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The Rev. Henry Lyons

 

 

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A Times Editorial

No act of contrition

©St. Petersburg Times, published September 4, 1997


The Rev. Henry Lyons has asked for -- no, demanded -- forgiveness from the National Baptist Convention. "I've come . . . to ask you for forgiveness for my errors," Lyons, the convention's president, told his audience. "I need to know I'm forgiven." And with most of his critics conveniently outside the Denver auditorium, Lyons got the public show of support he was looking for.

However Lyons' actions this week in Denver have not been those of a contrite sinner. Instead, Lyons and his inner circle have run the convention's annual meeting with an iron hand, manipulating events to assure that Lyons would survive as president. Even the facade of an internal investigation of Lyons' activities was abandoned. Lyons didn't bother to describe his "errors" in any detail. For the most part, convention members outraged by Lyons' abuse of his authority were muzzled and marginalized. Journalists were herded away.

Sadly, the Denver meeting is likely to be remembered as a missed opportunity for the National Baptist Convention to cleanse itself of the stain created by Lyons' misconduct. Dozens of ministers and hundreds of rank-and-file convention members cried out for an open and honest airing of the financial and moral concerns surrounding Lyons, but they were shouted down. As a result, the reputations of millions of faithful Baptists will continue to be unfairly linked with Lyons' own.

The moral myopia of the ministers most aggressively defending Lyons has been breathtaking. If they are in the least bit troubled by Lyons' use of a secret convention fund to pay for expensive homes, cars and jewelry, they haven't shown it. If they are offended by Lyons' personal and financial entanglements with various women, including a convicted embezzler, they haven't let on.

Instead, they have repeated an astonishing argument first put forward by one of Lyons' lawyers: Lyons' hasn't broken any convention rules, because the convention essentially has no rules governing the president's use of its finances. "Dr. Lyons . . . has broken no (convention) law," said the Rev. E.V. Hill, chairman of the committee that was supposed to be investigating Lyons. "Where there is no law, there can be no transgression."

Hill and other Lyons apologists did not address the question of whether Lyons' behavior was befitting the president of their religious organization, law or no law.

The investigative committee failed to complete its primary task, but it deserves credit for proposing reforms that could help to prevent future abuses similar to Lyons'. If the changes are adopted, the convention president would no longer be free to open bank accounts without the knowledge of his board; a new finance committee would oversee convention spending; all commissions and other business arrangements trading on the convention's name would require board approval. Those changes would be a start toward rehabilitating the organization's finances, but they would provide little genuine oversight as long as most of the convention's major posts are stacked with Lyons loyalists.

Those whose voices were silenced in Denver still have the power to reform their convention. Dozens of ministers vow to withhold their congregations' donations to the convention until Lyons is removed from office and serious financial reforms are adopted. Convention members who contribute generously to their church deserve the assurance that they are truly supporting the Lord's work, not the decadent lifestyle of a minister and his friends.

Many of the religious faithful in Denver genuinely have been moved to forgive their president's transgressions and attempt to put this episode behind them. Their sentiments are commendable. Forgiveness is divine.

Still, forgiveness does not require gullibility. With his words, Henry Lyons asked for forgiveness. But with his actions, he was working cold-bloodedly to hold on to the power he has abused.

"To do it no more is the truest repentance," Martin Luther wrote. Yet Henry Lyons has shown himself in Denver to be a man who intends to keep on doing things his way until somebody makes him stop.


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