NEWS STORY: Church leaders rally around embattled Baptist president

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

DENVER _ Leaders of the National Baptist Convention, USA, have voted to drop a church investigation of their president, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, despite objections by critics that the decision is a”cover-up”of his alleged financial and personal misdeeds.

A day after the official investigation against him ended, Lyons addressed the annual meeting of the nation’s largest black denomination, admitting he had erred.”I have made mistakes,”he said Tuesday (Sept. 2).”There’ve been mistakes and mishaps and errors that have cost me many sleepless nights.” On Monday, the executive board of the 8.5 million-member denomination voted 87 to 17 to keep Lyons in office despite revelations the 55-year-old minister used church money to buy a $700,000 waterfront home with a woman other than his wife as well as a Mercedes-Benz and pricey jewelry.

The board found that church funds had not been misappropriated nor was there any other reason for Lyons to resign, said several members. Lyons, a St. Petersburg, Fla., pastor, hand-picked the board members after he was elected to a five-year term in 1994.

The executive board’s vote was confirmed later in the day by 1,200 church leaders who decided to drop the investigation of Lyons.”Dr. Lyons has not broken any laws of the (church) constitution and no charges have been brought against him,”said the Rev. E.V. Hill of Los Angeles, chairman of the 18-member ethics commission that Lyons appointed to review the allegations against him. Three members of the committee resigned Monday and the 15 remaining voted unanimously in favor of Lyons.

But despite the absolution of Lyons, the ethics panel did recommend the church appoint a full-time executive director of finances and that no new church bank accounts be opened without the executive board’s approval.

Late Monday afternoon _ when Hill said the committee had considered about 20 of more than 100 questions they needed to ask Lyons to complete their investigation _ there was a shift in the process.

The Rev. Manuel Scott of Dallas, described by Hill as a”patriarch”of the church, rose to plead on Lyons’ behalf before the 1,200 church leaders. Scott urged the church to”stop the fighting and bloodletting”and drop the investigation, Hill said. Scott also noted that”Jesus said we shouldn’t kick someone who is down but rush to him and help,”said Hill.

Hill said”there was a sweeping of the Spirit”after the remarks by Scott, who left a hospital bed to come to the convention.

Grady Irvin, Lyons’ attorney from Tampa, Fla., said the denominational president was pleased with the turn of events.”It has been a good day for Dr. Lyons and for the convention,”Irvin said Monday.”He was upbeat about the vote. This is a forgiving convention.” When Lyons opened the convention Tuesday by asking for forgiveness, hundreds of delegates responded by giving Lyons a standing ovation.

But some of Lyons’ critics questioned the actions of supporters of the denominational president.

One delegate called the board’s decision to drop the investigation a”cover-up”for administrative”goons”hand-picked by Lyons to protect their own interests.”Most of the committee is here to surround the wagons and make like nothing has happenedâÂ?¦,”said the Rev. Charles Kenyatta of White Rock Baptist Church in New York City’s Harlem section.”I don’t see how they can excuse him, but it seems as though they are going to do just that.””If Dr. Lyons is truly a biblical scholar, a man of God who loves his people, he will step down,”said Kenyatta.

Others predicted a continuing fight during the meeting over Lyons’ standing in the denomination.

Lyons first received a vote of confidence in July by the board when it held an emergency meeting after questions began to mount about the Baptist leader’s behavior.

The controversy began when Lyons’ third wife, Deborah, was charged with setting fire July 6 to the home her husband bought with Bernice Edwards, a former church official. Local sheriff’s officials said Mrs. Lyons told them she believed her husband was having an affair with Edwards, but later denied she said that.

Lyons has denied having an affair with Edwards, a convicted embezzler, or spending church money on personal purchases. He said that Edwards’ money came from commissions she earned in negotiating deals for the denomination with corporations.

Lyons told the St. Petersburg Times,”my big, big mistake in life”was in holding church money and Edwards’ money in the same bank account.

Lyons rose to national leadership of the denomination with plans to increase the economic level of African-Americans. One of his election promises was to open the group’s financial records to its members.

He established relationship with President Clinton, reduced the denomination’s debt and helped form an economic development corporation.

Although the denomination may have ended its official review of allegations, Lyons still faces investigations by the U.S. Justice Department for misusing federal funds destined for poor Alabama farmers and IRS questions about tax payments on businesses owned by the church.”He’ll answer those questions if he is formally charged,”his attorney said Monday.

MJP END CULVER

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