To hang onto the presidency of the nation's largest predominantly black Baptist denomination, embattled St. Petersburg, Fla., pastor Henry Lyons played the forgiveness and race cards. He also stacked the deck with allies. The strategy worked.
Accused of mishandling funds, entanglement with a convicted female embezzler, and other improprieties, he nevertheless fought off dissidents and won several majority votes of confidence at the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention USA (NBCUSA) this month in Denver. The action permits him to complete the five-year term to which he was elected three years ago. Whether he fares as well in federal and state investigations of his financial dealings remains to be seen.
Things began unraveling for Mr. Lyons, 55, pastor of 1,500-member Bethel Metropolitan Church in St. Petersburg, on July 6. That day, his wife of 25 years, Deborah, ransacked a $700,000 waterfront home and set several fires, causing $30,000 damage. According to police and press accounts, Mrs. Lyons told detectives she discovered her husband was having an affair with a woman who lived at the house. She had found a deed showing the house had been purchased jointly by him and Bernice Edwards, whom he had hired as an NBCUSA public-relations officer. Miss Edwards, 40, is a never-married mother of three who has a small home in Milwaukee. The deed, dated on Miss Edwards's birthday in 1995, listed Mr. Lyons as "unmarried." Clothing that belonged to Mr. Lyons was at the house.
Mr. Lyons and Miss Edwards were traveling with several ministers on a private trip in Nigeria to seek lobbying contracts at the time of the rampage. The following day, after Mr. Lyons was informed of the incident, Mrs. Lyons recanted her story, saying there was no affair, and she had set the fires accidentally. Police, however, refused to lift the arson charges. Meanwhile, several newspapers, notably the St. Petersburg Times, launched investigations.
Mr. Lyons cut short his trip and returned to face church members and the press. The luxury home was purchased as a guest house for NBCUSA leaders, he explained. But denominational leaders contacted by reporters said they had not known of the house. Nor was it mentioned in any official church records. Mr. Lyons said Miss Edwards was a wealthy woman who sought his advice on how to spend her money.
Flood of revelations followed. Among them: The downpayment for the luxury home came from a denominational account, known as Baptist Builders Fund, which Mr. Lyons had opened at a local bank without the knowledge or approval of any NBCUSA governing unit. The account did not appear in NBCUSA financial reports. Money from the account also was used for a down payment for a $36,200 diamond ring for Miss Edwards and for a $135,000 Mercedes Benz.
Mr. Lyons had arranged a number of deals with corporations seeking the business of NBCUSA members (see sidebar on next page). Although checks apparently had been written to the denomination, Mr. Lyons paid himself, Miss Edwards, and another Florida minister, Frederick Demps, large commissions for their role in helping to raise the funds. Mr. Lyons gave conflicting accounts of the amounts involved, sometimes at variance with what company officials said they paid. In documents he provided at the Denver convention, he listed $865,000 he had paid himself and the two associates out of about $1.5 million received from 11 companies.
Mr. Lyons lost a bid in court to have state and federal investigators barred from examining his and the Baptist Builders bank records.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a profile of Miss Edwards, saying she was better known in Milwaukee as Bernice Jones and used other aliases. Far from wealthy, she was shown to be hopelessly behind in current household bills and otherwise deeply in debt. She had set up several publicly funded projects targeting poor and needy people, all of which had to be closed down for failure to perform. In 1994, she was found guilty in federal court of embezzling from one of the projects, ordered to make restitution of more than $30,000, and placed on probation for three years. In 1995, the IRS filed a lien against her for $36,629 for failing to pay funds withheld from employee wages. She declared bankruptcy several times, using multiple social security cards, a crime. Federal and local authorities reportedly are investigating Miss Edwards to see what might be owed them from the large sums she collected from Mr. Lyons.
Mr. Lyons reportedly met Miss Edwards in 1994 as he was campaigning for the NBCUSA presidency and enlisted her help.
As news of Mr. Lyons's questionable dealings spread, a number of NBCUSA associations, churches, and ministers across the country called on him to resign. In preconvention maneuvering, Mr. Lyons appointed an 18-member ethics and accountability committee to investigate the allegations. It was chaired by Watts pastor E.V. Hill, a popular speaker in mainstream evangelical circles.
In preconvention meetings with leaders, Mr. Lyons described himself as the victim of racist white media. He said the NBCUSA constitution gave him strong discretionary power over church funds and spending. He showed charts of how money in the Baptist Builders Fund had been allocated. He acknowledged mistakes. For example, some of the commissions he paid himself were, in hindsight, "a bit high," he said. He confessed to being a poor money manager. But he denied having taken "a dime" of NBCUSA money for his own use. And he reminded his listeners how he had rescued the denomination from near insolvency under the former administration and paid off much of the debt on the headquarters complex in Nashville, Tenn. He also announced he had fired Miss Edwards and denied he'd had an affair with her or anyone else.
(The NBCUSA is loosely structured. Under NBCUSA rules, the president names virtually all officers and committee and board members. Member churches are expected to give 3 percent of their income plus a membership fee to the NBCUSA, but the rule is not strictly enforced. Fewer than 5,000 made donations, according to the latest annual report. The denomination has no list of its church members, or even an accounting of how many there are. A figure of 8.5 million members in 33,000 churches has been tossed around for years, and media reports routinely cite it. But Mr. Lyons says the number of churches is grossly exaggerated. Some leaders say the figure is closer to one-third of that.)
Days later, with key leaders solidly behind him, Mr. Lyons took his case to the convention and said many of the same things. With the convention theme, "Raising the Standard," as a backdrop, the board of directors voted again, 87 to 17, to keep him in office and to end the investigation. Although only 20 of more than 100 questions the ethics committee submitted to Mr. Lyons had been answered, Mr. Hill said it was clear Mr. Lyons had not broken any church laws. He recommended the committee be dissolved. To head off future problems, Mr. Hill said, a full-time executive officer should be appointed, and no new accounts should be opened without approval of the Executive Board. Mr. Lyons affirmed agreement with the proposals. Several of the committee members resigned in protest.
Mr. Hill explained to reporters: "[In the black church], we don't have a ministry of condemnation. We have a ministry of reconciliation. White people don't understand that in their institutions, so they pull down their Bakkers and their Swaggarts."
Although dissidents pamphleteered convention-goers, accusing Mr. Lyons of misdeeds, they did not get organized until midway through the week-long event. By then, the appeal for forgiveness had won over many attendees. The convention newspaper had declared the question was not whether Mr. Lyons had done wrong, but why white people, "principally the white media-the puppet of the white establishment," are trying to "crucify" him.
On the fourth day, more than 100 dissidents, led by four presidential contenders Mr. Lyons had defeated in 1994, crowded to the podium in the large hall, demanding to be heard. Convention leaders tried to drown them out with hymns. Mr. Lyons intervened, asking that seven on each side be allowed to speak briefly. He first ordered the three dozen reporters or so, mostly white, to leave. There was pushing and shoving when some balked. "Get the white people out of here," some in the throng of about 15,000 shouted. "Go, go, go," others chanted. Several black reporters managed to escape the purge and report the proceedings. Following the mini-speeches, a standing vote showed a clear majority in favor of keeping Mr. Lyons as president. The dissident leaders joined ranks and said they would support him.
Later, Houston pastor Michael Williams, a Lyons ally, attempted to put things in perspective for reporters. If Mr. Lyons had spent churchgoers' tithes and offerings on houses and diamonds, the convention would have dumped him, he said. But since the money apparently came from business deals with big corporations, people were far more willing to forgive, he said. After all, he noted, "This was white people's money."