After spending five years in jail and serving several months in probation, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons – the scandalized former president of the National Baptist Convention USA, has returned to the pulpit to preach as an interim pastor of a broken church.
Lyons 62, former leader of St. Petersburg's Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, was convicted in February 1999, of racketeering and grand theft, and was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in jail.
His trial is what inarguably split the leadership of the current NBC USA, with several pastors calling immediately for Lyon’s resignation and others calling for his release.
"The convention has been made to be [Lyons'] accomplice and his protector through all of this,” the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson said in a statement following the trial.
Lyons did resign his presidency on March 16, 1999, but only after severely harming the reputation of the denomination.
“Even before this, the larger society didn't see us as a real church, so anything that would support that view would necessarily be negative,” said Rev. M. Mason Walker, who feared the Lyons scandal would undermine the legitimacy of the NBCUSA.
At the other end of the debate, Lyons’ supporters argued that he did not do anything out of his jurisdiction, and said asserted that Lyons remains in office.
Lacy Curry, a convention pastor, stated that he "could not think of anything [Lyons] did under this administration that the previous presidents did not have the authority to do. Lyons is free to broker deals with corporations, and is just as free to richly profit from those deals."
Money issues aside, Lyons was caught in 1999 because of his moral depravity; the initial investigations to Lyons’ case was sparked by his wife who set fire to the $700,000 mansion Lyons bought for him and his mistress. Apparently, the mansion as well as a $150,000 Mercedes was bought with unlisted church funds. Lyons and his wife got divorced early last year.
Now, six years later, after having served his time, he is filing to marry yet another woman – a former member of his St. Petersburg congregation.
Earlier this year, Lyons applied for his old job at St. Petersburg, which has been without a pastor since Lyons’ replacement was fired last year.
Not having received his old post, Lyons accepted the position as interim pastor to the New Salem Missionary Baptist Church at 405 N Oregon Ave. in Tampa. The church is still suffering from a conflict that split the congregation several years ago
According to Sanford Ross, a former deacon of the church, Lyons is trying to reconcile the two sides in the disagreement that pitted the church's younger members against its older ones. The dispute centered on a previous pastor, who left the church, but the matter ended up in court.
"We split like in 1998 and since he's been there, we've all received letters to reunite and to plan on healing. He's trying to get the church to reunite," said Ross, one of those who left New Salem over the disagreement.
"He was not the moderator, but he gave good advice and he showed remorse for his situation, for his downfall from the past and was trying to get the church to be forgiving on both sides," said Ross, who had attended New Salem for more than 50 years.
"He is really trying to call everybody back in there.”
The NBC, with its supposed 8.5 million members is the largest African-American organization in the world. However, recent allegations suggest that National Baptist leaders may have inflated membership numbers in order to entice profitable marketing plans from credit card and insurance corporations. Rev. H.L. Harvey, the convention's statistician, admits the figure of eight million is simply an estimate, but denies any knowledge of false membership mailing lists.