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Lyons admits affair with church aide

After months of denials, the National Baptist Convention president says he "wanted to make a clean breast of things."

Henry Lyons attends a news conference after telling the National Baptist Convention executive committee of an "improper relationship" with Brenda Harris. [Times photo: Andrew Innerarity]



© St. Petersburg Times, published September 8, 1998

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The story unfolding here Monday had a familiar plot.

An embattled president confessed he had an improper relationship with a female aide. His wife stood by him but revealed nothing of her heart. The president's loyalists pleaded for compassion and healing -- for the good of the people.

Brenda Harris, a convention meeting planner, attends a church service Sunday in Kansas City. An NBC board forgave her, Lyons. [Times photo: Andrew Innerarity]
But when the Rev. Henry J. Lyons acknowledged he had a two-year relationship with Brenda Harris, he was not following the lead of President Clinton, he said.

"Simply, after so much prayer, I wanted to make a clean breast of things," Lyons said, "and I feel better."

Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, and Harris, a convention meeting planner, spoke of the relationship during a closed-door meeting of the NBC executive committee, the Rev. E.V. Hill said. They said they were sorry. And Harris apologized to Lyons' wife of 26 years, Deborah, who attended the meeting.

The board voted unanimously to forgive Lyons and Harris.

Federal authorities have accused Lyons, Harris and former NBC public relations director Bernice Edwards of using the convention as a vehicle to steal millions of dollars from big corporations. Lyons and Edwards face similar charges in state court.

"Dr. Henry Lyons is an innocent man and will continue to be that until he is proven guilty," Hill said. "As an innocent man, he deserves the ... support of this convention. We are people of forgiveness.

"Afro-Baptists are a peculiar people. We aren't just sellers of the gospel; we're users."

But when Lyons and Harris repeated their confessions and apologies to a larger group later in the day, the response was not as generous. While most convention members expressed support, others shouted, "Shame, shame, shame," and "Where's the money?"

"At this point, if Dr. Lyons had any love left for himself and the National Baptist Convention, he would step down," said the Rev. Charles Kenyatta of New York City. "To drag millions of people through all this mud is a shame. In the 118 years of our existence, we've never had a president this dumb."

Or, apparently, this resilient. Lyons met with the NBC's executive committee at 10 a.m. Monday in the Count Basie Ballroom of the Marriott Hotel. The meeting was closed to the media, but the group could be heard singing at one point, then offering thunderous applause.

Deborah Lyons, leaving an event at the Kansas City meeting, got an apology from Brenda Harris for her relationship with Henry Lyons. [Times photo: Andrew Innerarity]
At 12:30 p.m., some of Lyons' top lieutenants -- including the chairman, the general secretary and a vice president -- ushered him to a nearby room for a news conference, subject unknown. About 30 men crowded in close to Lyons, some touching his shoulders.

Lyons, 56, thanked local officials for their help in Kansas City, mentioned some of his accomplishments as president and then made a vague reference to his legal troubles.

"I have not given all of the sterling, without-flaw leadership that I came to this office to give," said Lyons, who was elected in 1994 to a five-year term.

Pressed on what he meant, Lyons spoke of the state charges against him and of the 61-count federal indictment.

"That's a lot of indictments," he said.

Then the reason for the press conference became clear. Hill, a longtime Lyons supporter from Los Angeles, stepped to the podium and made a stunning announcement:

"Two members of our convention, Ms. Brenda Harris and Dr. Henry Lyons, came before the board to make a full and complete statement to us about the nature of their relationship."

Harris and Lyons "confessed to the board" that they had an "improper relationship" from 1995 to 1997, Hill said. (Another board member, the Rev. A.H. Newman, later suggested the relationship began in 1994.)

Asked why they had come forward now, Hill said they asked to do so after first consulting with their criminal lawyers.

Harris' lawyer, Nader Baydoun of Nashville, said Harris "felt it was necessary to confess and to admit to this board and to the NBC members -- who she considers her family -- the truth. She didn't want anyone guessing anymore."

Mrs. Lyons graciously accepted Harris' apology, Baydoun said. He described the moment as "pretty awesome."

Baydoun said Harris' defense in the criminal case will be that she was paid for legitimate convention work and received gifts of cash from Lyons. She knew nothing of attempts to defraud corporations, he said.

Like Clinton's televised speech about Monica Lewinsky three weeks earlier, Lyons' confession came after months of denials.

Questions about Harris and Lyons were first raised publicly last year. According to Harris' Nashville neighbors, the two once introduced themselves at a social gathering as Brenda and Henry Harris. Harris said they were engaged to be married, adding that the coincidence of sharing a last name had brought them together.

In an interview last July, Lyons denied having an affair with Harris: "Honestly, there is none. Never has been. No. Not at all."

Harris issued her own statement two months later.

"I am not "involved' with Dr. Lyons personally," she wrote in a front-page article for the National Voice, the convention newspaper.

Harris went on: "It deeply hurts and saddens me that this unfortunate situation has arisen for him, Mrs. Lyons and their family. We should all be in prayer for them and for the convention. When tragedies like this occur, no one comes out the winner.

"I know I've made more mistakes than I care to discuss. All of us have skeletons ... all of us. But let's remember that we are striving for one goal -- to be saved."

Mrs. Lyons had nothing to say Monday about her husband's revelation. But in February, she criticized the Times for writing about his relationship with Harris. She said she heard rumors in 1995 that the two were engaged, but didn't take them seriously.

"When my husband and I discussed it, we both laughed about it then, and we are still laughing about it now," she said in a posting to the convention Web site.

"The question arises in my thinking, is this Jim Crowism all over again or is the Times trying to play the race card without my husband and I knowing it? ... Is my complexion not acceptable to their standards? Is my education not extensive enough?

"Why is the St. Pete Times so determined to link my husband with a woman and now one of fair skin?"

Lyons' political foes, who failed to oust him during last year's annual meeting in Denver, responded politely to his apology, but it was clear they are still looking forward to getting him out of the way.

Asked about the confessions by Harris and Lyons, the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson said, "I feel for him, I feel for her, I feel for his family. But I would rather we not focus on that." Instead, Richardson wanted to talk about his presidential campaign, whose slogan is "Richardson '99: Countdown to Change."

It was clear in the afternoon board meeting that change is already happening, partly because the Lyons scandal has slowed the flow of money to the convention.

The Rev. William J. Harvey, director of foreign missions, said the mission board for the first time is struggling to meet its obligations -- an embarrassment to a convention that was organized to spread the Gospel around the world.


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