The Struggle for the Soul of Henry Lyons: The Path to Power

1977 -- Becomes first vice president of the Florida General Baptist Convention.

1994 -- Elected to a five-year term as president of the National Baptist Convention USA.

St. Petersburg Times
By Mike Wilson

Lyons lived modestly during his early years at Bethel. According to church records, Bethel paid him $8,400 in 1978, $9,240 the next year and $10,348 the next. The church gave him a place to live and paid most of his expenses, and each year it showered him with cash and gifts on his birthday and his anniversary as pastor.

By the late 1980s Lyons had money trouble. The bank was foreclosing on a property he owned, the IRS was filing liens for unpaid taxes, and the city was after him for code violation fines. By his own account, Lyons drove a 17-year-old car. His clothes had almost as many miles on them.

"The suit he was wearing was so shiny that I almost needed sunglasses," said Gene Ready, a lobbyist and former state legislator who met Lyons in 1990.

Lyons wanted more, his friend Marvin Davies said. He was almost 40, the age when many men begin to take inventory of their lives, and he wasn't satisfied with what he had.

"He started with a poor background with nothing, absolutely zero. Then he saw more, started seeing how people live. He knew that money had some real significance," Davies said.

Lyons had no reason to live ascetically. In the black church tradition, ministers have the status of doctors and lawyers and are encouraged to live well.

"Most of the men that God found favor with were wealthy -- Solomon, David, Abraham," said Calvin Hicks, the former Bethel Metropolitan deacon.

Like his father, Lyons sought status and wanted better things. Soon he found an easy way to get them.

Lyons became active in the Florida General Baptist Convention soon after he returned to the state. His ambition was apparent to everyone. When the Rev. A.B. Coleman Sr. was president, Lyons was always at his side, as if he believed Coleman's power and prestige might rub off on him.

"You couldn't turn for his being there," said Coleman's son, the Rev. A.B. Coleman Jr.

Lyons made himself known by pressing the flesh at convention meetings and preaching in other churches. His efforts were rewarded in 1977 when he became first vice president of the Florida convention. The 35-year-old Lyons boasted to the Times that few men had ever held that position at such a youthful age.

Booker T. Lyons did not live to see that day. Lyons' grandfather had died three months earlier at 71, during an evening service at Johnson Chapel, after the congregation sang The Storm is Passing Over. It was his favorite hymn.

Lyons kept pushing forward, kept trying to achieve. He wanted national power, and that meant ingratiating himself with the Rev. Joseph H. Jackson, the perennial president of the NBC known as the black pope.

Lyons got his chance when Jackson visited a Florida convention meeting in the late '70s. He approached the Rev. Thedford Johnson, a Miami preacher who had known Jackson for years, and said he wanted to join the president's "inner circle." Could Johnson help?

He could and did. Jackson made Lyons an assistant to the Rev. T.J. Jemison, the general secretary. Lyons' new job was hardly glamorous -- he kept the minutes at meetings -- but it was an important step up the NBC political ladder.

Boosted by the appointment, Lyons became president of the Florida General Baptist Convention in April 1982, three months after his 40th birthday.

He arrived in office with a briefcase full of big ideas. He was going to provide retirement benefits for ministers. Organize teams of experts to help churches with fund raising and administration. Build a headquarters in Ocala. Create a master's of divinity program at Florida Memorial College in Miami.

The Florida convention had never seen anything like Lyons. For more than a century, it had been content to spread the gospel and raise money for Florida Memorial.

Suddenly this easygoing religious fellowship had a president intent on running it like a modern corporation.

"We are 500,000 strong and we can do anything we want," Lyons told the Gainesville Sun.

Soon after Lyons became state president, a top officer in the national convention tempted him with the possibility of a place among the NBC's power elite. All he had to do was turn against NBC president Jackson, the man who had admitted him into his inner circle. Lyons proved more than willing to make this deal.

By 1982, many people in the NBC were ready for a change. Jackson had ruled the convention since before Brown vs. Board of Education, punishing his enemies and brooking no attempt to vote him out.

His challenger was Jemison, the Baton Rouge pastor who was Lyons' immediate boss in the national convention. In the months before the 1982 convention in Miami Beach, Jemison recruited six state presidents -- "the power packers," one minister called them -- and dispatched them to twist arms and pat backs on his behalf. Lyons was one of the six and proud of it. As Jemison later put it, "I threw my arms around him when he wasn't nothing but the president of Florida." Everywhere Lyons went that summer, he stumped for Jemison.

Why did he do it? "The problem was that Dr. Jackson didn't lead us. He slept through the civil rights movement," Lyons once said.

The statement lacks credibility coming from Lyons, who after all was no Ralph Abernathy himself. The likelier explanation: Lyons thought he could get to the top quickest by following Jemison. If it pained him to turn against his patron, the promise of an important job under Jemison was analgesic enough.

When Jackson rose to give his annual address in Miami Beach that September, he delivered a stern lecture about the love of money. Reading his speech now, it is easy to imagine that he was speaking directly to Henry James Lyons.

"Money is very important and should be used wisely and carefully, but let us remember that the objective of Christian service should not be, and must not be, primarily money," he said.

Jackson left the convention hall after his address, leaving the delegates to vote for president in his absence. Jemison won in a landslide. Lyons would later say he delivered the state of Florida by a vote of 426 to 12.

As his reward, Lyons was named vice president of the Southeast region and a member of Jemison's cabinet. Jackson had been deposed and the heyday of Henry Lyons had begun.

"Mother and I stayed (in the meeting hall) for a while," Jackson's daughter Kenny said. "When we saw that the convention seemed to be in the other hands, we then went back to the hotel. When we got there, Dad was in bed, just snuggled down, happy as a little bunny. And that was the end of it."

It is clear now that Lyons' tenure as Florida Baptist president was merely a rehearsal for what he would do on a national stage.

One of Lyons' first acts as state president was to take control of the checkbook. Though the Rev. George Lee held the title of treasurer, Lyons alone dictated how the group's money would be spent, according to the Rev. A.B. Coleman Jr., the board chairman during Lyons' dozen years as president.

The group's financial condition was always a mystery, Coleman said. Lyons presented what he said were financial statements, but they were little more than lists of numbers, as meaningful as a bowl of alphabet soup. As national president, Lyons would produce similar statements; his assistant, Lynda Shorter, told investigators he got the numbers out of thin air.

Lyons repeatedly told his Florida colleagues an audit was being prepared, but one never materialized.

"I never saw a CPA report even though I requested one several times," Coleman said.

Like many of his church programs, Lyons' convention schemes often fizzled. Despite his big plans, nobody ever got a retirement plan. The teams of fund-raising experts never arrived. The convention still has no headquarters.

Nobody had time to ask why: Lyons introduced new programs so quickly that people forgot about the old ones. He turned the convention into "a flea market of economic initiatives," said the Rev. Moses Javis, a Jacksonville board member.

Lyons can claim at least one major achievement as president: the construction of a seven-building Baptist retreat center near Palatka. Built with $650,000 in loans, the center has been used as a spiritual retreat for church groups and a campground for kids.

But even that achievement was tainted. To pay for the retreat, Lyons created a fund-raising campaign called Faith Pioneers and asked people to send donations to his St. Petersburg office. Then he set up a Faith Pioneers account at the IMA Federal Credit Union, which he and other ministers founded.

"I have been there when Dr. Lyons has brought in checks for Faith Pioneers," said Juanita Hicks, a former Bethel member who volunteered at the credit union. "He would make a deposit, and before the ink would get dry he would draw exactly that amount out of the account -- in cash. I didn't think it was right, but what was I supposed to say?"

Lyons would do virtually the same thing when he became national president, except he was dealing with millions of dollars, not thousands.

As an up-and-coming Florida convention member, Lyons had supported the idea of term limits. He changed his mind after he became president. Early on, he pushed through a constitutional amendment allowing officers to serve two four-year terms instead of just one. He was re-elected in 1986.

The convention elected Lyons to a third term in 1990, reasoning that he had a better chance of winning the national presidency in 1994 if he ran as Florida president.

"Dr. Lyons is a superb politician," Coleman said.

He proved it in his bid for NBC president. As far as the Baptist voters could see, there was no dark side to Henry Lyons.

The convention was scheduled to elect a successor to the Rev. T.J. Jemison in September 1994 in New Orleans. Lyons, who would face three other candidates, had plenty of people on his side.

One such person was the Rev. J.J. Barfield of Philadelphia. Several years ago, Barfield was in a hospital recovering from congestive heart failure when he awoke to find Lyons praying over him. He had flown in just to be by his friend's side. Later, Lyons pressed a personal check for $250 into Barfield's hands. Use it for something you need, he told him.

When Lyons needed help with the campaign, Barfield was there for him. He created a list of ministers around the United States and made appointments for Lyons to appear in their churches. The strategy was simple but effective.

"People vote for who they know," said Coleman Jr., the former Florida Baptist chairman.

Lyons was on the road constantly. He appeared on a TV show hosted by an Atlanta preacher. He returned to his old stomping grounds in Cincinnati. He preached in Jacksonville, where the audience included several ministers from Brunswick, Ga., site of Lyons' first church. They returned home firmly in his camp.

Lyons took pains to explain his absences to Bethel Metropolitan. A Lyons presidency would bring prestige to the church, he told the congregation, and he was right: Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jesse Jackson both appeared there after his election.

Sometimes, instead of traveling, Lyons brought the Baptist voters to St. Petersburg. He wooed some ministers by inviting them to preach at Bethel. The congregation always took up a love offering for the visitors, ensuring they left St. Petersburg with a good feeling.

And when CHURCH Inc. was renovating the house on 19th Avenue S, ministers came by the busload from Atlanta to look at it. They were escorted by Lyons' underlings, who raved about the candidate's good works. The ministers couldn't have known it was the only job the agency would ever come close to finishing.

"It seemed like they would never stop coming," said Bill Clark, a carpenter who saw the preachers marching through. "They all talked about Lyons."

As always, Lyons had big plans. He was going to improve fellowship. Emphasize prison ministry "because (prison is) where all the black men are," he told a reporter. Get churches involved in social and political issues. Develop tutoring programs to slow the dropout rate. Create a national retirement plan for preachers. . . .

He fashioned himself as the people's candidate. He was going to fly coach, he said. Stay at La Quinta. Eat at Sizzler. Instead, he flew first class, stayed in the penthouse suite and hired a private chef to prepare dinner for him in Tierra Verde.

Even his campaign platform proved to be duplicitous. Previous administrations had been stingy with information. Lyons -- who became infamous for his secret business deals, secret bank accounts and secret relationships -- ran on an open government platform.

"He kept using the word 'sunshine,' " said the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr. of Cincinnati. "Everything would be in the sunshine . . . The books would be done that way, accounting would be done that way. Accountability would be there."

A few months ago, Lyons admitted he is but a sinner saved by grace.

"Time after time, I've discovered there's some Jacob in me," he said, referring to the trickster of the Old Testament.

But he said this during a political address calculated to regain the sympathy of his followers.

In more spontaneous moments, Lyons has denied there is a struggle for his soul, a contest between Daddy and father.

"I just want to say this," he blurted out during an NBC board meeting. "I have been vilified. Vilified. . . . The media have painted me as a thief, a villain, a whoremonger and a liar."

Then he mentioned a newspaper opinion column that suggested he was a good preacher -- but not a good man.

"I don't think I'll ever forget those words," Lyons said. "I am a good man. If you don't know anything else about me, if you don't like me, if you can't stand me, I want you to know today:

"I am a good man."

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