Illustration of Henry Lyons
The struggle for the soul of Henry Lyons

To many of his followers in the National Baptist Convention USA, the troubles of the Rev. Henry Lyons have come as a terrible shock. How, they wonder, could such a gifted man go so wrong? The answers lie in the shadows of his past.

Story by Mike Wilson
Artwork by Cristina Martinez of the Times staff

The man Henry Lyons called Daddy was righteous and steady and God-fearing. Booker T. Lyons was his name, but most people called him Deacon.

The Struggle for
THE SOUL
of Henry Lyons

The deacon's grandson

The making of a preacher

Sinner and saint:
The Georgia years

Becoming the man

The path to power

A tile setter by trade, he gave most of his free time to the church, tending its graveyard, counseling his fellow Christians, raising money for church projects. During services he occupied the first pew, a sign of his status.

And young Henry was there with him, Sunday after Sunday. The whoop of the preacher, the cry of the choir, the silent hour of prayer: This was Lyons’ inheritance.

Or part of it, anyway. The man Henry Lyons called Daddy was not his father but his grandfather. His father was something else entirely.

Lyons’ real daddy, Gene Lyons, was only 16 when Henry was born. Genial and smooth-talking, he drifted in and out of Lyons’ life, calling himself a father but never really doing the job. He shot dice, chased women and told extravagant lies.

He was a likable rogue but still a rogue. He had a good time and died young and probably wouldn’t have seen a connection.

Lyons rarely mentions the prodigal Gene Lyons. Instead, he talks endlessly about humble, upstanding Booker, whose name he listed under “Father” on his marriage license applications.
“I saw him stand up when something was not right, and I saw him compromise when he needed to, and I borrowed from that,” he once said.

A ministry questioned: Previous coverage from the Times

But he borrowed from someone else, too. Lyons carries the genetic material of two markedly different men: his Daddy and his father. Gene Lyons couldn’t interpret scripture and Booker wouldn’t have dreamed of pulling a scam, but Henry, versatile Henry, could do both. All his life he has straddled the line between con man and confessor, between scoundrel and saint.

Now Lyons is accused of using the presidency of the National Baptist Convention USA to steal millions of dollars. From corporations. From banks. From charities. He goes to trial on the state charges on Jan. 4. The federal trial is set for April.

To the people who have heard his unforgettable sermons, Lyons’ downfall seems unreal. How could such a gifted man be so deceitful?

But few of the Christians he inspired really knew him. For the longest of times, most people saw only the Booker in Henry Lyons, but Gene was part of him all along.

The deacon's grandson

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