The Struggle for the Soul of Henry Lyons: Becoming the Man

1970 -- Moves to Cincinnati, where he becomes dean of Cincinnati Baptist Bible College.

1972 -- Called to pastor Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg Times
By Mike Wilson

Lyons announced in 1970 that he was leaving Macedonia Baptist Church to move to Cincinnati. The deacons wouldn't accept his resignation at first.

"Lyons did a good job here. Lyons was right down to earth," Harris said.

It is not clear why Lyons made the move. Harris said he had accepted a position as a counselor of some kind, but friends in Ohio don't recall his doing such a job. And he apparently was not called to pastor a church.

Still, his time in Cincinnati was significant professionally and personally.

In 1971, Lyons became academic dean of Cincinnati Baptist Bible College and Seminary, a historically black college founded in 1920. The school was modest, to say the least. The campus consisted of a single building; classes met only at night; enrollment was never more than 150, and often closer to half that; and the staff, including Lyons, received no pay. They worked for the Lord, not for money, according to the Rev. Calvin A. Harper, Lyons' predecessor as dean.

Lyons' job was to administer the curriculum, recruit teachers and give them assignments, and oversee students' work. The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a trustee at the time, said Lyons "did quite a good job.

"Very serious, very determined, very dedicated. I think people who knew him had great respect for him," Shuttlesworth said.

Lyons' friends in Cincinnati say they knew little about his private life. He mentioned that he was married, but according to the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr., an old friend, "We never saw his wife." Lyons didn't either: Camilla Smith was still in Atlanta.

But Lyons didn't lack female companionship. He received several visits from Eartha Watson, his old girlfriend and the mother of his first child. Watson, who was married and living in Atlanta, said she flew up for weekends at Lyons' expense.

"I was lying to my husband," she said. Her husband later divorced her because he didn't think she could love anyone except Henry Lyons.

Cincinnati was also where Lyons met Deborah Manuel, who would become his third wife.

Like Lyons, she had grown up in the Baptist church -- Zion Hill Baptist, to be specific. She had two children while still in high school, but managed to graduate with her class. She later held a series of office jobs and studied social work at the University of Cincinnati.

She was working toward her degree when she met Lyons, the man she still calls "Doc."

It was in Cincinnati that Lyons first acquired the prefix "doctor." The title might suggest that Lyons studied for a doctorate at Cincinnati Baptist, but he did not. Nor did he study for the other two doctorates listed on the NBC Web site.

The Doctor of Divinity degree from Cincinnati Baptist is an honorary one Lyons received in appreciation for his work as dean. The school, which was not accredited by any recognized agency, had no doctoral program. Like the honorary degree he received years later from Bethune-Cookman College, the degree from Cincinnati Baptist is purely symbolic.

The use of the term "doctor" is part of the culture of respect -- at least outward respect -- in the National Baptist Convention USA. Ministers routinely call themselves and each other doctor, though many lack even an honorary degree.

"There is an abuse of that term in my profession," said the Rev. Michael Williams of Houston, a longtime member of the convention who earned his doctorate at Southern Methodist University.

Lyons' resume also includes this entry: "Doctor of Sacred Theology, Hebrew Union University, Jerusalem, Israel."

But a search of education resources turned up no evidence of such an institution. Jerusalem's Hebrew University -- not Hebrew Union University -- does not grant a doctor of sacred theology degree.

Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati has a campus in Israel; that may be the institution Lyons is referring to. But the college has never given Lyons a degree, honorary or otherwise, registrar Rosalind Chaiken said. Hebrew Union offers a doctorate, but it is only for people studying to become rabbis.

Early in 1972, a Cincinnati newspaper published a one-paragraph article saying Lyons had accepted the pulpit at Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. He seemed a good fit: He was young, energetic, gifted and familiar with the city from his days at Gibbs Junior College. He was to move south in April, a month before commencement at Cincinnati Baptist.

But first he had something to take care of. Like the deacons in Thomaston, Bethel's deacons expected Lyons to be married. Lyons already was, sort of: Three years after he eloped with Camilla Smith, the two were still technically husband and wife.

After negotiating his deal in St. Petersburg, Lyons returned to Cincinnati and set to work divorcing Smith. In the divorce papers, his lawyer said Smith "has willfully and continuously refused to make a home with plaintiff for more than a year, without the consent of plaintiff and without justification."

The divorce was final on April 6, 1972. On June 1, Lyons married Deborah in Cincinnati. The license said it was the first marriage for both, though it was his third. Lyons adopted Deborah's two children and reared them as his own, caring for another man's forgotten children as other people cared for his.

Lyons' first two marriages were not an issue when he became pastor at Bethel Metropolitan. As far as the church knew, Deborah Lyons was their pastor's first and only wife.

Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, which called itself "The Church of the Open Door," was a significant step up for Lyons.

Founded in 1903, it was larger and more prosperous than the churches he had pastored in Georgia; among the members were teachers, insurance people, computer technicians and college professors. The 30-year-old minister would be dealing with many members who thought of him as a kid.

Lyons was not cowed. He showed his audacity with one of his first decisions as pastor.

Each year since 1966, Bethel Metropolitan had donated space to a preschool operated by Pinellas County Head Start. The federally funded program served three dozen children whose families couldn't afford private preschools.

Nine months after Lyons became pastor, he persuaded the church elders not to renew Bethel's contract with Head Start. Lyons said the church -- located in those days at 1010 Third Ave. S -- needed the space for a dining room.

Many of Lyons' church members were shocked. They felt it was part of the church's Christian mission to support such programs. Some even criticized Lyons publicly, a near-revolutionary act in the highly courteous culture of the black Baptist church.

Member Frank Pierce suggested "The Church of the Open Door" change its slogan to "The Church of the Open Door -- If You Meet Our Standards."

But in the end, the preschool had to go. It was a defining moment for Lyons as pastor. He had taken on some of his most prominent members -- Pierce was once chairman of the trustee board -- and won. The experience taught Lyons a lesson he never forgot.

"He learned that if he was persuasive enough, he could do just about anything he wanted to do," former deacon Calvin Hicks said.

For the first time in his life, Lyons had real power, and he worked hard to keep it. When he needed support on an issue, he wooed key members like a politician courting voters. Other times, he won people's loyalty by appointing them to church committees and then praising them from the pulpit.

"You'd get a kind of glory when he did that," said the Rev. Alvin Miller, an associate pastor who served on numerous committees.

Lyons was equally deliberate about meting out punishment. Once, at his urging, the church passed the following resolution:


Anders, a longtime educator, was then the choir director. His transgression? He and several members of the sanctuary choir bought new hymnals, at their own expense, without first consulting Lyons.

Lyons did his best to control the deacon board, which had great influence in church affairs. He attended all its meetings even though he wasn't required to. He once called a meeting to find out what happened at a meeting he missed, Hicks said.

He manipulated the deacons, said Miller, chairman in 1983. Once, Lyons got permission to spend several hundred dollars at an out-of-town meeting. But when he got back, he submitted receipts for twice the agreed-upon sum, Miller said. Lyons apologized.

No matter what the transgression, the deacons never seriously disciplined Lyons.

During a recent interview at his home, Miller was asked why not. He leaned forward and took a handful of peppermint candies from the bowl on his coffee table. Then he held one up and mentioned the name of a deacon who once added a bathroom to the church. "He got paid" for the work, Miller said. Then he dropped the candy on the floor. Miller named a deacon who has been a church custodian. "He got paid," he said, dropping another candy. One deacon did painting jobs. Another sprayed for bugs. Still another was the church cook. They all got paid, Miller said.

By the time Miller was done, the floor was covered with candies.

"They're all beholden to him," Miller said. "And those are just the ones I know."

After several years as pastor, Lyons formalized his authority by incorporating the church and installing himself as pastor/president. Now he was not just shepherd but also chief executive. When the corporation held its annual meeting, he set the agenda and decided who could have the floor.

He was The Man. His own wife called him "Doc" or "Dr. Lyons" instead of Henry. She insisted that others do the same.

Lyons had another way of winning people over: by getting things done. He was constantly coming up with ways to improve the church, just as he had done in his Georgia pastorates, and just as Booker T. Lyons had done during his four decades as deacon board chairman at Johnson Chapel in Gainesville.

At Bethel, Lyons upgraded the bathrooms, bought drapes for the church lounge and the pastor's study, installed air conditioning in the dining hall and bought a bus. Always a believer in Christian education, he turned Bethel's cavernous first-floor auditorium into Sunday school classrooms.

When Bethel Metropolitan needed a new church building, Lyons helped get one built. In 1981, the city announced plans to relocate the church and other properties to make way for redevelopment. Bethel used the $742,000 it received from the city to make a downpayment on a new, $1.2-million structure on 26th Avenue S. It paid the balance with money from its building fund and a $300,000 mortgage loan.

Many at Bethel were impressed with Lyons' energy and creativity. But some who worked closely with him saw a serious flaw: For every project he finished, several others withered and died.

An example of a failed project was the Ecumenical Council for Community Concern, a humanitarian agency Lyons created about 1980. Early on, the agency gathered donations of clothing for Haitian refugees in Miami. One truckload eventually got to South Florida, but most of the stuff remained in a warehouse. Alvin Miller, who donated the warehouse space, said it took him six months to get rid of it.

This kind of thing happened repeatedly. In 1978, Lyons planned to use federal funds to build an eight-story, 165-unit apartment building for the elderly poor, only to abandon the project when neighborhood residents -- whom Lyons hadn't consulted -- opposed it. When Bethel moved into the new church, Lyons announced plans for a Christian school that would add a grade every year. The plan was never realized.

One of Lyons' grandest ideas -- and most notable failures -- was Cooperative Housing for Urban and Rural Community Homes Inc., or CHURCH Inc. Founded in 1990, its purpose was to use public money to provide housing to low-income people.

CHURCH Inc. got going in 1993, when it bought a rundown house on 19th Avenue S for about $12,000. The agency then went to the city of St. Petersburg and borrowed about $50,000, which it used to fix up the place. It eventually sold the house for $51,000 to a woman named Loretta Morris.

Everything seemed to have worked out beautifully: CHURCH Inc. fulfilled its laudable purpose, the city got its money back, a neighborhood was improved and Morris got a home of her own.

But there were problems. After Morris moved in, she complained that some repairs were done poorly or not at all. City officials tried to contact CHURCH Inc. but got no response. Finally, the city hired a contractor to finish the work at taxpayer expense.

That was as close as CHURCH Inc. ever came to fulfilling Lyons' vision. According to Pinellas County property records, the agency has owned five other homes. It used $83,000 in city loans to renovate two of them, but never sold them and never repaid the loans. The city finally sold the houses at a loss to the public of $16,000.

CHURCH Inc. sold two of the remaining three properties to another agency. The third was condemned and demolished by the city at taxpayer expense. What could have been a dream home for a low-income family is now a vacant lot.

Deborah Lyons worked hard for the church, helping with the Angelic Choir, consoling grieving families and standing at Lyons' side at church celebrations. She seemed the ideal pastor's wife -- active, dutiful, supportive.

Each year on Lyons' anniversary as pastor, the congregation thanked her with a gift of cash.

"She fitted right in," former deacon Hicks said.

Her service to the church was just one part of a hectic life. After earning her bachelor's degree at Eckerd College in 1974, Mrs. Lyons embarked on a career in social service, receiving positive reviews for her work in housing projects and summer job programs. Along the way, she earned a master's degree from the University of South Florida.

She managed all this while bringing up Derek and Stephanie, the children she bore as a teenager, and Vonda, the daughter she had with Lyons in 1975.

All this activity masked serious problems in Mrs. Lyons' personal life. In a speech at a National Baptist Convention meeting last September, she acknowledged what many at Bethel had suspected for years.

"I've never told this to a body and nobody but my family knows this, but I'm a recovering alcoholic," she said. She later admitted she was drinking when she set the fire at the house Lyons bought in Tierra Verde with Bernice Edwards.

The congregation could tell when she had been drinking, Miller said. Normally elegantly dressed, she sometimes came to church ruffled and unkempt, as if she had left the house without looking in a mirror.

Often, Lyons wasn't around to see the condition she was in. He traveled constantly, careening from city to city in an effort to get ahead in the state and national conventions. In the spring of 1980 alone, he attended the Florida state Baptist convention, a revival in South Carolina, the World Baptist Alliance in Canada and the NBC Congress in St. Louis. Over the years, associate pastor Miller officiated at dozens of weddings and funerals in his place.

Lyons knew his wife drank when he was out of town. Once, when he and Hicks were attending a meeting in California, he called home and then told Hicks, "She's at it again." He sounded dejected, Hicks said.

While Mrs. Lyons was in St. Petersburg with a bottle, Lyons was in Lake Tahoe with Bernice Edwards (they bought a time-share together), or in Jacksonville with Earlene Battle (who said he seduced her after they met at a revival), or in Nashville with convention employee Brenda Harris (the one woman with whom he acknowledges a romantic involvement). Mrs. Lyons didn't know these things, of course; Lyons' staff was under strict orders not to tell her where he went when he left town.

Lyons' longtime friend Davies said Mrs. Lyons needn't have worried about losing her husband.

"He was committed to Mrs. Lyons. There's no doubt about that," he said. Certainly he appeared to be. In June 1997, the Lyonses celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in the fellowship hall of Lyons' church.

A month later, Mrs. Lyons ransacked the Tierra Verde house. Soon she was weeping, rocking, punching her thighs with her fists, crying out to the police officers sitting in her living room, Oh Jesus, Jesus, help me. What did I do to deserve this?

Since then she has emerged as her husband's most vigorous defender. If she is still suffering from what Essence magazine called a "complete public humiliation," she doesn't let on; instead, she surrounds herself with sympathetic church members and rails against what she sees as a white media conspiracy against her husband.

She's passionate about Henry Lyons. Recently, she logged onto the NBC Web site and declared that "there are no victims and no wrong has been done."

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