The Struggle for the Soul of Henry Lyons: Sinner and Saint: The Georgia Years

1964 -- Commutes to Brunswick, Ga., one or two weekends a month to serve as pastor of Abysinia Baptist Church.

1966 -- Called to pastor Macedonia Baptist Church in Thomaston, Ga. Commutes between Atlanta and parsonage in Thomaston.

St. Petersburg Times
By Mike Wilson

Lyons began his pastoring career in the humblest of surroundings.

Abysinia Baptist Church, in the Southeast Georgia town of Brunswick, had splintering pine floors and fewer than 100 members. Many worked at Hercules Inc., a manufacturer of chemical products. Others were domestics and unskilled laborers. The only professional person at Abysinia was a teacher.

The church held services only one Sunday a month because it couldn't pay somebody to preach twice.

Abysinia's founder, the Rev. S.A. Baker, had met Lyons in Atlanta and taken a shine to him. When Baker was called to a larger church, he recommended Lyons as his replacement. The members weren't sure about having a 22-year-old divinity student as their pastor, but Lyons quickly dispelled their doubts.

"He preached until his coat stood out in the back," said longtime member Inez Bouncer, 81. "He wasn't there very long before we figured this little boy could pastor a church."

Lyons traveled the 300 miles from Atlanta to Brunswick the second weekend of every month. He rode the train all day Saturday and stayed with a church member Saturday night. Often his host was Bouncer, who let him drive her '59 Ford. Lyons preached two services on Sunday, then boarded a late-night train to Atlanta. The church reimbursed him for his ticket and paid him a few dollars for the sermons.

Lyons approached the job with the zeal of a full-time pastor. Early on, he decided to cover Abysinia's pine floors with carpet. The hard part would be raising the money: The church had no cash in reserve and the members were loath to give it.

Lyons divided the congregation into two groups, those from the north side of town and those from the south. Then he created a competition to see which group could raise the most money through bake sales and chicken dinners. Motivated by this contest, the people raised enough for the carpet.

Soon Lyons suggested that Abysinia become a two-Sunday church, meaning he would preach twice a month. When the members hesitated, he offered a deal.

"If God doesn't increase the membership, don't give me any more money," Bouncer remembered his saying. "Let God do what I know he will do."

The membership doubled during Lyons' tenure.

"He knew how to get along with everybody. He hugged the old people, kept them satisfied. And he made sure to pat those young people on the shoulder," Bouncer said.

Recently, Abysinia member Laverne Cooper was asked if any of the young women had their eyes on Lyons back then.

"Not just the young ones," she said. But if Lyons was returning their looks, nobody knew it.

Lyons eventually left Brunswick, as the members knew he would.

"This young man, someday and somehow, was going to lead people. He was just anointed to be a great leader," Bouncer said.

Lyons came of age at a time when many blacks were giving up their safety, their freedom -- and sometimes their lives -- to gain equality under the law.

Talk of justice and equality permeated the ITC campus when Lyons was there. In homiletics class, students preached about Moses, freeing his people from bondage or Jesus, promising to let the oppressed go free. Some seminarians took to the streets to protest segregation laws.

Lyons once told the Florida Sentinel Bulletin he "was always on the cutting edge" of the human rights struggle. But the record suggests he played a minimal role. While others demonstrated for justice, he pursued a narrower agenda -- pleasing his teachers, going to graduate school, pastoring churches, getting ahead.

It is hard to cite even a single significant example of Lyons' civil rights work. A 1964 article in the Times said Lyons was a "leader of the NAACP Youth Council during that group's efforts to desegregate public accommodations."

But people who were active in the movement -- Wimbish, the St. Petersburg civil rights activist, among them -- don't remember him.

Lonnie Donaldson, a former chairman of the NAACP Education Committee, demonstrated all over the city during Lyons' years in St. Petersburg -- and never laid eyes on Lyons. Don Steger, who knew Lyons at Bethune-Cookman and ITC, doesn't recall his participating in the movement at either place.

The congregations Lyons pastored in his 20s knew him as a dedicated preacher, not a social reformer. Smokey Harris, a member of Macedonia Baptist Church in Thomaston, Ga., where Lyons served in the late '60s, recently was asked about those days. Did Lyons and his congregation ever sit in? Ever march?

"Marched to work and marched back home. That's about it," Harris said.

Lyons later moved to Cincinnati, where he met the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a close associate of King. Shuttlesworth couldn't remember any specific civil rights work Lyons did, but said, "It was my impression that he was forthright on the civil rights issue. He was all for human rights."

If Lyons sat out while others sat in, his close association with the National Baptist Convention may have been a reason. Organized in 1895, the convention was -- and is -- deeply conservative in its theology and its politics. Its president during the civil rights years, the Rev. Joseph Harrison Jackson, disapproved of the protest tactics of King, then a convention vice president. Jackson wanted blacks to seek redress in the courts, not the lunch counters.

If a person "(takes) the law into his own hands, due process will break down, and we will find ourselves moving toward anarchy and rebellion," he wrote in A Story of Christian Activism: The History of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. Jackson eventually ousted King from the convention, thus making a place for himself on the wrong side of history.

In the dispute between King and Jackson, Lyons appears to have sided with Jackson. When King helped create the Progressive National Baptist Convention, a lot of young preachers went with him, but not Lyons. Later, Jackson gave Lyons his first job in the NBC.

In later years, Lyons proved again and again that he was driven more by personal ambition than social or political issues. A Republican when he returned to St. Petersburg in 1972, he later gave his support to whatever political party was sponsoring him at the moment. And when the Loewen Group, a white-owned funeral company, sought to sell cemetery plots to black people, Lyons gladly assisted -- even though black funeral directors complained he was taking away their livelihoods. Loewen paid Lyons millions of dollars.

The people of Macedonia Baptist Church in Thomaston, Ga., 70 miles south of Atlanta, called Lyons to be their pastor in June 1966.

Macedonia was a megachurch compared with Lyons' two-Sunday church in Brunswick. It met every Sunday, boasted 200 members and had a separate building for meetings and Christian education. But it had a small-church feel in other ways. Because of a scarcity of qualified adults, the position of assistant superintendent of the Sunday school was entrusted to a 12-year-old boy.

The church required only one thing of its handsome young pastor when he took the job: Get married.

"If he ain't married, everybody's at him," deacon Smokey Harris said.

It took Lyons six months to get the job done. For his bride he recruited Patricia Demons (now Tiggler), a 22-year-old school librarian and Baptist from nearby Barnesville.

"I thought he was an ideal person," she said. He was already talking about becoming president of the National Baptist Convention.

After the wedding, the Lyonses moved into the parsonage at 519 Traylor St. Lyons stayed on the ITC campus in Atlanta during the week, returning to Thomaston on weekends.

Macedonia "took Lyons under its wing like a hen would do a bitty," deacon Harris said. Lyons seemed as comfortable with the poorest members as he did with those who were better off. He ate well either way. The Weathers family, prominent in the church, fed him chicken, sliced tomatoes, collards with okra, blueberry cobbler, iced tea.

Between meals, he improved the church, showing the same kind of energy and commitment his grandfather demonstrated at Johnson Chapel. Lyons put in new lights, ordained new deacons, installed air conditioning (Macedonia was the first black church in Thomaston to get it) and bought new pews, replacing the benches the church had used for decades.

Lyons' preaching was still raw then (he finished his master's degree during his time in Thomaston), but even so, his whooping would remove the last physical barrier between the people and their heavenly reward.

"He'd set your soul on fire," Harris said.

Lyons' second child was born five months after he married Patricia Tiggler, but she wasn't the mother.

Ola Mae Daniels, a native of Gainesville, had known Lyons for years. They started dating when both lived in St. Petersburg in the early 1960s. She attended his commencement from Bethune-Cookman and later stayed in touch with him through letters.

Seven years his senior, Daniels had a thing for Lyons men: She had also dated Gene. This time, Lyons was literally taking after his father.

In the autumn of 1966 -- a few months before he got married -- Lyons called Daniels from Atlanta. He was coming through St. Petersburg on a preaching tour and wanted to take her dancing at the Roseland Ballroom on 16th Street S.

Daniels had come to expect this sort of call. She and Lyons had an arrangement, she said. She was free to date anyone she wanted -- until he came to town. Then, he told her, she was all his.

"In other words, (other men were supposed to) keep the hell away from me," she said.

The house band played at the Roseland the night Lyons was in town. The couple had a grand time.

"That was the night Martin was conceived," Daniels said.

Martin Eugene Lyons -- he got his middle name from Henry's father -- was born May 31, 1967. According to Daniels, Lyons provided enough money to put his son through parochial school and give him private swimming and tennis lessons. But he saw Martin only twice, she said.

When Martin Lyons grew up, his mother said, he got mixed up with a violent Miami religious sect. Now serving prison time for a battery, he didn't want to talk about his father.

But Daniels didn't mind talking about Lyons. She loved him. He kept her on sexual retainer, fathered her child and left her to rear the boy while he lived with his wife in another state, but she loved him.

Lyons was lucky that way. He rarely was held accountable. Ola Mae Daniels was just one in a series of people who didn't ask much from him and didn't get much either.

"He always called me 'Baby,' " she said.

The church people saw Lyons as a high achiever and a gifted man of God. But at home he behaved in a different way.

From Tiggler's 1968 divorce suit against Lyons:

"On several occasions (defendant) has slapped plaintiff with his open hand, and on the 14th day of December 1968, defendant hit plaintiff with his fist and knocked her down, and while plaintiff was down on the floor, defendant twisted her arm and leg and beat her with his belt."

Lyons filed no papers to dispute that account. The next time he married, he gave "physical cruelty" as the reason for the breakup. The divorce from Tiggler was final on Feb. 14, 1969 -- Valentine's Day.

Nobody at Macedonia ever questioned Lyons about what happened, Harris said. The deacons who had insisted he get married said nothing to him about his divorce.

Tiggler was asked recently if she thought Lyons believed in God.

"He knew the word," she said. "But then, the devil knows the word."

Forty-one days after the divorce became final, Lyons got married again. He was 27. This time, his bride was a teenage member of his church.

Camilla Smith was a 16-year-old Sunday school teacher when Lyons arrived at Macedonia. After high school she moved to Atlanta and enrolled at Spelman College, which is near the ITC campus.

Smith was 19, active in the French club at Spelman, when she and Lyons were married March 27, 1969. Patricia Tiggler said she didn't know the two had eyes for each other. And the deacons at Macedonia had no idea their pastor was getting married.

"It was an inside job," deacon Harris said.

Lyons and Smith never lived together as husband and wife. When her family found out she was married, they insisted she leave Lyons and finish her education, Harris said. Lyons didn't get around to divorcing her until three years later.

Smith -- now Camilla Zeigler -- still lives in Atlanta. She had nothing to say about her marriage to Lyons.

"She just needs to go on with her life," said her lawyer, Marvin S. Arrington Sr.

During Lyons' years in Thomaston, he earned extra money by holding revival meetings. Eventually, he found a lucrative place to invest what he'd earned.

Lyons was at Macedonia when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act. For the first time, whites could not legally keep blacks from buying homes in their neighborhoods. This caused tension in Thomaston, which had always been segregated.

A white real estate developer named Rubin T. Day came up with a solution: He cleared some wooded acreage outside of town and divided the land into half-acre lots. Then he began marketing the development to middle-class blacks. Day, who died in 1981, called the area Potato Creek Heights because it was near Potato Creek, a river teeming with catfish and bass. His widow, Gladys, said he simply wanted to give black people a nice place to live.

But building the subdivision was also a way of keeping the races apart. When Day met blacks who were considering buying into white neighborhoods, he asked them, "Why do you want to live in a place where you're not wanted?" Potato Creek Heights will be much more comfortable for you, he told them.

The complicated racial politics did not prevent Lyons from speculating on the new development. He bought four lots from Day for $500 each and about a week later sold one of them for $1,000, doubling his money on that piece of property. By that December he had sold off the other three for $1,000 each.

"That is known as making money in real estate," said Thomaston broker Lamar Hinson, who was involved in one of the sales.

How did Lyons do so well? Hinson, who worked for Day, speculated Day gave Lyons a sweet deal on the lots. It would only have helped business to have a dynamic young pastor spreading the word about Potato Creek Heights.

"Mr. Day was a real good businessman," Hinson said.

Lyons was, too. At the time he was selling lots for $1,000 each, other black people were buying them directly from Day for $500 to $700.

Years later, as president of the National Baptist Convention USA, Lyons would again use his charm and his connections to do business with white people, supposedly for the benefit of blacks. The corporations didn't get much out of those deals, and neither did black Christians. But Henry Lyons got something every time. He made sure of it.

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