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  • Pressure mounts on Lyons as convention nears

    By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
    ©St. Petersburg Times, published August 18, 1997

    ST. PETERSBURG -- Two weeks before the National Baptist Convention USA convenes its annual meeting in Denver, pressure is mounting on the Rev. Henry J. Lyons to resign his presidency.

    In Nashville, where the church group is headquartered, members from 23 churches called for Lyons to step down.

    Meanwhile, the convention's general secretary said he would talk to Lyons today about the direction of his presidency.

    "Our convention needs to be able to come to Denver and have a peaceful meeting," said the Rev. Roscoe D. Cooper Jr., a Virginia minister who serves as the convention's general secretary. "Our prayer is that the Lord will lead Dr. Lyons to act in ways that will contribute to that end. And we are confident that he will."

    Lyons could not be reached for comment.

    In previous public statements, Cooper has stood fast behind Lyons. When Lyons' financial and personal dealings first made headlines last month, it was Cooper who emerged from a hastily called board meeting in Nashville to address reporters.

    "Our confidence in our president has not been undermined," Cooper said. "The media and others have raised questions about our president. We have not raised questions about our president."

    In a brief interview Sunday, Cooper declined to elaborate on whether his support for Lyons has wavered. However, he did clarify one question about the $700,000 Tierra Verde home Lyons owns with Bernice Edwards, who was then a convention employee.

    To help secure a loan on the house, Lyons gave mortgage officials a lease agreement between himself, as landlord, and the National Baptist Convention USA as tenant. The agreement, which called for the convention to rent the house for $4,000 a month, bore the signatures of Cooper and A.H. Newman, the convention's board chairman.

    "I did not sign the lease on the Tierra Verde house, and I signed an affidavit for Pinellas County sheriff's deputies that that's not my signature," said Cooper from his Richmond church.

    "That was not authorized by the board of directors."

    Newman, a California minister, said Sunday that he, too, gave authorities an affidavit swearing that he did not sign the Tierra Verde lease agreement.

    Lyons' recent difficulties began July 6, when his wife, Deborah, set fire to the house while Lyons was traveling in Africa with Edwards and others. Deputies said Deborah Lyons told them she ransacked and burned the house because she thought her husband and Edwards were having an affair. She later told a reporter that she started the fire accidentally while lighting a cigarette.

    Since then, newspaper stories revealed that Lyons and Edwards had purchased other property together, along with jewelry and luxury cars. Some purchases were made with money from convention accounts. Other stories described how checks sent to various national convention accounts were converted to cash at a check-cashing service near downtown St. Petersburg and how Lyons paid water bills on the Tierra Verde house with church money.

    On Friday, about 50 Philadelphia ministers from the Baptist convention called on Lyons to step aside while a convention committee conducts an investigation.

    In Tennessee, another church group also took a public stand.

    About 200 members of the Stones River Association -- a Nashville-area division of the National Baptist Convention USA -- voted unanimously at their annual meeting Friday night to seek Lyons' resignation.

    "Now it's about damage control. We are trying to save the convention," moderator Raymond Bowman said Sunday. "Every day you pick up the papers, there's a new accusation. It has to end somewhere."

    The association has 23 churches and roughly 10,000 parishioners, said Bowman, pastor of the Spruce Street Baptist Church.

    "We were kind of put on the hot seat" when the convention's board unanimously supported Lyons back in July. "It appeared that all of us were in agreement with the action the board took."

    Now "it's reached the point where we have to move on."

    Lyons was scheduled to speak Sunday at a church gathering in Pulaski, Tenn., about 75 miles south of Nashville. But that engagement was canceled.

    Meanwhile in St. Petersburg, a substitute pastor at Lyons' Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church urged worshipers several times to keep the embattled minister in their prayers.
    -- Information from Times staff writer Constance Walker and the Nashville Tennessean was used in this report.

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