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The Rev. Henry Lyons


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  • Rev. Lyons hurt others to defend himself


    ©St. Petersburg Times, published July 13, 1997

    With their weeping, wailing and money-grubbing, Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker were never in danger of being mistaken for Gandhi.

    So when they fell from grace -- Swaggart over sex, Bakker over money -- neither TV preacher had far to go. Off a curb, maybe.

    But the man who sits atop the largest black church organization in the country sits in a very high place, where the air is mighty thin.

    This is not a man who weeps, wails and howls about sweet Jesus on some cable channel while a toll-free pledge number flashes on the screen. This is a man with the president's ear.

    All kinds of people listened to the Rev. Henry Lyons.

    Not just black people.

    Not just politicians on the make for votes.

    Ordinary white people of good conscience listened to the Rev. Lyons.

    There are a lot of us.

    When Lyons talked about racism, when he talked about the troubles that lay beneath last fall's St. Petersburg riots, when he said something should be done, we paid close attention. We believed in our hearts he was talking to us and took him seriously.

    That's what makes the unraveling of the Rev. Lyons' career no mere matter of deja vu.

    Swaggart and Bakker were clowns. Lyons is a clergyman and a civil rights leader. His National Baptist Convention is one the most important black institutions in the country.

    So when he answers the increasingly complicated questions about his church, his marriage and his money by crying racism, as he did Friday, he does more damage to the cause of black people than any boardroom yahoo could.

    The story so far suggests that this man who stands against the victimization of black people is cashing in on them himself.

    He strains the faith of anybody who admired him.

    He gives bigots a handy excuse the next time they want to reject an ordinary black person's honest claim of discrimination.

    If the Rev. Lyons can make it up, why not the black guy in the next office?

    That's what made Lyons' performance Friday so cheap. To defend himself, he hurt other people.

    Understandably, I guess, many black people seem to be falling for it, or trying hard to. If your life perspective is 300 years of racism, you are instinctively protective when an important black man comes under fire. But shouldn't instinct give way to reason?

    Despite the rising pile of unpleasant facts, talking to members of his congregation was futile. They were satisfied with Lyons' brief explanation, they said to the mostly white reporters who had come to hear him. That was that.

    I have seen this phenomenon before. It helps explain the intractability of fixing what we so awkwardly call "the race problem" or "race relations." Racism isn't just a problem among whites but among blacks who use it to avoid the mess than needs facing, and who by doing so alienate whites further.

    If the first step in Lyons' fall from grace was taken by his wife when she allegedly set fires inside that waterfront house; the second step came Friday when the preacher did just that. He hid behind his color.

    If his relationship with Bernice Edwards was on the up and up, why wasn't she standing tall with him and his wife and that array of Baptist officials?

    If Lyons' wife is not under extraordinary pressure to bow to her husband's demands, why didn't she speak rather than just smile and stare glassy-eyed at her man?

    And if Lyons' financial dealings have been unremarkable, why didn't he explain the public record?

    Instinct says this story will unfold for several sad months. As it does, more than a man, a family, a church and a church organization will be, as Lyons said so delicately on Friday, hurting.

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