The Rev. Henry Lyons
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Support and doubts remain after statement
By CRAIG PITTMAN and WAVENEY ANN MOORE
©St. Petersburg Times, published July 12, 1997
ST. PETERSBURG -- Throughout the Rev. Henry Lyons' 11-minute news conference Friday, as he denied having an affair and mishandling the money of the national church group he leads, some of the people who crowded in behind the swarm of reporters at Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church nodded their heads, clapped their hands and called out, "Amen!"
But not everybody. Some just sat there, frowning. One woman in a big hat muttered that God would punish Lyons for what he has done.
Lyons' statement did little to quell the storm of controversy that has enveloped him since his wife's arrest on arson and burglary charges Sunday. Reactions to what he had to say were sharply divided in St. Petersburg and throughout the nation.
Lyons is president of the largest African-American religious group in the United States, the National Baptist Convention USA. At least one convention board member thinks he may be in danger of losing that influential post.
"His presidency is severely damaged," said the Rev. J. J. Barfield, a board member from Philadelphia. "And it's going to take an outfit stronger than the one that makes Krazy Glue to save it."
But the Rev. John Chaplin, the convention's first vice president, predicted convention members will rally behind Lyons.
"He hasn't done anything," Chaplin said. "It's hard for people outside to believe two black people can have a business relationship without something sordid going on."
The fortunes of Lyons could directly affect St. Petersburg's efforts to revitalize its inner city. Lyons' political influence has been widely credited as crucial to the White House's committing federal resources in the city after last fall's violent racial disturbances.
"It could hurt our efforts in the inner city. He was a man with a national presence, strong political ties. I hope this doesn't cause people to lose confidence," said Mayor David Fischer, who frequently has campaigned at Lyons' church, Bethel Metropolitan Baptist.
Among the members of Lyons' church, though, plenty still are proud to call him their pastor. Lois Grayson, a member of Bethel Metropolitan, attended the news conference and said she was pleased that Lyons told his side.
"He's a reputable person and I love him dearly," she said. "He has done a lot for this church and I think he will continue."
Marvin Davies, a member of the citizens advisory commission appointed to oversee federal aid after last fall's disturbances, joined 40 or so supporters who formed a phalanx around Lyons as he spoke.
"He satisfied me," said Davies. "What he said was enough."
But it was far from enough for people like Barfield, who said he was disturbed most by what Lyons did not say. He pointed out that Lyons never mentioned Bernice Edwards' criminal past or explained why the convention paid her restitution.
"People still want to know what's going on, and they want to know if they've been given a true and honest accounting of the receipt and disbursement of funds," he said.
Barfield said he has been calling board members across the country to seek their reactions to the news about Lyons, and most of the people he talked to said they could no longer support him.
"Some preachers I talked to said their churches refused to give any more money to the convention because they feel their money hasn't been spent right," he said.
Barfield also asked the ministers he talked to whether they believe media are to blame for Lyons' troubles, as Lyons said.
"They said the newspaper didn't join in buying the house with Bernice Edwards," Barfield said. "And the newspaper didn't pay down on a car for Bernice Edwards. And the newspaper didn't pay restitution for her criminal activities in Milwaukee. You can't really blame the newspapers for what he did, because the newspapers just reported on what he did. . . . My friends said the news media didn't make Mrs. Lyons so mad that she set a house on fire. She's the one that did that."
The Rev. Harry L. Batts, pastor of the Messiah Baptist Church in East Orange, N.J., and a member of the convention's Sunday School Publishing Board, said he did not approve of Lyon's contention that he is the victim of prejudice against a wealthy black man. "I know many blacks who are wealthy and financially secure," he said. "I know many black preachers that are wealthy and financially secure. I wouldn't want to use that kind of a crutch, but then he's the president of the convention, and I'm not."
The allegations against Lyons could hurt his moral authority in the church and could even raise a cloud over all pastors and their congregations, said the Rev. A. Leon Lowry, a retired Tampa pastor and civil rights leader.
"Anytime such allegations are made against a pastor . . . there is created some aura of doubt and suspicion, and people tend to believe the worst," Lowry said.
Mozella G. Mitchell, an ordained AME Zion minister and University of South Florida religion professor, said Lyons was smart to surround himself with friends and colleagues from his church and then imply that the church itself was under attack.
In some people's minds, "when you destroy anything in the church you are attacking black society as a whole," she said. From the view of many African-Americans, Mitchell said, if Lyons had admitted he had done something wrong or even let himself get caught dodging questions, "he would have embarrased the whole black church."
In his statement, Lyons said he would meet with members of his congregation Friday night in a session closed to the media. He promised to answer their questions "until the sun comes up."
Friday night, the almost full parking lot made it evident that church members wanted to hear their minister's explanations. They declined to comment as they entered, and after the two-hour meeting they declined to talk about what Lyons told them.
Stacey Blossom was furious because security guards did not allow her to enter the church because she is not a member.
"He is avoiding the questions that need to be answered," she said. "I can understand that he wants to talk to his congregation, but what about the rest of us? If he does not have a relationship with this woman, why is he sharing a joint checking account with her and why is her name on the car?"
But Comer Boswell, who attended the news conference, said Lyons owes an explanation to no one on earth: "If he made a mistake, it's between him and God."
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