Fall 1998, Vol. 1, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 1, No. 2


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
A New Establishment?

Submission in Salt Lake

Church, Lies, and Polling Data

Catholic Controversy I:  Jesus Off Broadway

Catholic Controversy II:  Handling Pedophilia

Catholic Controversy III:  Philadelphia Story

On the Beat:  "Irreligion" in Denmark

The Oklahoman's Bible Belt

Race and Disgrace
by Jerry WattsNew_Lyons.gif (3849 bytes)

On one fateful day in July 1997, a St. Petersburg, Florida wife whose husband is abroad discovers papers that suggest that, unbeknownst to her, he has purchased a house with another woman. In a fit of rage, she drives to the luxurious $700,000 establishment, breaks in, and discovers some of his clothes inside. Soon thereafter the place is ablaze. Fire engines arrive and squash the fire but only after it has done $30,000 in damage.

The wife initially admits to the local police that she set fire to the house out of anger at what appears to be her husband’s involvement with another woman. The husband gets news of the fire and his wife’s arrest and rushes home. At a press conference two days after the fire, the wife, standing beside him, recants her confession and states that she set the fire because she was drunk. Jealousy had nothing to do with it. Later she would admit to first-degree arson and be sentenced to five years probation.

This story could have been lifted from a script of "The Young and the Restless," and perhaps would have been confined to the National Enquirer were the husband a less prominent man. But the husband in question is the Rev. Henry Lyons, pastor of St. Petersburg’s Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church and president of the National Baptist Convention (NBC), the largest denomination of black Christians in the United States.

The NBC has approximately 33,000 churches with 8.5 million members. Though the churches affiliated with the NBC contribute money to the parent organization, each is autonomous; because the Convention’s polity is not hierarchical, its leaders lack the authority to set ecclesiastical policy. Yet as president, Lyons is the primary symbolic and substantive representative of most black Baptists in the United States.

In the aftermath of the house burning and the arson charge against Mrs. Lyons, the news media reported that the co-buyer of the house was Bernice Edwards, a woman Lyons had hired as a financial consultant to the NBC. Following her trail, journalists soon discovered that she had no experience or training as a financial consultant, had personally filed for bankruptcy on three different occasions, and had been convicted of embezzlement. All indications were that she was unqualified and unfit to oversee large amounts of money for a major religious organization.

Following intensive investigations by Florida police and the St. Petersburg Times, it soon came to light that Edwards and Lyons, in addition to the $700,000 home in St. Petersburg, had previously co-purchased a Lake Tahoe condominium and a $60,000 Mercedes-Benz, and had jointly placed a bid on a $1 million home in North Carolina.

Lyons seemed to be spending money like a Fortune 500 CEO. But whose money was he spending? He claimed he had never put the NBC’s money to personal use. Not only had the media erroneously implied that he was involved with Ms. Edwards, but they mistakenly omitted from their reportage that the jointly purchased house had been bought for the business of the National Baptist Convention. Just why the NBC needed a house to which only he and Edwards had access he would not say.

In due course, prosecutors disclosed that Lyons had written checks on NBC bank accounts for over $4 million, including $1.3 million to himself, $1.2 million to Edwards, $1 million to family members and other friends, and $456,264 to another Convention employee, Brenda Harris. Harris, like Edwards, was identified as an "alleged mistress." It also turned out that Lyons had deposited in a secret bank account $225,000 donated to the NBC by the Anti-Defamation League to rebuild black churches destroyed by arsonists.

On July 3, the U.S. Attorney charged Henry Lyons with 56 counts of fraud, extortion, and tax evasion. Bernice Edwards was named in 25 counts and Brenda Harris in eight. If he ends up being convicted, Lyons could be sentenced to 815 years in prison and $25 million in fines.

On September 8, newspapers around the country carried reports of a press conference at the NBC’s annual convention in Kansas City at which Lyons, after months of denials, admitted to having had a two-year "inappropriate relations hip" with his aide Brenda Harris. In a closed-door meeting of the NBC’s executive board he and Harris sought forgiveness, and Harris apologized to Lyons’ wife of 26 years.

Brushing aside calls for his resignation from several prominent black Baptist leaders, Lyons announced the very next day that he would seek another five-year term as president of the Convention. Thanks to his actions and the criminal charges filed against him, the NBC was in an immense financial bind, unable even to pay the principal on the mortgage for its headquarters building in Nashville. Yet thousands of dollars were raised on the floor of the convention as a "love offering" for his legal defense. The new budget proposed by Lyons called for him to receive a raise from $85,000 to $147,000 dollars a year.

Almost from the beginning, Lyons, his wife, and their attorneys wrapped themselves in the garb of the black victim who was under unjust attack by powerful, racist whites in the business establishment, law enforcement, and especially the media.

The day of Lyons’ federal bail hearing, his lawyers publicly accused those corporations he was accused of swindling with being "exploiters of black people." Without explicitly calling these businessmen "white," the racial identification was understood by all. "They have tried to destroy our home," Mrs. Lyons said in one public forum. "They have tried to destroy our conventionè. The white media is out to destroy Dr. Lyons." Complaining about the coverage in the St. Petersburg Times, she declared, "The question arises in my thinking, is this Jim Crowism all over again or is the Times trying to play the race card without my husband and I knowing itè. Why is the St. Pete Times so determined to link my husband with a woman?" There was some irony in the insinuation, since during the civil rights era the Times was known-and in some quarters vilified-as one of the South’s most liberal newspapers.

One could argue that the Times was obsessed with Lyons, running a special front-page news column called "The Lyons Watch" for over a year, and asking readers to contact the paper if they knew anything about him. Whatever a jury might eventually find, as far as the Times was concerned, the verdict was in: The man was a hypocrite of the first order. Here, for example, is the "lede" from a May 17 front-page story:

"He wrote check after check-to alleged mistresses, his pals, his children. He wrote checks for his MasterCard and his Mercedes, for his investment adviser and his interior decorator.

"The fattest checks of all he wrote to himself: Henry J. Lyons, self-proclaimed man of God, Friend of Bill, champion of Black America."

Still and all, the Times did an excellent job of following the twists and turns of Lyons’ financial dealings, far outdistancing the competition.

But there wasn’t much of it. Outside the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, media attention to this saga has been scanty and sporadic. Although Lyons has repeatedly argued that his racial identity has generated far more coverage than his alleged transgressions merit, in fact racial parochialism has granted him far less media scrutiny than his story deserves.

Lyons is a major religious figure in the United States; the size and significance of the NBC should have led newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times to devote considerable attention to this story. But his following is overwhelmingly black, and Lyons does not enjoy the salience of white religious leaders in the mainstream media. Even understanding that, however, the lack of national media coverage-and condemnation-of Lyons’ personal appropriation of funds for rebuilding the burned black churches is disgraceful, given the amount of media attention the burnings themselves generated.

For those that covered the story, a major element has been the degree to which the NBC board has seemed determined to defend Lyons regardless of what he did. Indeed, the board appears utterly incapable of making Lyons ethically and financiallyaccountable. In stories about the failed effort of individual black ministers to mount an impeachment proceeding, members of the NBC have been depicted as fiercely loyal to Lyons and distrustful of the white media that raised charges about his behavior. In some cases, white reporters describe being thrown out of NBC gatherings because they are only there to "report the bad."

Evidently anxious to avoid being charged with racism-another reason for soft-pedaling the story as a whole-reporters walked a fine line to avoid caricaturing Lyons’ followers as dupes. But by failing to raise the possibility that they were dupes, the journalists merely recorded the support for Lyons, rather than trying to look beneath the surface. As a result, they failed to get at the shame, the feelings of betrayal, that many members feel in the face of a leader behaving like the worst stereotype of a black Baptist preacher.