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  • Column:

    Small fire illuminates a world of whispers

    By ELIJAH GOSIER

    ©St. Petersburg Times, published July 9, 1997


    Ashell of protective silence that starts just north of the Sunshine Skyway bridge and slams shut just south of Central Avenue arcs over the Rev. Henry Lyons and his Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church.

    It is an echo chamber. Few sounds ever get out. None of the whispers, and only an occasional scream.

    One tortured scream broke through last year after a young black man was shot by a police officer. The world heard it.

    But even while the ear of the world was pressed against the shell trying to figure out where the scream came from, the whispers remained trapped inside the shell's unyielding walls.

    The world outside the shell asked Henry Lyons to tell them what was going on. The president called him to find out, then came and took him to breakfast to get the picture face-to-face.

    Outside, reporters were asking why the president of an 8.5-million member church group wasn't playing a more visible role when his own community was in turmoil.

    Inside the shell, no one wondered. Years of echoing whispers had made it not matter to the people inside the shell what the man who had the president's ear had to say.

    Years of repeated whispers about a troubled marriage and money grubbing had long turned Henry Lyons into a man who got much more respect from the White House than he could ever hope to garner from the houses in the blocks surrounding his church. To the people in those houses, the whispers, whether the stories they carried were true or false, were repeated so often and were so universally known that they were reality.

    Sunday, another scream escaped.

    Many said it came from a woman who had endured many years of pain.

    Deborah Lyons now faces arson and burglary charges, accused of setting a fire inside a Tierra Verde home she told sheriff's deputies she suspected he was using as an extramarital love nest. She later changed her story after she had talked with her husband.

    But her recantation was too late. The small fire she set had already brought illumination to the dark world the whispers kept secret.

    Few of the people who spoke frankly about the Lyonses' predicament wanted their names associated with their comments. They sense the fall of a black man with powerful influence and don't want to be seen as contributing to it.

    They reason that it is better to have a black man in a position of influence, even when you don't care for him, than not to have a black man in that position.

    Even Calvin Hicks, a former chairman of the Deacon Board who is extremely critical of Lyons' character and marital loyalty, couches his sometimes caustic criticism in caveats.

    "Dr. Lyons is an educated man, a good administrator, and he's a good preacher -- oh, he's a good preacher. But he has got a lot of faults," Hicks said.

    So the shell around Lyons remained intact for years.

    Just as it has around drug dealers we complain about among ourselves, negligent parents who blame everything except themselves for their wayward children, and the myriad other problems we don't want to let out of the shell. We fear we would lose some of the power we derive from the moral high ground.

    But at what price power?

    Lyons, in Africa, refused to answer questions about developments here at home, saying he will hold a news conference Friday after he returns.

    Tuesday, reporters and others outside the shell were trying to find out where the money came from to buy two homes with a combined value of nearly $1-million, and a Rolls Royce, and trying to piece together the puzzle of Lyons' apparent double life. Many of the people in his community were pulling for the woman accused of setting the blaze.

    So many of them could have pulled a lot harder a lot earlier.

    Many of them should have.

    This isn't just a story about Henry and Deborah Lyons.


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