denominations than the Anglo-American church?"

U.S. representatives Payne, Waters and Major Owens of New York all remain upset over Lyons' support for the military regime in Nigeria. They all are opposed to the regime and want to isolate its leaders from the West.

Lyons was on a trip to Nigeria to explore business opportunities this summer when his wife discovered evidence that he had purchased a $700,000 home in Tierra Verde with another woman.

But the lawmakers recalled an earlier link to Nigeria: Lyons lobbied them last year about the African nation, urging a dialogue between the United States and Nigeria.

"He supports the military regime, which is a criminal regime as far as I'm concerned," Owens said. "So I have very strong feelings about anybody that wants to stand up and lobby us for that kind of regime."

Waters added that her opposition to Nigeria is well known, and she reiterated it when Lyons visited her. "We made it clear in no uncertain terms that we did not support (Nigerian leader Sani Abacha) and we did not support any efforts to lobby on his behalf."

Rep. Cynthia McKinney, a Georgia Democrat, also has problems with Lyons that predate his current troubles. She said she was suspicious of a business relationship between Christian conservative Jerry Falwell and the Revelation Corp. of America, a marketing firm set up by Lyons' convention and four other black church groups.

"Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority have been in the business of political indoctrination and they are also in the business of trying to use religion to divide the traditional base of the Democratic Party," said McKinney, who is a Roman Catholic.

Suspecting Falwell of a political agenda, she said she raised the issue with Lyons. "I have a concern and I have asked and the response that I received was not satisfactory."

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