Cover Story

Razing the standard?

Largest black Baptist church group backs embattled leader

Issue: "Lyons thrown to Baptists," Sept. 20, 1997

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.

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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.


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