Once-imprisoned Baptist pastor loses election bid

Associated Press/September 11, 2009

By Lucas L. Johnson II

Memphis, Tenn. (AP) - A preacher who went to prison for stealing millions of dollars from the National Baptist Convention USA was to learn Thursday whether members think he deserves a chance to once again lead the denomination.

An unsuccessful last-minute legal effort by the Rev. Henry J. Lyons to challenge the fairness of the election underscores his long-shot bid to regain the presidency of the nation's largest and oldest predominantly black denomination.

Lyons was forced out as president in 1999 after an investigation revealed he abused his power and stole about $4 million from the denomination. He used the money to buy luxury homes and jewelry and support his mistresses. Lyons was eventually convicted and served nearly five years in prison.

Some National Baptists say his re-emergence now has reflected badly on the convention, which has roughly 7.5 million worshippers. About 40,000 of them are in Memphis for the convention's annual meeting.

Delegates lined up Thursday morning to cast their vote for Lyons or his opponent, the Rev. Julius R. Scruggs. Voting was expected to go late into the evening.

"A crucial decision is before National Baptists as it relates to transition and leadership," said the Rev. Forrest Harris, president of American Baptist College. He said they "certainly do not need to recycle a period of convention culture" characterized by its previous leadership.

The Rev. James Thomas of Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church in Nashville is a member of another national Baptist group, but he plans to be in Memphis to support Scruggs.

Thomas went to theology school with Scruggs, pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala., and vice president-at-large for the Nashville-based National Baptist Convention.

"If Lyons wins, every black Baptist will be looked down on in America because of the low standards that Lyons has had in the past," Thomas said.

Lyons' supporters point to significant good done during his presidency. The Rev. Darin Freeman, pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Charleston, W.Va., praised Lyons for reducing the convention's debt by two-thirds in four years and said he was an effective mentor to the group's young ministers - including himself.

"I believe in reconciliation," another supporter, the Rev. Jesse Shaver, 49 of Sacramento, Calif., said Wednesday. "I believe in giving a person a chance and that we should restore that person. He (Lyons) just got caught up. All of us get caught up sometimes."

A District of Columbia court Wednesday rejected a petition from Lyons, pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa, to stop the election. He contends the voting process is unfair.

Lyons couldn't be reached by The Associated Press on Thursday. He has previously acknowledged damaging the convention's reputation but said he's a changed man who deserves a second chance as president.

Scruggs shied away from discussing Lyons' candidacy this week but called the lawsuit "unnecessary and disruptive."

Following his farewell sermon on Thursday, current president the Rev. Dr. William J. Shaw told reporters that he also thought the lawsuit was "groundless."

Shaw couldn't seek a third five-year term under convention rules. He has acknowledged "mixed feelings" about Lyons' candidacy, but he said the former president had a right to run again under church rules.

Scruggs said he hopes if elected to unite and grow convention membership and to increase revenue to support church mission work.

Lyons' downfall came after his wife Deborah set fire to a $700,000 waterfront home he co-owned with a mistress, and the resulting investigation revealed he'd stolen money from the organization. The Lyonses have since divorced.

Lyons was convicted of racketeering and grand theft in 1999. He resigned as president and pleaded guilty to federal charges of tax evasion, fraud and making false statements.

Many in the denomination are willing to forgive Lyons but they can't forget what he did.

"God forgives, but he's scarred my mind," Thelma Peake, 54, of Philadelphia said of Lyons. "I can forgive him, but I don't trust him."

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