A decade after his presidency led to financial scandal and prison time, the Rev. Henry Lyons bids anew to lead the National Baptist Convention.
Published Sep. 7, 2009|Updated Sep. 8, 2009

Are there limits to forgiveness?

The Rev. Henry J. Lyons, who resigned in disgrace 10 years ago as president of the National Baptist Convention, will find out this week as he attempts to retake the group's leadership.

The former St. Petersburg preacher served nearly five years in state prison for swindling more than $5.2 million from the organization's corporate partners. Supporters say, though, it's time to forgive and restore a contrite, charismatic leader.

Others are outraged. They say Lyons brought shame to the nation's largest African-American religious group, ruined its finances and triggered an exodus.

Lyons, now pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa, has aligned himself with a powerful, respected insider and adopted a platform of social and economic issues attractive to younger pastors.

"Dr. Lyons spoke to the concerns that I had, and frankly, a lot of my colleagues, young pastors, have across the country," said the Rev. Derick Easter, 35, of Little Rock, Ark.

"He has a great chance to win," said the Rev. Ronald L. Bobo Sr., 55, pastor of a 2,000-member church in St. Louis.

Decision day is Thursday, when thousands of delegates to the convention's annual gathering in Memphis cast ballots. Lyons, 67, is running against the Rev. Julius R. Scruggs, 67, of Alabama, the current vice president at large.

The Rev. Rickey Houston, 49, who presides over Lyons' former Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, will observe from afar. His church will not send a delegation.

"Truthfully, it's not worth my time,'' said Houston.

A Lyons victory would be a travesty, he said. "Let me say this: In the seat I sit, I know personally that there are still some things he needs to rectify."

A few blocks away, at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, longtime Lyons' friend the Rev. John A. Evans Sr., 52, has a different view: "He has served his time. He has paid his debt to society, and our God gives all of us a second chance."

Contacted to comment for this story, Lyons said he would call back, but did not and later could not be reached.

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Lyons' problems began in July 1997, after his then-wife, Deborah, started a fire at a $700,000 Tierra Verde home he owned with another woman. The incident set off an investigation into his finances, and Lyons was eventually convicted on state racketeering and grand theft charges.

He swindled more than $4 million from corporations seeking to do business with the convention and stole nearly $250,000 donated by the Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai B'rith to rebuild burned black churches. He later pleaded guilty to federal charges of fraud and tax evasion.

In addition to prison, Lyons was ordered to pay more than $5 million in restitution. The status of his federal restitution couldn't be determined Friday, according to a U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman. State records show Lyons still owes more than $137,000 in court costs.

His attempt to climb back to power began during his probation. In 2007, he tried to regain the presidency of the Florida General Baptist Convention, a body of more than 700 churches. That failed, so he established his own state convention.

Preaching before that 2007 loss, Lyons said, "God is the kind of God that will put you up. He's the kind of God that will take you down. And, he's the kind of God who will put you back up. ... Restore means to put it back like it was. Put it back like it was."

For his national run, Lyons has aligned himself with the Rev. R. B. Holmes Jr., 59, of Tallahassee, a highly regarded preacher whose large, middle-class congregation focuses on social issues in the inner city.

Holmes tried to run for president but didn't complete paperwork on time. A few weeks ago, he and his running mate, the Rev. James Adams, struck a deal with Lyons.

"Dr. Lyons has wholeheartedly agreed to embrace and fully adopt the Holmes-Adams vision and to give me the freedom and flexibility to place in his cabinet men and women of impeccable character," Holmes wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times.

"Dr. Lyons has agreed that I will lead the effort to put in the most sound financial accountability system in the convention that has not been put in place in many years. I am not God, but I truly believe that Dr. Lyons has been forgiven. He is embarrassed by his past, and he is thankful to have an opportunity to be restored and to regain the respect of the Convention."

The alliance has stunned observers.

"I just can't imagine that a man who is so highly and well-respected in the state of Florida would endorse the candidacy of a man who nearly ruined the organization," said the Rev. Geoffrey V. Guns, 59, of Virginia.

Some note that politics is a force, even in religion.

"Historically, the office of the president of the National Baptist Convention has been one of the most politicized offices in American denominations," said Bill Leonard, dean and professor of church history at Wake Forest Divinity School.

Martin Luther King Jr. and others split with the convention in the 1960s because of differences over politicization of the president's office, he said.

The convention, an umbrella group for black Baptist churches, still has powerful connections.

Its outgoing president, the Rev. William Shaw of Philadelphia, is an adviser to the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. As president of the organization, he earns $100,000 a year.

The respect that could come with political power is why Lyons is willing to manipulate religious principles like forgiveness to get his job back, said Mozella Mitchell, chair of the department of religious studies at the University of South Florida.

"He uses all those principles, when it is, of course, a personal goal and ambition," she said.

But the preacher has his share of admirers, like the Rev. Easter, one of a circle of young ministers who like Lyons' plans.

Easter, who recently got his first congregation in Little Rock, is pleased with the Lyons-Holmes-Adams alliance.

"When you look at the reputation and integrity of those men he has surrounded himself with, that again speaks to his seriousness and to his being a changed person and being capable of leading our convention again," he said.

Scruggs, the man Lyons is running against for the five-year term, also promises to focus on young pastors and give them "significant leadership roles."

Scruggs said he was surprised when Holmes joined Lyons but declined to discuss Lyons' past.

"I don't think (members) want to go backward. I think members are excited about ... what the future holds under our leadership," he said. "That does not mean that Dr. Lyons has not had some support in some places where I have gone."

Once Holmes was no longer running for the presidency, "it left a lot of people in a quandary," said the Rev. Larry G. Mills, 57, of Orlando. "Between the options that are left, he seems to be the stronger, more viable candidate."

But the Rev. C.L. Bachus, 70, of Kansas City, Kan., said a Lyons presidency could ruin the group.

"I am very disappointed that we even have to deal with this issue, because it really points a finger at the convention itself and makes people ask questions about our level of integrity, our level of Christian commitment and what we stand for as a whole," he said.

The Rev. Fred Maeweathers, 71, of Ocala, was succinct.

"Dr. Lyons just has no business being our president again. He has business doing what the Lord told him to do, that's preach or whatever, but not to lead this organization," he said. "That's another ball game altogether."

Times staff writer Sherri Day and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at or (727) 892-2283.

Chronology: Fall and rise of Henry Lyons

1996: Baptist leader

The Rev. Henry Lyons of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg is president of the National Baptist Convention, the nation's largest African-American religious group.

1997: Saga unfolds

Lyons' then-wife sets fire at a Tierra Verde home the reverend owns with another woman. The incident brings scrutiny of his finances and reveals he had stolen convention money.

1999: Going to prison

Lyons cries in court as he hears testimonials on his behalf. He spends nearly five years in prison for swindling millions from convention partners and stealing funds to rebuild churches.

2007: Another start

Out of prison, Lyons is fitted with a new robe during a rededication ceremony held by members of the National Baptist Convention at Lakeland's First Baptist Institutional Church.