Denver preacher seeks Baptist top spot

Denver Post Religion Writer, March 16, 1999
By Virginia Culver

One of Denver's best-known African-American preachers is in high gear running to succeed the current president of his denomination, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, who faces a jail term for racketeering.

The Rev. Acen Phillips, longtime pastor of Mt. Gilead Baptist Church, has been campaigning for months and has spent between $20,000 and $30,000 in his bid to succeed the Lyons, who is resigning as president of the National Baptist Convention.

Phillips, 63, was a staunch supporter of Lyons, even through the stream of allegations against the church president that began in 1997.

The two are still friends, Phillips said Monday in an interview, but he thinks Lyons may go to jail for his conviction for swindling $4 million from companies doing business with the church. He also was found guilty of grand theft of $250,000 donated to his church by the B'nai B'rith to help rebuild burned-out African American churches in the South. He is expected to be sentenced March 31.

Lyons faces another trial on 54 federal charges of bank fraud, wire fraud, extortion and money laundering.

Phillips, who is a fifth vice president of the 8.5 million-member denomination, predicted the vice presidents will each move up a step pending September's election at the national convention in Tampa.

After that, Phillips says, he's ready to take over.

"I've got the background and the vision," Phillips said. "The church needs some new things, like appealing to the young, blending the church with classroom education, getting people involved in politics and getting economic parity for African Americans." He means to make sure that money scandals don't happen again. At their 1997 national convention in Denver, church delegates "put new structures in place to make sure we have good accountants taking care of our money," he said. "King Jesus can put the pieces of the church back together again."

Six other men are vying for the presidency, including two who have called for Lyons to resign for more than two years. Phillips said he would include the other candidates in his cabinet if elected.

In the past months, Phillips has visited 26 states and raised the nearly $30,000 in $10 and $20 contributions. "I think I have an excellent chance. I have been well received everywhere," said Phillips, who has been on the national church board for 29 years.

Phillips said the NBC needs to push African Americans into ownership of businesses, not just finding employment for them.

"After 400 years, we are still treated like sharecroppers. African Americans can't get economic parity unless we are employers, not employees.

"If we pressure to get a piece of the pie we are misunderstood as boisterous or arrogant or aggressive," he said.

"There is naturally a little gloom" in the church because of the Lyons scandal, he said "but the church is resilient. We've weathered storms before. Calvary and the crucifixion were storms and this is a storm, but after storms there is sunshine."

But another church leader, the Rev. Paul Martin of Denver, said Phillips chances of winning the presidency are ""slim because of his support of Lyons. Phillips and the other leaders didn't make the needed corrections and if you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem.

"We can't continue with someone from the Lyons regime. This has been a horrible situation for our church. It is embarrassing." In fact, Martin, pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church, said he believes Lyons' supporters will gather in St. Petersburg today and refuse to accept his resignation, meaning Lyons would stay in office until September.

Lyons may even run for a second term, Martin said, even if he's in jail. He also is expected to continue as pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. Martin is part of a nationwide effort to elect W. Franklin Richardson, of New Rochelle, New York.

Spending huge amounts on church presidency campaigns is not new. In 1994 Richardson spent $1 million in his unsuccessful bid to beat Lyons, Martin said.

Phillips, a Denver pastor for 40 years, said the church is about forgiveness, not judgment. "There's a lot of love in our church. We're not like a corporation. We don't cut the head off someone who has made errors in judgment."

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