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Why his church still backs Rev. Lyons

Members mention a reluctance to judge, a need for stability and a mistrust of the white media.

By MONICA DAVEY and DAVID BARSTOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 9, 1998


KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- As the National Baptist Convention USA ended its first full day of meetings Tuesday, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons faced no apparent threat of ouster.

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

Lyons, already accused of racketeering, theft and fraud in state and federal courts, admitted a day before to an "improper relationship" with a convention employee.

For people outside Kansas City's convention center -- away from the prayers, the songs, the old friends reuniting -- the continuing support for Lyons' leadership may seem odd.

Does it mean tens of thousands of NBC members condone the behavior of Lyons, accused of racketeering, theft and fraud in state and federal courts?

Rank-and-file convention members, interviewed at length Tuesday by the Times, say no.

From different states, different churches, different backgrounds, the members offer at least three different explanations, complicated and subtle, for Lyons' continuing support:

A deep spiritual belief that denounces judgment of others. A need for stability and order in one of the few institutions that unites African-Americans around this country. An insistence on self-determination in the face of an intrusive white media with no sense of the group's place in a culture.

'Spare us any more pain'

"He ought to resign and that's the long and short of it," says the Rev. James C. Terrell, pastor of Second Baptist Church, a 150-year-old congregation in a middle-class neighborhood near Capitol Hill in Washington

The words are spoken with conviction, not rancor. Married to a judge, Terrell also is a professor in the school of education at Howard University. "The church," he says, "is my life."

The drumbeat of "new disappointments," he says, threatens to "overwhelm the institution." Lyons, he says, should "spare us any more pain."

Terrell wouldn't dream of joining a campaign to oust Lyons here in Kansas City. "Oh, no," he says, "absolutely not."

To do so would threaten something far dearer to him: the stability of an organization that has united African-Americans for more than a century.

"You love it because it goes back so far," he says. "This convention indeed holds us together. It's the thread that runs through the black community: the thread of non-violence and reason and Christian belief.

"You really are very troubled by any strain that's put on that thread. . . . It is a very painful thing to force someone out. It is very dangerous and damaging. It is more important -- much more important -- to maintain the cohesiveness of the convention."

Even more so, he says, because of the makeup of the convention membership. It is a conservative institution that reveres "decency and order," an institution where women wear corsages to prayer breakfasts, and most men wear carefully folded handkerchiefs in the breast pockets of their suits.

For Terrell, the sight last year in Denver of dissident ministers clashing with Lyons' loyalists was more than just offensive. It wounded the deep sense of security and shared fellowship that he attaches to the convention. So much so that he took an early flight out. "The spirit," he says, "was disturbed. There was something going on there, and it just wasn't right."

'Horrible, horrible feeling'

Frances C. Bush was in Denver last year, too. For her, the memory is a fresh wound. She will never forget the sight of dozens of white reporters on the floor of the convention hall, seemingly swarming after a man she likes and admires for his grace and earnest charm

A nurse from Bloomington, Ill., who has been coming to the convention meetings for 20 years, Mrs. Bush, 60, felt invaded and cornered and judged by a white culture.

"That's a horrible, horrible feeling," she says.

In the year since, there have been dozens of news articles that have described in excruciating detail how Lyons cheated the convention of millions of dollars to finance a lavish lifestyle. And with each one of those stories, Mrs. Bush's instinct to protect Lyons grows. She feels herself "gravitating toward Dr. Lyons because of the stress and strain and, to a point, abuse" by the media.

"It's impossible," she says, "for the carnal to understand the spiritual."

She finds herself asking questions -- not about Lyons' conduct, but about the media's conduct. Where were all the reporters before Lyons' troubled marriage became front page news last summer? Where were they all those years when the convention quietly went about the business of winning souls to Christ? Where were they when other convention leaders "blatantly" abused their offices for personal enrichment?

She frames her conclusions as a question: "What is it about Black America that scares the hell out of White America?"

Don't the members of the NBC want to know how their money is being spent? Don't they value the information, even if the information is painful to absorb?

"What business is it of yours if the churches who support the convention don't want to know all this? What business do you have to force that information on them?"

Sometimes, Mrs. Bush suggests, a lie is easier to live with than the truth. Sometimes, she says, it is more important to preserve the image of untarnished leadership than to rip back the curtains from messy reality.

Convention leaders have assured her Lyons did not misappropriate convention funds. If the news stories are true, if even half the information is proved accurate in a court of law, "where would that lead us?" she says. "I can't see that all of them would cover up for him. If this was true, they're all covering up. They're all liars. I just can't accept that."

* * *

Karen Drake, 45, is a customer service representative at City Hall in Kansas City. She's not a minister, but she spreads her Baptist faith to those she feels are in need. She talks to the people she meets on the bus. She prays with "phone friends" she makes of the people who call in to complain about city services.

Her dream, if she had money, is to build a shelter where homeless people could live and receive health care.

Drake, who grew up a Baptist in her native West Virginia, now worships at Highland Baptist Church, a 10-minute drive from Bartle Hall, where thousands of NBC members have gathered this week. She came to her first NBC convention when she was 18. This is her fifth. "It's a well-knit, close family."

Drake says Lyons' actions are not hers to judge. Her faith tells her so. "I'm not condemning him, and I'm not praising him," says Drake. "That's for God to decide. God has the power to knock him down. I don't."

Lyons, Drake says, may have failings, but he is a man of God. How does she know that? Because Lyons says he had a calling from God. Again, she says, that's not hers to judge.

"That's between him and his God. I'll tell you what, I would hate to be the one who said I got a calling from Him if it's not so. God sees all.

"What's done in the dark," she says, "will come to the light. I've seen it over and over. If you believe in God, God runs everything. I call Him the big guy. I don't mess with the big guy. I might joke around with my family, my friends, but I take a lesson from M.C. Hammer when it comes to the big guy. Can't touch that."

Drake wishes the government wouldn't spend so many millions on space travel. The money could have been used to help needy or homeless people. But couldn't the millions Lyons is accused of misappropriating for diamonds and cars and houses also have accomplished higher goals -- even paid for the homeless shelter of Drake's dreams?

Drake is not judging.

"I don't know if he took any money. I don't know if money is missing. If he used money inappropriately, then he is going to have hell to pay. But not by us. Leave it to the big

 

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