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Baptists mull fate of Lyons


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 7, 1998

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The National Baptist Convention USA Inc. opened in this city in 1961 with a choice to make for the group's place in history.

A Ministry Questioned: more coverage from the St. Petersburg Times.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a convention member, wanted to make the NBC a base for his civil rights movement. The NBC's then-president, the Rev. J.H. Jackson, disagreed with King's methods.

In Kansas City's auditorium that September afternoon, Jackson's supporters were gathering on stage when King's presidential hopeful -- Gardner Taylor -- and hundreds of his allies rushed the platform.

One preacher lost three teeth. Another fell from the stage and died. It took riot police, the mayor's call for prayer and a round of soothing spirituals to end the showdown.

"The death was an accident, and everyone knew it," said the Rev. E.C. Tillman, who marched beside Taylor. Like thousands of other Baptists, Tillman is arriving in Kansas City this week for the 118th annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention. "The thing about a convention," said Tillman, 72, "is you can't ever tell what's going to occur."

It is the first major meeting since the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, the NBC's president, was arrested on state and federal charges, including racketeering, theft, fraud and tax evasion. The prosecutors' central allegation: The St. Petersburg minister used his leadership of the convention to make himself rich.

What choices will NBC members make, this time, for the group's place in history and for its future?

No one knows. "You only get a feel of what the people want once it starts," said Tillman, of Shiloh Baptist church in Brunswick, Ga. This is certain: Lyons, the charges against him and the future of his presidency will be a central point of discussion this week.

Lyons and his supporters hope to accomplish convention business as usual. His opponents already are campaigning to replace him when his term expires at the end of 1999. It remains unclear whether anyone will attempt to unseat him sooner.

"In all probability, there is something in the wind," said longtime convention member C.A.W. Clark of Good Street Baptist Church in Dallas. "I don't know just exactly what."

As they began arriving in Missouri on Sunday, NBC members heard a call for understanding and open-mindedness during a morning service at the city's host church, Morning Star Baptist. The Rev. James Allen, a powerful convention member from Philadelphia, never mentioned Lyons by name, but implored thousands packed into the pews to withhold judgment on people. "There is a danger when your nose is turned up. A shower may come," said Allen, who himself once called for Lyons to step aside. "There is much bad in the best of us."

No one here has forgotten last year's meeting, which came just as criminal investigations were launched after Lyons' wife set fire to a $700,000 Tierra Verde home Lyons owns with a former NBC employee. During that meeting in Denver, Lyons' rivals banded together and mounted a raucous floor fight to demand his ouster. They succeeded in bringing the issue to a vote, but Lyons won the vote.

By Sunday, no signs had emerged of renewed cooperation between Lyons' enemies. Instead, some opponents were planning this week to announce their individual presidential bids when Lyons' first five-year term ends next year. Lyons, who is scheduled to face trial in January, has said he intends to run again 1999.

"I don't think anyone can predict how this is going to come out," said the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, a prominent New York minister who is campaigning to succeed Lyons. "I think in an objective process he could not survive Kansas City."

Given the uncertainty, Richardson and other rivals of Lyons are taking a wait-and-see approach. Though Richardson helped lead last year's unified charge against Lyons, he said he does not plan to "disrupt the convention" to seek Lyons' resignation.

"I'm not opposed to it," he said, "I'm just not going to lead it."

As he arrived at Kansas City's Marriott from Seattle on Sunday afternoon, convention member Friendly Mitchell said he hoped not to see a repeat of last year's divisive atmosphere. He was here, he said, for the spiritual elements -- not politics. He said Lyons cannot win re-election. "They'll iron it out, and if they don't, he'll be going out next year anyway. He'll be gone."

Steve L. Carlton, a 17-year pastor from Charlotte, N.C., likened Lyons to President Clinton. "Let's be honest," said Carlton, "every leader in the Bible has made some major mistakes."

"America would celebrate if Lyons were to resign this week. If he did, I think he'd leave with some dignity." But if that doesn't happen, Carlton prefers no floor fight. "I think what you're going to see here this year is about saving the convention, salvaging the convention, coming out with unity, even if it means Dr. Lyons is still the president."

Most upsetting to Carlton is the reaction he has watched during the past year from his pastor friends. Some have quit the convention. "The real losers are the faith community. The churches are already losing enough ground."

Beyond politics, this week is a crucial opportunity for the cash-strapped NBC to raise money to pay creditors and fund future operations.

According to NBC financial reports released this summer, total income for the first half of 1998 was down 24 percent from the same period the year before. Since 1996, the number of churches sending monthly tithes has dropped 42 percent, to 346 churches.

As a result, the convention has been forced to cut back its missionary and charity work, particularly its support for black colleges. In a recent appeal to NBC members, Lyons said $600,000 must be raised to make the mortgage payment on their headquarters, the Baptist World Center in Nashville.

"The reality is that the convention is struggling on several fronts," Richardson said.

The convention will raise money through appeals for donations, registration fees and rebates from the host hotels.

Lyons, meanwhile, intends to raise money for his legal defense by staging a massive "love offering" on Thursday.

Local officials said they are not concerned about history repeating itself. There are no plans to beef up security. "These are Christians," said Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, adding that his only instruction to the police is to ease off on parking tickets.

Their main concern is how to reap the maximum windfall for the local economy. Wayne C. Chappell, president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Kansas City, estimated 30,000 Baptists will spend about $15-million at hotels and restaurants this week.

"It makes good dollars and cents," Cleaver said.

To lure the NBC to Kansas City, city officials are giving the convention $100,000 to defray expenses this week. Cleaver is undeterred by the fact that Lyons stands accused of multiple counts of fraud and money laundering. He intends to host a reception for Lyons Thursday night.

"Every commitment they made and every obligation they assumed has been met," he said. "There has been nothing that Dr. Lyons has said to me that would indicate that there's even a problem, and I have not felt that it was my responsibility to approach him about any problems that he might be facing."

Last year, the mayor of Denver watched in dismay as Lyons ejected dozens of reporters from the city's convention hall. (Reporters were allowed back in after the mayor intervened.) Cleaver suggested he would not tolerate such a thing in his convention center.

"Any and all persons are going to be welcomed in Bartle Hall," he said.
-- Information from a book by Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters, was used in this report.


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