TAMPA — The Rev. Henry J. Lyons is mounting a bid to lead the National Baptist Convention USA again, a decade after he was convicted for swindling more than $5.2 million from the organization's corporate partners and then served nearly five years in state prison.
His campaign theme: "Restore the love, and repair the breach.''
During the group's meeting last month in Nashville, Tenn., the Tampa pastor emerged as one of two candidates for convention president. The group, claiming more than 7.5 million members, will hold the election at its September convention in Memphis, Tenn.
The Rev. William J. Shaw, the outgoing president, said, "Currently, there is no provision in the convention's constitution that would preclude him from running for that office.''
To qualify, candidates had to submit written letters of support from 100 active churches, associations or state conventions within the national organization by Dec. 31. The convention's board of directors, made up of more than 100 members, certified Lyons as a candidate for his old post, which currently pays $100,000 a year.
Lyons, 67, leads New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa. He did not return calls for comment Wednesday.
His candidacy is being met with mixed reaction throughout the denomination. Some preachers and supporters say he has paid his debt to society and should be free to run without judgment.
"In my opinion and in the opinion of many people, Dr. Lyons has been one of the most dynamic leaders in the Baptist church," said the Rev. Gilbert Stewart, a pastor in West Palm Beach. "He's an organizer, he makes things happen, he has a heart for people."
Others can't forget the pain and embarrassment of Lyons' public fall and worry he will bring unfair scrutiny to the national organization.
"I don't have no ill feelings towards Brother Lyons personally," said the Rev. C.L. Bachus, a Kansas City, Kan., pastor who serves as the convention's vice president for the western region. "I don't think it's healthy for the convention."
Lyons' downfall began in 1997 when his wife, since divorced, set fire to a house in Tierra Verde the preacher shared with the late Bernice Edwards, a convicted embezzler whom Lyons hired as the convention's public relations director.
That fire called attention to the preacher's personal life and finances and led to criminal charges. He was convicted in 1999 of grand theft and racketeering and spent nearly five years in state prison. He was released in 2003.
A judge ordered the preacher to pay more than $5 million in restitution and spend five years on probation. Lyons' probation ended in 2008. Information on how much he has paid back was unavailable Wednesday, according to federal prosecutors.
Lyons will face off against the Rev. Julius Scruggs, pastor of the First Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala. Scruggs currently serves as the convention's vice president at large. The men are vying for a five-year term.
Speculation that Lyons would again seek to lead the Baptist group has run high for years. Still, Bachus said he and other pastors are disappointed that Lyons is trying to oversee the group again.
"We never thought that Dr. Lyons would try to run for president again so we didn't put anything in (our constitution) to deal with issues such as his past has been," said Bachus, who believes many members feel as he does.
"I do know it is our intention that he does not become president,'' he said. "We are trying to elect a president who does not have all of that baggage on him."
This is not the first time Lyons has sought a leadership post among Baptists since his release from prison. In 2007, he tried to regain his old job as president of the Florida General Baptist Convention, which represents more than 700 churches statewide.
Lyons lost to the Rev. James B. Sampson of Jacksonville. Still, Lyons had a cadre of enthusiastic supporters and captured some 30 percent of the votes.
A month after losing his bid for statewide office, the preacher launched an exploratory committee to start a new convention of Baptists in Florida. That group, the General Baptist State Convention of Florida, incorporated in May 2007 with Lyons as its leader, according to state records.
At the time, many people suspected Lyons was seeking a state leadership role that he could use as a stepping-stone for the national convention's highest office in 2009.
The Rev. Fred Maeweathers Sr. of Ocala, opposed Lyons' bid for state office in 2007. Maeweathers, pastor of the Shady Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Ocala, said he will not support Lyons, a man he still calls his friend, in the 2009 contest either.
"I still feel like I felt all the time, that he ought to be a brother and preacher among us but not leading us," said Maeweathers, 71. "He had his shot at that, and it did not work out."
But Stewart, a campaign coordinator for Lyons who also serves as the secretary in his new state convention, disagrees.
"There's nobody living who has not made a mistake in (his) life; the good thing about God is that he is a forgiving God," Stewart said.
The preacher said he realizes that some people will always connect Lyons with his past troubles and look askance at an organization that could possibly allow him to run it again. But the Christian world is different, he said.
"We're dealing with a Christian body, and as a Christian body we believe in a God who is a God of forgiveness and restoration."
Stewart said Lyons' campaign theme is based on the biblical foundation of rebuilding, and reflects Lyons' desire to rebuild the convention.
Sherri Day can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3405.