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Indictments draw show of support, new calls for removal

By MIKE WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 3, 1998


U.S. Attorney Charles Wilson said Thursday he believed African-American Baptists would cheer the indictments of Henry J. Lyons and two National Baptist Convention USA associates. He was half right.

Charles R. Wilson, United States Attorney for the Middle District of Florida, explains the charges Thursday afternoon. [Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Some cheered, but others said they would continue to support Lyons as they have done since his troubles began last year. And while some again called for Lyons' ouster, there was no indication the convention board would try to get rid of him.

"I guess I did not believe I could be further shocked. This is shocking," said the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson of New York, a Lyons critic who ran for president against him in 1994.

"I hope it's the final layer of what has been a devastating disclosure. Devastating for his family, I'm sure, but also for our church and for the Christian community worldwide."

Richardson called for Lyons' resignation or removal but doesn't expect either. "I do not detect a resolve in the board of directors to do anything," he said.

Lyons' closest allies on the board said little Thursday. His most vocal supporter, the Rev. E.V. Hill of Los Angeles, was out of the country and could not be reached. Two other board members, general secretary Roscoe D. Cooper Jr. and recording secretary Richard P. Bifford, would not comment because they had not seen the indictments.

Still, the board has been behind Lyons, saying as recently as January that it would support him "until complete and final closure" of the state and federal criminal prosecutions.

The Rev. Michael Williams of Houston said he thinks Lyons' supporters on the board "are living in Oz."

A Ministry Questioned: complete archive of the Lyons' saga
"It is far past time for Henry Lyons to have stepped aside," said Williams, pastor of Joy Tabernacle Baptist Church and a longtime member of the convention. "In the midst of this avalanche of allegations, there is no way that Dr. Lyons can have the National Baptist Convention on his mind."

Still, Williams said, he considers Lyons a friend and will stand by him when his criminal trials begin.

"I believe he is a man of God and a soul in distress," he said. "I believe this is not a time for people who love him to abandon him." At least two other prominent pastors, the Rev. K.T. Whalum of Memphis and the Rev. C.A.W. Clark of Dallas, renewed their calls for Lyons to resign.

Clark, 83, a convention power broker, attended his first National Baptist Convention meeting in 1937 and has worked under four presidents, including Lyons.

"Lyons' presidency, in my judgment, will be a dark spot in the history of the convention," Clark said. "And my judgment is the convention has not committed any wrong. The wrong that has been highlighted has been accomplished by the president."

Several members of Lyons' church, Bethel Metropolitan in St. Petersburg, expressed support.

"I have always known him to be a straightforward person. I would only have good things to say about Dr. Lyons," longtime member Lela O'Neal said.

Church deacon Dozier Holmes said he is "strongly supportive" of Lyons.

A woman answering the phone at the home of deacon Marvin T. York said, "Didn't I ask the St. Petersburg Times not to call this house again or I was pressing charges?"

In May, Bethel's deacon board wrote an open letter supporting Lyons and posted it on the convention's Web site. The letter accused the Times of taking a " "death by a thousand cuts' approach, not only to our pastor, but to us as a church."

The letter went on, "Continue praying for us and withhold your judgment of our pastor until he can have his day in court, when the unbiased facts will come forth."

Some apparently have not withheld judgment. The Rev. Alvin Miller, an associate minister at Bethel, said about one-third of the congregation "has just scattered, gone to other churches."

Miller teaches Sunday school at Bethel but refuses to sit in the pulpit with Lyons.

"I still love him as a person," he said. "But I feel I owe a higher commitment to God than to man."

The Rev. Wilkins Garrett, a St. Petersburg minister and friend of Lyons, said the community's reaction to Lyons has been "mixed."

"Some people are sympathetic, and other people have said, you know, he's probably guilty," Garrett said. "I feel sorry for him. There's nothing I can do, but I feel sorry for him."

On WTMP-AM, between the latest R&B hits, callers were asked if the indictments against Lyons were "chickens coming home to roost" or a government conspiracy to bring down a prominent black leader.

Chickens, many callers said.

"We should remember it was his wife who started all this," one male caller said, arguing against the conspiracy theory.

Some callers championed both sides, saying Lyons had done wrong, but the government was out to punish him beyond what he deserved. A few questioned whether Lyons would be able to get a fair trial in the Tampa Bay area because of the notoriety of his case.

The radio station's guest, minister James Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, cautioned listeners to reserve judgment until the trial. But he said if Lyons is guilty and escapes punishment from the court, "he will have to answer to God."
-- Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report.


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