Embattled Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons has discussed establishing links with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the self-proclaimed Korean Messiah known for his conservative politics, mass marriages and following of "Moonies."
Lyons met privately with senior leaders of Moon's Unification Church in January while he was in Los Angeles for a board meeting of the National Baptist Convention USA. They discussed the possibility that Moon could address the convention's annual meeting, which is expected to draw 20,000 Baptists to Kansas City in September.
Moon's representatives also invited the convention to join with the Unification Church in a special day of seminars devoted to family values.
The Rev. Lyons, who has been charged with racketeering and grand theft, agreed to consider at least one of those requests and has had subsequent contacts with Unification officials, according to convention members who attended the private meeting.
As president of the Baptist convention, Lyons also permitted the Rev. Joong Hyun Pak _ a top Unification Church official in North America _ to deliver a speech to hundreds of convention board members in Los Angeles.
Even some of Lyons' strongest supporters are uncomfortable with the notion of forming a partnership with Moon's movement, which some critics accuse of brainwashing converts through deceptive indoctrination techniques.
"We Baptists are cautious when someone says he is the Christ," said the Rev. Richard Bifford of Arkansas, the convention's recording secretary.
"I could not even associate from afar with the Unification doctrines and beliefs. There is only one Christ," he said. "No staunch-believing Baptist would agree to let representatives or Rev. Moon to address our body. I would not have had him to speak. But again, I'm not the president."
In an interview, Pak said he is seeking common ground with Lyons' denomination, just as he does with other religious groups. "We have the same God," he said. "We find common interests _ family, morals. We work together."
But critics accuse Moon's church of attempting to co-opt other denominations with a benign message of world peace and family values. And within the convention, word is spreading that Moon is buying access to the 117-year-old convention, just as he has to other mainstream organizations.
"I heard they gave $5,000. I heard they gave $50,000. I heard they gave $100,000. I heard they gave $1-million," Bifford said, adding: "I have not seen any exchange of money."
Lyons declined to say whether the Unification Church has offered any financial assistance, nor did he respond to any written questions faxed to his spokeswoman on Monday night.
Pak, the Unification leader, said no money was paid to Lyons. The church has no budget for such a payment, he said, ending the interview. "We could not do this."
"The True Parents'
In the Unification Church, Moon is known as Father. His wife is Mother. Together, they are the True Parents _ sent by God to save the world from Satan.
How will they do that? By creating True Families and True Love. By correcting the mistakes made by Jesus Christ, the first Messiah.
It's spelled out in The Divine Principle, which Moon wrote in the 1950s as a supplement to the Bible. Several major U.S. religious organizations have labeled the book both antithetical to Christian beliefs and anti-Semitic.
The Unification Church has never won many converts in the United States. By the most generous estimates, there are fewer than 50,000 members. But the church and its affiliates have amassed holdings worth billions of dollars. Moon and related organizations have spent $60-million on the Nostalgia Network, $60-million to buy a college and hundreds of millions on the Washington Times. It sells everything from tuna to tea to titanium.
"Messiah must be the richest," a church manual states.
Moon has used his wealth to push a conservative agenda. He organized pro-Nixon rallies after Watergate, saying God had chosen Nixon to be president.
Moon believes the human race can be saved only through his vision of sexual purity and sinless marriage. That is the idea behind his mass weddings, such as last year's ceremony at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. Unification newlyweds are expected to wait 40 days before consummating their marriage. The result: True Love and True Families.
In recent sermons, Moon has criticized the United States as "the kingdom of free sex," as a fallen nation whose women "practice free sex just because they enjoy it."
An odd partnership?
Given such views, Lyons might seem an odd partner for Moon.
Lyons has been married three times. His first wife accused him of beating her. Then last year, Lyons' wife, Deborah, set fire to a house after she discovered Lyons owned it with a female convention employee. Another convention employee was Lyons' "paramour," according to Pinellas prosecutors.
Unification leaders said they will not be bothered by the claims against Lyons. "We don't know what's going on with that," said Rev. Pak. (Moon, too, has faced family problems, including charges of adultery.)
Pak said he was "not interested" in Lyons' troubles, that he was focused on forming a bond with the convention, not just its leader. This makes sense to experts on the Unification Church.
Moon aspires to unite the world's religions under his spiritual authority. The lack of credibility has been a major obstacle for Moon, who once was quoted as saying, "I will conquer and subjugate the world. I am your brain." Moon has been relentless in his pursuit of credibility. He sponsored symposiums for scientists and journalists. He pursued political alliances with such public figures as former President George Bush, who earned an estimated $1-million for a series of speeches in Asia for a Moon affiliate.
More recently, Moon has reached out to black leaders. There have been speeches, rallies and photo opportunities with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. The Rev. Al Sharpton had his marriage officially blessed by Rev. Pak.
Some black ministers viewed Moon as a victim of religious persecution when he was convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to 18 months in prison in the 1980s.
"Anybody who tries to do good, they try to tear them down just like they did with Christ," said the Rev. Amos Waller, a Chicago preacher who has been a member of the National Baptist Convention for more than four decades.
Waller heard Moon speak about three years ago. He rejected Moon as the Messiah _ "Ain't nobody control the world but God" _ but he agreed with Moon's message about marital fidelity: "I don't see no reason why you can't ask folk to stay together."
A meeting and a request
Waller has hosted Unification members in his church many times, and it was he who helped arrange Pak's introduction to Lyons in January.
Explained Pak: "Our friends _ ministers in the National Baptist Convention _ they open doors to us."
Pak and his wife joined Henry and Deborah Lyons and a few aides in a Los Angeles hotel suite. They offered a special prayer for the Rev. and Mrs. Lyons. "It was like a blessing on the marriage," said Rev. Bifford, Lyons' close associate who took part in the brief meeting.
Pak made several requests of Lyons, Bifford said. First, Pak wanted Lyons to ask his Baptist ministers to hold seminars on family values the same day Unification ministers were offering similar events in their churches. Pak offered that "if we needed any input (on the seminars), they would help us," Bifford recalled, adding that he was skeptical of the offer.
"Their underlying motive is to gain disciples," he said. "I was born at night, but not last night."
Lyons promised to discuss the idea with convention ministers and get back to Pak, Bifford said. But Pak had another request. He wanted Lyons to allow Moon to address the biggest NBC meeting of the year _ the annual convention this September.
Bifford said he does not think Lyons would agree to such a request. "There is no way in the world that the president could extend an invitation to Sun Myung Moon." But Lyons did allow Pak to address the convention members who were meeting in the same Los Angeles hotel.
According to the Unification News, Pak "took the providence a great step forward as a keynote speaker" before 2,000 Baptists.
In a speech about True Families, Pak talked about rededicating families to a "God-centered" marriage. He praised Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
According to the Unification News: "Dr. Lyons was concerned that the larger body of clergy might not be completely receptive to a message from a different denomination. .
. The wisdom of Dr. Lyons' ecumenism was vindicated when Rev. Pak's speech received a standing ovation!"
Rev. Bifford had a different memory.
"He did get a standing ovation, yes," Bifford said. "They were saying: Thank God he's finished. Amen to the fact that you are now taking your seat."
When the Rev. Jerry Falwell's university faced bankruptcy, Moon's organization bailed it out with millions in loans and grants. When the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut was close to collapse, a Moon affiliate bought control.
Vulnerability, according to experts, attracts Moon's church. "They use occasions like these, where other brethren are in trouble," said David Bromley, a sociologist who studied Moon's church for 15 years.
Lyons needs money. He has to pay a team of lawyers for his defense. Faced with internal dissension, the National Baptist Convention needs money, too.
"They're opportunists," said Frederick Sontag, a professor at Pomona College in California who has interviewed Moon at length. "That's just the way business is conducted. They use money to buy influence."
Sontag recalled returning to his room after a dinner with Moon. A card arrived. Inside were five crisp $100 bills. Moon and his aides would not hesitate to offer money to Lyons, Sontag said.
"They would if they thought it would be helpful," he said.
The Rev. Fred Crouther, a convention vice president, is on the convention's finance committee. He said he has not heard of any financial support coming from Moon, though Lyons has kept him in the dark about other money matters.
Was money discussed during Lyons' meeting with Pak?
"I can't say no, and I can't say yes," said Amos Waller, who was in the hotel suite. But if money was discussed, he added, "I ain't got no problem with that."
_ Times researchers Carolyn Hardnett, Kitty Bennett and Barbara Oliver contributed to this report, which includes information from the Washington Post.