Lyons asks, and he receives
By MONICA DAVEY, DAVID BARSTOW,
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 11, 1998
ANSAS CITY -- Members of the National Baptist Convention USA were asked Thursday to pay -- literally -- for the sins of their president, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons. Personal checks were accepted.
When the bathroom-size Rubbermaid buckets came back to them, the ushers proceeded by twos to the stage, where a pair of unsmiling men in dark suits stood watch over a black garbage bag.
One by one the ushers emptied their loot, making the bag bulge with leafy-green checks and bills.
"All right, first of all, let's say thank God that all the buckets are back," the Rev. E.V. Hill told the 20,000 Baptists there. Moments later, the bag was whisked out of the hall.
It was impossible to say how much was raised for Lyons' defense. Many people refused to give even though convention leaders said the money would go to Lyons' defense fund, and not to him.
Still, in one remarkable 20-minute stretch, Hill announced donations totaling at least $40,000, mainly from Lyons' top lieutenants.
For Lyons, accused of racketeering, theft and fraud in federal and state courts, that was good news. The day also brought plenty of the other kind.
Since Lyons' troubles began 14 months ago, the convention has skidded toward financial catastrophe. Donations are down. The NBC is cutting budgets and paying bills according to which one seems most important at the moment. And it is behind $300,000 on its mortgage on the Baptist World Center in Nashville, Tenn., with another $664,000 due Oct. 15.
In his annual address before a packed hall Thursday afternoon, Lyons acknowledged he has hurt the convention. He apologized for "serious miscalculations of judgment," saying the remorse keeps him up nights. He asked for mercy. And for money, especially for the World Center.
Even those who are angry should "go ahead and give the money anyway," he said. "Go ahead and say, "Yeah, I'm still mad at him, but I'm going to give the money anyway.' "
Then the speech became a sermon, an emotional effort that strained his voice almost to the breaking point. Dressed in an old-fashioned, knee-length preaching frock and speaking directly to God, Lyons said he is but nothing next to the Lord.
"I'm not standing on Henry Lyons. I'm standing on your plan," he said. "You are the main course. I'm the side order.
"I love him to death. Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes."
And yet the theme of the day was not the spirit but the wallet. The convention's most recent annual report shows that the number of donors has taken a dive. A year ago, about 4,300 churches or individuals made contributions during convention meetings. The new report shows about 2,700 churches or individuals have given money.
Attendance at NBC meetings has dipped. Last June's weeklong Congress on Christian Education in Indianapolis was an example. The convention's "Leap of Faith" campaign raised $63,000 that week, which Lyons planned to put toward an interest payment on the World Center, Lyons said. But because advance registrations were down, the money had to be used to cover the expenses of the congress.
Lyons said registrations picked up again for the annual session. The convention had $560,000 in advance bookings for Kansas City, up $6,000 from last year's session in Denver.
The financial pressure on the convention is so great that the NBC is paying bills by a sort of triage method: salaries first, World Center expenses second and "other bills as funds are available," according to the annual report.
The strain also is obvious in Lyons' budget for the coming year. The convention is slashing expenses. The budget lists total expenses of $3.1-million for the NBC's parent body, down $2-million from 1996-97.
One budget, however, will not be cut. Total stipends for Lyons and his six vice presidents are up about 81 percent from two years ago. Lyons' stipend jumped from $80,000 to $147,000.
The money troubles are affecting the NBC's affiliates as well. Lyons is reducing the convention's giving to its American Baptist College in Nashville from about $1-million to $600,000. And the Sunday School Publishing Board, which says it sells about $4.2-million annually in Bibles and hymnbooks, is under severe pressure. Last October, creditors garnished the publishing board's bank accounts for $159,000 in past-due bills.
The deals Lyons made in his early days as president continue to haunt the convention. According to the report, the convention's attorney has said it should settle a lawsuit by Union Planters Bank of Middle Tennessee.
The lawsuit arose from a deal Lyons made to borrow $300,000 as part of an agreement to market credit cards to Baptists. The convention never repaid the loan, and Union Planters sued for the $300,000 plus interest.
It was later revealed that Lyons had secured the loan in part by submitting a phony NBC resolution to the bank. Of the $300,000, Lyons spent almost half on himself, his friends and convention meeting planner Brenda Harris, with whom he was romantically involved.
Last February, convention attorney Renard Hirsch recommended an agreement under which the NBC would make 13 monthly payments of $30,000. According to the minutes of Hirsch's talk with convention leaders, "President Lyons stated that he feels responsible . . . and will pay" the first $60,000.
Still, no settlement was reached. Later, the convention was told it could pay $150,000 within 10 days or $200,000 by Oct. 1 "as full and complete settlement of the lawsuit." But the lawsuit has not been settled, Lyons said in a brief interview Thursday. So the debt keeps growing.
The World Center is a much more expensive problem. According to minutes of a February 1998 teleconference, convention leaders considered refinancing the building and using the millions of dollars in equity "to keep things afloat."
The minutes go on: "President Lyons responded that this would have to be a measure of last resort."
South Trust Bank, which holds the note on the World Center, has shown great forebearance, Lyons said. The bank was less concerned about the $300,000 principal payment the convention missed than it was about the $600,000, plus interest, that will soon come due.
"They didn't even hassle it. . . . (They said,) "Just deal with the $600,000.' "
Lyons tried to deal with it Wednesday night by mobilizing the Armies of God, which he established to raise money for the World Center. Churches that gave $5,000 became part of Gideon's Army; those that gave small sums joined David's. Lyons gave a $5,000 check from his church, Bethel Metropolitan in St. Petersburg.
He said Thursday he didn't know how much was raised.
Lyons said he would be "pushing, pushing, pushing" to raise money for the World Center on Thursday, but most of the pushing was for Lyons' legal defense.
"Some of us have on thousand-dollar shoes, but we give five dollars to the convention," the Rev. Timothy Fleming, a Lyons supporter from Atlanta, told the crowd. "Let's give some money. We must stand together in spite of what's going on. Let's stand together and give."