Ex-pastor returns to pulpit hours after prison release

Orlando Sentinel/December 1, 2003
By Melissa Harris

Lakeland -- At 6 a.m. Sunday, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons walked out of a minimum-security state prison in Polk County, exhaled deeply and said, "Thank you, Jesus."

By noon, he was behind the pulpit at Lakeland's First Baptist Institutional Church, telling more than 300 in the flock how he had "suffered God's rod of correction."

It was Lyons' first sermon since entering state prison in April 1999 on racketeering and grand-theft charges. His fall from prominence as leader of the nation's largest black religious denomination began nearly two years earlier, when his wife torched the $700,000 waterfront home Lyons had secretly bought with Bernice Edwards, an aide.

Coming at the height of his power and popularity as president of the National Baptist Convention USA, the arson charges launched an investigation of Lyons' use of his leadership role to finance a luxurious lifestyle, which included a Rolls-Royce, two Mercedes-Benzes and gifts for his mistresses.

Officials estimate that he stole $4 million from the convention.

But on Sunday, pastors from across the country huddled around the disgraced ex-minister as they ceremonially removed his crumpled, "filthy" black robe and cloaked him in a neatly pressed multicolored replacement -- a symbol of his redemption.

As the ministers parted to display the transformed Lyons, the Rev. Alex Harper Sr., the church's pastor, bellowed "God is good!" He told the congregation that Lyons had been "restored to his rightful place."

Lyons, 61, then took Harper's seat at the altar.

Old friends commented that prison life had left Lyons thinner -- but that it had not lessened the spirit or passion of a man who once was one of the nation's most powerful black clergy.

"I have suffered God's rod of correction," Lyons told the congregation. "I stand here today to tell you I truly, truly repented of my sins."

Lyons and his wife, Deborah, have since divorced, and Edwards, a former convention public-relations director, died in prison earlier this year of a chronic pulmonary condition.

While Sunday's audience showered him with forgiveness, there may be controversy if he is asked to return to his former post as pastor of the 100-year-old Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, a prominent institution in St. Petersburg.

More than 50 members of that congregation traveled to Lakeland on Sunday to hear his sermon and show their support.

Before the service, a few of them gathered outside the men's restroom to wait for him.

"He's in there, isn't he?" one woman whispered.

When he emerged, the group of four shrieked as if they had spotted a long-lost relative and lurched toward Lyons for hugs.

Others lined up behind them to give him a hug or pose for a photo. Lyons took time to speak with each of them.

Lyons says he would like to return to preaching at Bethel, but some in the congregation harbor hostility. He says there may be other opportunities for him in New York or California.

His first sermon was peppered with self-deprecating humor.

"If God sees to give me some more money, I'm going to give it to the government," he said. "They're not going to put me back in prison for nothing."

He criticized society's "life in the fast lane" ways of "sex, space and speed."

He described his transfer from a Pinellas County jail to a state prison reception center in Orlando. Unsure of his destination, he was placed in the back of a van and shackled from head to toe in what he called the "state's jewelry."

After being processed, he said, he was placed in a 5-by-7-foot solitary cell with only a slot in the door for guards to slide through food.

"I thought I would be able to go out" to a common area, he said. "But I realized as night came that I couldn't go nowhere."

As Lyons' voice grew anxious, he described his paranoia during that first night. He said he felt like the walls were caving in and the ceiling was pressing down on him.

He said he prostrated himself on the concrete floor and prayed all night. He thought of Nelson Mandela enduring far worse prison conditions for 27 years and of the Apostle Paul's suffering, as told in the Bible.

With a booming voice, Lyons said he felt the hand of Jesus touch him that night and tell him, "You have to do this time, but I will be with you."

Many in the crowd sprung to their feet in a chorus of amens at Lyons' testimony.

Lyons will remain on probation for the next three years after pleading guilty to federal charges of bank fraud, tax evasion and lying on mortgage applications. He served four years and eight months of a 51/2-year state prison sentence and has been ordered to repay $2.5 million.

"I am serious about repentance and contrition," he said in an interview after his sermon. "I did a lot of wrong.

"I feel like I hurt God himself."

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