Disgraced Baptist Minister Plans Return to Pulpit

Associated Press/November 29, 2003

St. Petersburg, Fla., -- A Baptist minister whose fall from grace began with a fire his wife set at a home he had secretly bought with his mistress will walk out of prison Sunday and head directly to the pulpit.

The Rev. Henry J. Lyons, 61, expects to be rededicated by other ministers at a ceremony Sunday and then preach a sermon at First Baptist Institutional Church in Lakeland, about 55 miles northeast of St. Petersburg, said his attorney, Larry Hardaway.

Lyons will have completed his prison sentence on grand theft and racketeering charges, but will remain on probation for the next three years on federal charges including bank fraud and tax evasion. He owes $2.5 million in restitution.

Wildly popular and charismatic, Lyons was at the height of his power as pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church and president of the National Baptist Convention 1997, when Deborah Lyons set fire to the house.

The resulting investigation unmasked Lyons's use of his leadership role at the convention to access millions of dollars to finance his lavish lifestyle. Officials estimate that Lyons took about $4 million to buy luxury residences and jewelry and to support his mistresses.

Prison life has left Lyons thinner, but his friends said that more than four years behind bars have done nothing to diminish his skills as a minister or keep him from returning to the pulpit.

He and his wife have divorced, and the woman at the center of the scandal, Bernice Edwards, died in prison earlier this year.

"He can pastor anywhere he wants to pastor in the United States of America," said Leon Highsmith, a member of Bethel Metropolitan's deacon board who has remained Lyons's friend.

Lyons declined recent requests for an interview, but in September, he told the St. Petersburg Times that he is a changed man and said his downfall was caused by his attraction to a wealthy lifestyle.

"I know I need to be stronger morally," Lyons said. "I need to say 'no' to myself and others and mean it and stick with it."

He said he spent some of his sentence ministering to other inmates.

Lyons rose to power with a blend of charisma, fiery preaching and undeniable political skills. When St. Petersburg erupted in rioting in 1996 after a police officer shot a black motorist, then-President Bill Clinton called on Lyons.

The Rev. James Macon, Bethel's associate pastor and a friend, said Lyons retains his magnetic personality. "I don't think it's anything for show, that's the Henry Lyons I know," he said.

Lyons was in Africa when his wife discovered he had bought a $700,000 waterfront home with Edwards, a convicted embezzler who worked with Lyons as the public relations director for the influential National Baptist Convention.

In 1999, Lyons was convicted of racketeering and grand theft.

He resigned as president of the National Baptist Convention and, in a deal with prosecutors, pleaded guilty to five federal charges of tax evasion, fraud and making false statements.

There is support for Lyons returning to Bethel Metropolitan, which has been without a pastor since spring. Lyons's successor was fired after clashes with members.

Highsmith, who said he was speaking only for himself and not on behalf of the deacons, said there are some within the congregation who have forgiven Lyons and would not object to his return.

"All these preachers who fell from man's grace, but they didn't fall from God's grace," he said. "All these preachers are doing well. Henry Lyons is the same."

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