Pastor convicted of theft seeks election to head church group

Associated Press/April 4, 2007
By Matt Sedensky

Miami — A pastor who spent more than four years imprisoned for stealing millions of dollars from the national organization of black Baptist churches he headed is seeking election Wednesday to head the group’s state chapter.

The Rev. Henry Lyons, wildly popular before his conviction and still highly regarded by many now, was released from prison in November 2003. He and two other ministers are vying to head the Florida General Baptist Convention, a chapter of the National Baptist Convention USA, which claims to represent some 7.5 million members of black churches nationwide.

Voting was taking place through 7 p.m. Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale, though it was unclear when conference leaders would disclose the winner of the election. The Rev. James Sampson of Jacksonville and the Rev. Michael Johnson of Pensacola were also seeking election. Calls to the national and state convention and to numerous member churches and pastors went unreturned Tuesday and Wednesday.

Lyons rose to power with a blend of charisma, fiery preaching and undeniable political skills. He headed the Florida General Baptist Convention and was at the height of his power as pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church and president of the National Baptist Convention in 1997 when everything changed.

While the minister was on a trip to Africa, his wife Deborah Lyons discovered he had purchased a $700,000 waterfront home with a mistress, Bernice Edwards, a convicted embezzler who worked with the pastor as the public relations director for the influential National Baptist Convention. Deborah Lyons set the home on fire.

The resulting investigation unmasked Lyons’ use of his leadership role at the convention to access millions of dollars to finance his lavish lifestyle. Officials estimated the minister took about $4 million to buy luxury homes, jewelry and support his mistresses.

Lyons was convicted of racketeering and grand theft in 1999. 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.

Edwards later died in prison and the Lyonses have since divorced.

Lyons is still on probation but is pastor at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa. Whether voters will embrace the ideal of forgiveness that is a centerpiece of Christianity and if so, whether it’s enough to give Lyons a win, remains to be seen.

But even some who aren’t within Lyons’ Baptist denomination urged he be given consideration.

“If the man has been redeemed and people receive him, that’s just part of the grace of God,” said the Rev. Charles Kennedy of the Glorious Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal church in Tampa.

Larry Hardaway, an attorney who befriended Lyons while he was in jail, said he has seen the pastor do great good.

“I have seen him uplift people who have had problems and are down, who are spiritually down in their lives. I have seen him move large crowds in churches and other spiritual gatherings. I have seen him relate teachings from the Bible in a way I have never heard before,” Hardaway said.

The lawyer said his friend shows promise of again doing good things in an administrative role, but he understands the questions about his suitability.

“There’s always been a question as to whether he should embark back into that old track,” Hardaway said. “And it is a concern of many people - those who care about him and those who do not.”

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