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  • Questions about Lyons cast doubt on buyers' club

    By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
    ©St. Petersburg Times, published July 27, 1997

    On Martin Luther King Day 1996, the Rev. Henry Lyons and the leaders of four other religious denominations stood before a crowd at the National Press Club to announce an ambitious business venture.

    In keeping with its church-connected genesis, the company would be named for the final book of the Bible: the Revelation Corporation of America.

    With Lyons as president, Revelation's leaders said they intended to harness the clout of 20-million black church members in a for-profit buying club, and the millions the company would bring in would rebuild economically depressed urban America.

    It is now a year and a half later, and Revelation is still struggling to get off the ground.

    Only 2-million people have signed up for the free membership. Some corporate deals have taken longer than expected to cement, while others have fallen apart.

    Still, the company is achieving some of its aims -- witness the launch this month of the fledgling Revelation Mortgage Corp., with a black man as its president, a majority of its jobs filled by minorities and backing by corporate giant Norwest Mortgage.

    But just as Revelation is starting to show what founder and chief operating officer John Lowery called "a very, very small profit," the problems of its president have "cast a long shadow" over its future, said Lowery, who is white.

    The news that law enforcement authorities have begun investigating Lyons' financial dealings as president of the National Baptist Convention USA has made Revelation's business partners -- white-owned companies selling everything from insurance to dog food -- quite nervous, Lowery said.

    "They do feel the fallout," he said.

    The corporate partners have begun calling Lowery to ask if Revelation's own accounts are in order and whether Lyons controls its money, Lowery said.

    Lyons is not among the corporate officers who can sign checks for Revelation, Lowery said, and he draws no salary as president or board member. Lowery said the only expense for which Lyons is reimbursed is his plane ticket to and from Revelation board meetings in Memphis.

    However, Revelation has provided employment for one of Lyons' closest associates, Brenda Harris. Harris' Nashville neighbors say she introduced Lyons as her fiance, but Lyons has denied any affair. Lowery said Harris draws no salary from Revelation; she makes money off commissions.

    Lyons' troubles may further complicate Revelation's struggle to recruit companies to offer discounts for its members. After televangelist Jim Bakker's dramatic downfall, many companies steer clear of church business for fear of being embroiled in a scandal, Lowery said.

    Yet so far, none of Lyons' fellow board members has asked Lyons to step down as president of Revelation, he said.

    Share the wealth

    Actually, Revelation has been controversial enough on its own

    Its success depends on pastors and deacons encouraging their church members to buy only Revelation-approved products, for discount prices, in anticipation of the churches eventually receiving 30 percent of the proceeds in rebates.

    Ten percent of the rebate is to go to a pension fund for that church's pastor, while the other 20 percent would go into the church's coffers. So far, Lowery said, Lyons' own church, Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, has not received the first rebate check, although it is owed about $1,000.

    The other 70 percent of Revelation's proceeds are supposed to be invested in a National Housing Fund to make loans that would be too risky for regular banks, to be used in construction projects in areas Lowery repeatedly referred to as "the 'hood.' " Lowery said any profit he makes from Revelation will come from the interest on the Housing Fund.

    If the preachers do not sell the products, though, the plan won't work. Revelation's deal with the catalog company Hanover Direct fell apart after initial tests showed "the response wasn't there," said Hanover senior vice president Fred Anderson. "They never got to talking about it in the churches." Lowery contends Hanover's test was flawed.

    And officials for Mr. Turkey, which offered Revelation members a 35-cent coupon for smoked sausage, found that not a single Revelation coupon was turned in. Lowery said it is too soon to see any results from the coupon, which expires next week.

    Some ministers have questioned whether the company is committing the sin of bringing money-changers into the temple. Others have balked at putting the power of the black church, always regarded as a source of strength in the struggle for civil rights, at the service of white entrepreneurs.

    More raised their eyebrows when Revelation cut a deal with a white conservative, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, to get his mailing list of 5-million potential customers.

    But Lyons, in a speech last year reported in a black-owned newspaper called the Tri-State Defender, contended that the churches that join Revelation would wield tremendous influence over Wall Street, not the other way around.

    "We will start to name manufacturers and companies that will do business with African-American people. . . ," he said. "It is time for us to share in the wealth of this nation, and that's what we're after. That does not mean we are no longer keeping our attention on those at the low end of the totem pole, but we need not all focus on that when we can be at every top of the spectrum.

    "That's basically what we're about," Lyons said. "That's what the National Baptist Convention is about. That's what I ran on when I ran for president, and that's what I have devoted every waking hour on since being president."

    Yet Lowery said Lyons and the leaders of the other denominations -- the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Progressive Baptist Convention, the National Baptist Convention of America and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church -- have had little involvement in negotiating Revelation's deals.

    They're too busy running their own denominations to talk to officials from Norwest Mortgage or Prudential Securities or Progressive Insurance, he said. "Prudential never met (Lyons)," Lowery said. "A lot of our partners never met him."

    Still, Lyons is not only the president of Revelation -- he's a customer too. According to Lowery, Lyons recently signed up for Revelation car insurance for his Mercedes-Benz.

    'Capable direction'

    Lowery has no experience running buyers' clubs or direct-mail marketing. An Alabama native who grew up in Memphis, he boasts of making his first million building apartments and hotels for Tennessee bankers Jake and C.H. Butcher, both later convicted of fraud

    Lowery, a Republican, said he got the idea for Revelation while running the district office of U.S. Rep. Harold Ford, a black Democrat. Lowery figured that if the black church could be used to sell politicians to the voters, it could be used to sell products to an untapped consumer base.

    In July 1995, Lowery met with Lyons to outline his plan for Revelation. Lyons later told reporters he liked Revelation's potential, and the fact that his denomination did not need to put up any capital.

    When Revelation was unveiled on Jan. 15, 1996, Lyons stood with Lowery and the other denomination leaders to commit his convention to the project. Not until nine days later did Lyons obtain approval from the National Baptist Convention USA board to do this, according to the board's minutes.

    In his original plan for Revelation, Lowery listed the businesses he wanted to concentrate on: insurance, mortgage loans, real estate, investments, credit cards, coupons and catalog sales.

    Not mentioned was travel services.

    According to Lowery, the idea for that venture came from Harris, who handles convention planning for Lyons' own denomination and whose Harris Travel Management Associates is billed as "the official travel management company for the Revelation Corporation," as well as the National Baptist Convention USA.

    Lowery said he met Harris "a couple years ago" while arranging to put up a display booth about Revelation at a Baptist gathering. She suggested creating a Revelation subsidiary to book tickets for religious conventions, in effect taking over her job. He said Harris told him "she got so many phone calls at the Baptist Convention that her little staff couldn't handle it."

    Lowery said he did not expect Harris' idea to generate much money for Revelation because "you're dealing with little old ladies and lots of them don't have credit cards." But he said he agreed to it "to accommodate our customer base."

    Although Revelation Travel is described in a Revelation newsletter as being "under the capable direction of president Brenda Harris," Harris makes none of the travel arrangements.

    All tickets are sold through a Los Angeles company called Martin Travel, and Lowery said Harris gets a cut of the travel agency's sales commissions.

    Janette Roberts, who identified herself as a Martin Travel agent but who Lowery described as a principal in the company, said Harris' role is to negotiate the best prices for airline tickets and accommodations for Revelation's members, just as she does for National Baptist Convention USA members. She referred further questions to Harris, who did not return a reporter's telephone calls.
    -- Times researchers Barbara Oliver and John Martin contributed to this report.

    ©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.