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Lyons prepares to face the flock

By DAVID BARSTOW and MIKE WILSON, Times Staff Writers
©St. Petersburg Times, published September 1, 1997


DENVER -- Here in the House of Gilead, the Rev. Acen Lee Phillips is prancing in the pulpit. There's just no other word for it. He is prancing on his toes, preaching full throttle about storm clouds and persecution and sin and forgiveness.

Especially about forgiveness.

"Have you ever messed up in the church?" Phillips asks the people assembled in his church on Sunday. Everyone in the House of Gilead knows Phillips is talking about Henry J. Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. There is a soft chorus of yessirs and amens.

Phillips prances some more. "Don't throw him away," he says of Lyons. "Put him in the washing machine. Clean him up. But don't throw him away."

In Denver, Lyons has no better friend than Acen Phillips. With heavy jowls and long gray sideburns, the 62-year-old minister is a member of Lyons' inner circle.

He serves as fifth vice president of the NBC. He is host chairman of this week's annual gathering of 40,000 Baptists. His picture is everywhere in the official convention program, titled "A Taste of Heaven in '97."

This was supposed to be Phillips' moment. But no amount of preaching can erase this fact: On a day his medium-sized church should be packed, about a quarter of the pew seats are empty. Even in this supposed Lyons' stronghold, support appears shaky -- or shaken.

It is an ominous sign as Lyons prepares to fight for his job and reputation, even as prosecutors examine whether he siphoned hundreds of thousands of dollars from convention accounts. Across the country, from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., to New York City to Richmond, Va., to Nashville, Tenn., to Texas and Iowa and beyond, groups of angry Baptists have called on Lyons to resign.

On Sunday, as Acen Phillips beseeched his parishioners to stand by Lyons, opponents placed fliers on the cars outside advertising an anti-Lyons rally for this morning. They even stuck one on Phillips' Rolls Royce. "We are tired of being lied to," the flier says.

The Rev. Emory Johnson of New York is one of the rally's scheduled speakers. Asked if he expects a fight over Lyons' future, he said: "It looks like everything is going to be peacefully and intelligently done."

Will Lyons still be president at the end of the week, after a special investigative commission of the convention makes its report?

"I couldn't answer that," Johnson said.

For his part, Lyons, who describes leading the country's largest black church organization as his boyhood dream, has said he will not choose to resign on his own. But he says he will be listening. Listening closely.

"I'm just praying and hoping that . . . we will go there and have a peaceful meeting," Lyons told the Times last week as he prepared for the trip to Denver. "I have agreed that I would abide by the decision of the (investigative) commission and the board of directors. I have agreed to them I will not put up a fuss. I will not attempt to tear up the convention."

Lyons said he is eager to speak to his followers. He wants to explain his side of the story, his financial decisions, even his mistakes.

"I want to talk to everybody," Lyons said. "If they throw me out, I still want to speak."

His strategy for survival became apparent in a series of interviews he gave last week. He acknowledged error after error.

It was a mistake, he said, to hire convicted embezzler Bernice Edwards as the convention's director of corporate public relations. A mistake, he said, to pay her six-figure commissions. A mistake to deposit some of her commissions in the Baptist Builder Fund, a convention account he alone controlled. A mistake not to tell top convention officials about the account. A mistake to make a $2,500 political contribution from the account. A mistake to withdraw money from that account to buy a $700,000 house, a Lake Tahoe time share and a $135,000 Mercedes-Benz with Edwards. A mistake not to tell his wife about the house.

"The only thing that puts him in jeopardy -- the only thing that sends us to hell -- is if he doesn't repent," Phillips said Sunday in an interview after church. The world of the church, he explains, is unlike the corporate and political worlds, where a misstep at the top often ends in the person's ouster.

"The business of the church is redemption," Phillips says. "Your job is finding sin and sinners because that's what people want to read about, and that's what you need to sell advertisements . . . That's not the business the church is in."

Still, there is speculation about at least four men here who may want to replace Lyons.

Each of them has faced Lyons before: the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, the Rev. Jasper W. Williams, the Rev. Stewart C. Cureton and the Rev. C.A.W. Clark.

Lyons said he considers Richardson, of Mount Vernon, N.Y., a "definite" opponent. When Lyons took the top office in 1994, Richardson narrowly lost to him after a hard-fought campaign. Lyons received 3,545 votes to Richardson's 3,014 in an election that was later contested in court.

Richardson, who served as general secretary of the convention before Lyons took over, was considered the hand-picked successor of the Rev. T.J. Jemison, a Louisiana pastor who was prohibited from seeking re-election after 12 years as president.

Williams, of Atlanta, was a write-in candidate in the same election, receiving just 141 votes.

Cureton, of Mauldin, S.C., also ran against Lyons in 1994, but withdrew from the campaign several weeks before the election, pledging his support to Lyons. After Lyons won, he named Cureton as vice president-at-large.

Clark, a nationally known revival leader from Dallas, has headed the convention's Texas branch for 22 years. In 1994, Clark came in fourth with 1,344 votes, then agreed to support Lyons' administration.

On Sunday, in the immediate aftermath of Princess Diana's death, Lyons' supporters here were quick to criticize the relentless scrutiny he has received from reporters since his wife was arrested July 6 on arson and burglary charges.

In the lobby of the downtown Marriott, the headquarters hotel for the week's convention, there was open hostililty toward reporters. "We're gonna have a good time -- if you leave us alone," said J.C. Harris of North Carolina.

"You all just won't go away,' said Joann Pearson of New Jersey. "Y'all hang around like flies."

At the insistence of convention officials, cameras were banished from the hotel itself.

The Rev. David Jackson of Los Angeles said he hopes only that the convention delegates will follow the will of God, whatever they decide that is. He wants the convention to suspend judgment until they have heard what Lyons has to say.

"God gives all of us an opportunity for forgiveness. If Lyons steps down, fine. But we can't be judgmental based on some stuff that's factual and some stuff that's hearsay," he said.

"Some people are crying for condemnation. Others are crying for restoration. I'm crying for restoration," he said. "We've got to be in a position where God can really speak to us. Not our heads, but our hearts."
-- Times staff writer Monica Davey contributed to this report.


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