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The Rev. Henry Lyons



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Vote backs Lyons; foes vow to fight


©St. Petersburg Times, published September 3, 1997

DENVER -- The Rev. Henry J. Lyons received a vote of confidence Tuesday from the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., but a coalition of powerful forces was mounting a campaign to unseat him, pledging to use "civil rights tactics" if necessary.

Hours after the convention's annual meeting officially opened Tuesday, Lyons' supporters called for an endorsement of their president, embattled in recent months by allegations of financial mismanagement and personal failures.

Most of the people in the Colorado Convention Center hall rose when asked to stand in support of Lyons, and members of his administration declared victory. "As far as I'm concerned this is a done deal," said the Rev. Richard P. Bifford, the convention's recording secretary.

But Lyons' critics decried the vote as "bully tactics," saying it occurred without warning in the early afternoon when thousands of convention members were at lunch.

A coalition of critics -- including four of Lyons' opponents for the presidency, four members of a convention investigative commission and a handful of state chapter presidents -- joined forces for the first time and demanded that Lyons step down by today.

The critics, who until Tuesday often competed politically among themselves, said they will demand to be heard by the convention this morning and will not leave until they are.

"Nothing else will happen until this is dealt with," said the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, who narrowly lost to Lyons for president in 1994. "Remember, we took on (police chief) "Bull' Conner in Montgomery. . . . We're not going to be closed out by white people and we are not going to be closed out by black people."

As the annual meeting entered its second day, Lyons remained president, but tensions appeared to be rising, divisions widening. Thousands of new pro- and anti-Lyons fliers were thrust into members' hands around the center in what has become a war of paper. Hecklers on both sides hollered insults at each other, and two men almost came to blows.

Critics unite

On the steps of the downtown convention center, the ministers stood close together, shoulders brushing shoulders.

It would have been an impossible gathering three years ago when they faced off against each other for president: Richardson of Mount Vernon, N.Y., the Rev. Jasper W. Williams of Atlanta, the Rev. C.A.W. Clark of Dallas and the Rev. William J. Shaw of Philadelphia. All together, the four received nearly twice the votes Lyons received in the 1994 election.

Surrounding them Tuesday afternoon were about 200 other critics of Lyons, including a handful of members who angrily quit an investigative commission assigned to examine Lyons.

The Rev. Kenneth T. Whalum, who quit the investigative commission, read a statement from the group:

"It is the perception of the public at large that Dr. Henry J. Lyons has been given a unanimous vote of confidence to continue in office as president of the convention.

"The leaders standing with me have come forth to denounce the recommendation of the board and the subsequent vote taken today on the floor of the convention meeting after three-fourths of the delegates had gone from the convention floor. We are calling for the suspension of the scheduled program for tomorrow . . . in order to convene a convention session to give all the delegates an opportunity to participate in the process of determining the future of our convention. . . .

"We are calling for the immediate resignation of Dr. Henry J. Lyons as president of the national Baptist Convention USA Inc. If he does not resign we are prepared to deliver certified documents and court records to the convention and to request his expulsion from office."

The group called for the Rev. S.C. Cureton to be named president. That ended speculation that members of the group themselves were seeking the top job. Cureton, the convention's vice president at large, became part of Lyons' administration after agreeing to end his own campaign for president before the 1994 election and throwing his support to Lyons.

"None of us are running for president," Richardson stressed. "We are all running for the future of this convention."

Said Shaw: "Political concerns have taken second place."

The coalition also called for the creation of a committee to reform convention policies.

Would the coalition consider splitting from the National Baptist Convention?

The ministers shouted no. They would fight to repair it. "We are not leaving the National Baptist Convention under any circumstances," Richardson said.

The coalition said it will call on its parishioners to hold back donations to the convention, which gets much of its income from donors and its member donor churches.

If Lyons does not resign, the coalition will fight, its members said. They plan to distribute damaging court documents and public records about Lyons, if necessary, they said, declining to be specific. Ministers also will refuse to take no for an answer today on the floor of the convention, they said. If they are ignored, they will not leave. They will march, they said, recalling the days of civil rights marches.

As the men spoke, Lyons' attorney, Grady Irvin, watched a few steps away. Brenda Harris, a convention official who has been romantically linked to Lyons, observed from above -- an upstairs window of the convention center.

On the fringes of the crowd, Lyons' supporters heckled the coalition.

"All of you are losers!" the Rev. A. Steven Reynolds called to the onetime presidential candidates. "You want to teach somebody Christian principles and y'all are doing this!"

Reynolds pointed at Richardson. "You're mad because you lost."

And then: "I wish I had a firecracker."

A Lyons' enemy and a Lyons' friend shouted, then moved toward each other. Others grabbed them before a punch could be thrown. They were held apart.

"Cool it man," one man said, "Don't take it personal!"

Disputed vote of support

Thousands of Baptists filled chairs in rows that stretched longer than a football field.

It was 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, and the convention's general session was well under way. Songs had been sung, sermons made. Some people began to drift out for lunch.

Lyons, who sat on the stage with two dozen top leaders, wanted a vote on his future. He wanted his followers to express what they wanted. "I don't want it to appear that we're up to tricks and a bunch of foolishness," Lyons said. "That's not what we're about."

So the Rev. E.V. Hill made a motion: Accept the board's recommendation on Monday by giving Lyons a vote of confidence and dissolving the investigative commission. The motion got a second.

At that, the Rev. A. Roberts came to the front of the giant room. He took the microphone. Holding up a piece of paper, Roberts said he had charges against Lyons and wanted to make a motion that the full body might hear those charges.

Just then, the Rev. C. Eugene Overstreet, a well-known evangelist, came to the microphone. The group should not do that, he said. It could not do that.

"He has openly admitted to some wrongdoings and poor choices," Overstreet said. "Our proposal is to forgive him for any Christian violation. We're not FBI. We're not prosecutors. What do they want from the man? Blood?"

Cureton, who was presiding over the meeting as vice president at large, said proper procedure had to followed. Hill's motion came first. It had to be voted on first.

With that, Cureton called for everyone who favored the endorsement of Lyons to stand. A majority of the several thousand people still in the hall rose. Those opposed then were asked to stand. A smaller group, just hundreds this time, rose.

Cureton said the motion carried "at least by 5- or 6-to-1."

Roberts and other Lyons opponents stormed out. Lyons' supporters shook hands and patted each other on the backs. The room cleared.

"The people have spoken," said the Rev. C.L. Sparks, a Lyons' advocate from Chicago. "The majority rules in church. It's over."

Was it fair to take the vote while so many delegates were gone? "If you're in a fight," Sparks said, "you don't stop fighting."

The opponents were furious.

"This was a trick," said the Rev. Arlene Churn of Philadelphia. "He waited until only his people were here."

"We thought it was not coming up in this session."

Churn scoffed at Lyons' administration slogan: Raising A Standard. "He said, "Raise a standard.' He has lowered it."

Lyons says he's sorry

Lyons took his message directly to followers Tuesday. In the vast hall of chairs and faces, the man whose childhood dream was to lead the convention said he was sorry. He had done wrong.

"I prayed to God down on my knees. I've prostrated myself before him, day in and day out. I know God has forgiven me. I come to you to ask you to forgive me. I need your forgiveness."

"I've come again to ask you to forgive me for my errors, to forgive me for my mistakes . . . to look upon me as your brother."

"I need to know I am forgiven."

Lyons will reverse a board decision Monday that would have ended a convention investigation into his handling of money, his right-hand man said. Surprising some critics, Lyons will call for the investigation to continue, convention general secretary Roscoe Cooper said Tuesday night.

"He is going to allow the commission to continue," Cooper said. "He wants the commission to complete its work." Cooper said new members would be added to the 18-member commission to replace several who resigned in protest on Monday.

It may take the commission until January to finish its work.

As for the coalition of anti-Lyons forces, Cooper said Lyons did not plan to resign, nor did he plan to allow a protest meeting to interrupt today's schedule. Cooper scoffed at the notion that Lyons' opponents have set aside their political ambitions.

"Everything is political," Cooper said.

He pointed out that Lyons has received three votes of confidence from three different gatherings of convention members. "In each session they have said we are going to forgive our president and move ahead," he said.

But Lyons' administration, he added, is already committed to many of the reforms sought by his opponents. No longer, he said, will top convention officials pursue millions of dollars in corporate sponsorships. "We're going to back away from that," he said.

There will be a "serious effort" to restructure the financial administration of the convention. Among the changes: the president will no longer have sole authority over convention money.

All day Tuesday, convention leaders shoved pro- and anti- Lyons' fliers into the hands of members. "Unapproved" fliers were initially declared against convention rules earlier in the week, but they were everywhere Tuesday.

At the bottom of an escalator in the convention center, a man thrust papers at people. "Keep walking as you grab! Keep walking as you grab!"

At least a half-dozen different fliers were being circulated Tuesday, most of them apparently printed up overnight because they included allegations about Monday's meeting.

A bright yellow page from a women's group cried out: "Can our church mother's board afford to pay for (former convention employee and convicted embezzler) Bernice Edwards' $36,000 diamond ring? Can our church missionary society afford to pay for Bernice Edwards' $135,000 Mercedes-Benz? Can our church youth department afford to pay for Bernice Edwards' $700,000 Florida home? Can our churches become a party to breaking the law by money laundering for Bernice Edwards? Women to women, how long will we keep quiet, how long will our churches support Bernice Edwards' and Brenda Harris' lavish lifestyle?"

Another sheet praised Lyons' tenure. "Let us show Dr. Henry J. Lyons love. He is not God, but he is God's anointed."

For some, neither side mattered. All the division, though, hurt. It wasn't what the convention should be about.

As Lyons watched from his spot on the stage, the Rev. Michael Patrick Williams, of Houston, preached. The convention is in a historic crisis, he said.

"There is an evil, unclean spirit in our convention," Williams said. "The National Baptist Convention has lost its anchor. The National Baptist Convention has lost its compass."

So many conspiracies, tactics, press conferences and camps. "But we won't pray," he said.

"The devil has gotten in and manipulated the way we think and what we do."

"We've got to repent."

"We need to discover our first love."

-- Staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report.

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