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  • Lyons is losing support of his officials

    By STEVE NOHLGREN, MONICA DAVEY and DAVID BARSTOW

    ©St. Petersburg Times, published August 19, 1997


    At 82, he is known as one of the grandfathers of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. He has been a member for 60 years. He has held some of its highest offices.

    On Monday, the Rev. C.A.W. Clark said he has seen and heard enough.

    It is time, he said, for Henry Lyons to quit.

    "I'm of the opinion that he would do himself a favor -- and the convention -- if he would take himself out of it," said Clark, who for the past 22 years has been president of the 250,000 Baptists who make up the convention's Texas branch.

    "He should resign," Clark said.

    Why?

    "I think," he replied slowly, "that the why is obvious."

    Clark, who ran against Lyons in 1994 but has supported him since, is among a growing number of top convention officials who are calling on Lyons to give up his presidency. The calls are getting louder because of news articles describing how Lyons withdrew more than $100,000 from convention accounts to buy jewelry, club memberships and a luxury home.

    These officials say the Lyons controversy is damaging the organization's reputation, angering many of its members and jeopardizing fund raising.

    "The money has dried up," said the Rev. Sherman Brown, president of the convention's Iowa branch. "And many of the pastors and churches have said they're not giving any money until something is done."

    Brown said he likes Lyons and has supported his work as president. But, he added, the allegations of financial wrongdoing are now too numerous and well-documented for Lyons to remain in power.

    "If any one of them (the allegations) are true, I think he does a gross injustice to stay in office," Brown said. "There's too much of a paper trail for it all to be wrong."

    Brown, Clark and others, however, cautioned that it isn't at all clear whether Lyons will be forced out. Clark, for one, predicted Lyons will fight to retain his job at the convention's annual meeting in Denver next month, and several ministers made it clear Monday that they are continuing to back Lyons.

    Lyons could not be reached Monday for comment, but the Rev. J.J. Perry, a former state convention leader from Michigan who remains active in the convention, said he is telling anyone who will listen to stick with Lyons.

    "I sure am," Perry said. "As I would with anyone when they are being attacked, and that is what is happening here. As I would anyone that's being jumped on and beaten up on.

    "I will not be the judge, not the jury and I sure won't be his prosecutor."

    And the Rev. Ephraim Williams, head of the California State Baptist Convention, said allegations about Lyons in newspaper stories cannot be relied upon.

    "For me personally, I don't respond to the news media," Williams said. "I want to hear the whole facts."

    Nevertheless, organized opposition to Lyons is sprouting in several regions of the country. Last week, a group of Pennsylvania ministers called on Lyons to step aside until the convention completes an internal investigation. Over the weekend, another group of ministers in Nashville asked for his resignation.

    And in Jacksonville, where Lyons spoke at revival meetings on Monday, one pastor said he was organizing others to sign a letter calling for Lyons' resignation.

    The pastor, Moses Javis of Dayspring Baptist Church in Jacksonville, said about a half-dozen pastors from Mississippi, Missouri and Alabama have endorsed the letter so far.

    "We agree that it is evident that Mr. Lyons has damaged the posture of the presidency," Javis said. "It is evident that Mr. Lyons consistently and constantly denied doing any wrong. It is evident that Mr. Lyons has mismanaged designated funds of the convention."

    The convention's board of directors, he added, "thought that (the controversy) would go away when the board met (in Nashville last month) and said: "We are with you, Mr. President.' But it did not go away and is now such a fever pitch I really think they are going to desert the man."

    Even some of Lyons' biggest supporters on the board are beginning to voice concerns.

    "You read all this inthe paper. You're sort of hanging here. You don't know what to believe," said the Rev. Donnie Sims, head of the General Baptist State Convention of Wisconsin, who supported Lyons "100 percent" leading up to Lyons' election in 1994.

    Sims said his parishioners, too, have shown reservations -- on the offering plate. "There are some who are holding back on the money."

    But like several other convention leaders, Sims said he will withhold judgment about Lyons until after he hears a report from an 18-member investigative commission chaired by the Rev. E.V. Hill of Los Angeles. Hill said Monday that he and other commission members will not comment about their work until after it is complete.

    "I'm just going to wait," said the Rev. J.B. Wood, a former president of the Mississippi branch.

    "It looks bad. . . . I hate to think that he let me down. I love Rev. Lyons, I guess in spite of whatever he may have done."

    Other convention leaders like Brown of Iowa said they are putting aside their personal affection for Lyons to preserve the convention's moral, spiritual and political power. "We are really concerned about the fallout," Brown said. "It's a stigma thing now, and I'm really concerned about our convention."

    Clark of Texas has seen his share of turbulence since he joined the convention in 1937. But never, he said, has he seen a more serious crisis. It is a sad time for an organization that has played an enduring role in the lives of millions of black Americans, he said.

    "It is so sad," he said. "It is so. Of course, our history is woven into this convention. And in my opinion, history is important."


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