1999 Lyons pled guilty to tax evasion, embezzlement and grand
theft committed while he served as president of the National
Baptist Convention, USA Inc., the largest black denomination
in America. In short, Rev. Henry Lyons was a fraud and a
thief. The sordid tale began in 1997 when Lyons' wife, Deborah,
set fire to a home she discovered her husband had purchased
with Bernice Edwards, a woman with whom he had as he put
it “an inappropriate relationship.” Edwards was also convicted
in prison this year while serving a term for parole violation.
first black Baptist church in America was founded in Silver
Bluff, South Carolina sometime between 1793 and 1795, the confusion
stemming from the founders' lack of diligence regarding dates.
The National Baptist Convention USA Inc. is the result of
mergers and breakups that have taken place among black Baptists
since the late 1800s. As the saying goes, Baptists multiply
by dividing. Since that time the church has produced some of
America’s greatest leaders. It was deeply distressing to watch
its descent at the hands of a self-aggrandizing con man and
the incompetent so-called leaders who enabled him.
the scandal began Lyons vehemently denied any wrong doing and
blamed the media for his troubles. He cynically used race to
proclaim his innocence and allowed others to put their reputations
on the line in order to defend
him. After nearly two years of denial, Lyons finally pled
guilty and resigned as president, but not before announcing
his resignation to Connie
Chung in a 20/20 interview. The board may not have deserved
better treatment but the faithful who make up the NBC membership
Lyons saga exposed the ugly underside of the black church.
Leaders of the NBC immediately expressed their support for
Lyons without even asking for an explanation of his actions.
The lack of concern for the well being of the denomination
was astounding in its arrogance. In hanging on to the convention’s
presidency Lyons caused such terrible division and acrimony that
some churches withheld funds from the NBC because of his continued
presence throughout the scandal and trial.
might have considered a period of quiet contemplation after
his release from prison. Instead he underwent an elaborate
ritual involving a press release and a change of clothes
symbolizing the removal of his sin and rededication to a
confronted with cases such as Lyons’ we are exhorted to forgive,
as Jesus commanded us to do. But the word forgiveness is
a tricky one. Does it mean that we simply forget wrongdoing?
Does it mean that we can’t hold anyone accountable for their
actions? I am uneasy with the notion that forgiveness means
letting Lyons and others like him off the hook without question.
It may all be a moot point because God has forgiven him anyway.
But I still find it troubling that Lyons seems to think that
saying he is sorry is enough. If Lyons felt the need to make
a public statement upon his release from prison he should
have explained himself more fully. I would take Lyons’ claims
of contrition more seriously if he quietly resumed his new
life and expressed some degree of thoughtfulness about what
led to his downfall. An emotional ceremony featuring a costume
change does not undo the damage he caused to the church and
to many people who supported him.
Lyons saga should be an opportunity for introspection for
others as well. I admit that until the scandal broke I did
not know who headed the NBC although I belong to a member
church. I am still uninvolved with church affairs. Lyons
thievery was committed in part because of this detachment
and subsequent lack of oversight. When combined with knee
jerk reactions to defend black people in trouble and “don’t
criticize the preacher” attitudes, it is easy for the Lyons
of the world to do their worst.
current president of the NBC, Rev. William Shaw, reached
out to Lyons upon his release from prison. It is appropriate
for Shaw to offer assistance on a personal basis, but not
on behalf of the convention. Unfortunately, Shaw has said
that as an ex-president Lyons would be treated “with respect” and
that he could be “a resource.” I can’t imagine what Lyons
can offer that someone else could not. There is no benefit
to be derived from Lyons having any role at this time. He
could have spared himself, his family and the denomination
two years of suffering if he had been truthful about his
activities. He now grandiosely reappears and wants a role
in the convention he nearly destroyed. I hope that Rev. Shaw
will have any private conversation with Lyons that he chooses
but advise him against attempting to get the attention that
he obviously craves far too much.
Lyons requests such a public position he should be required
to publicly answer some very important questions. He must
be asked to explain why he proclaimed his innocence for two
years. Why did he allow others to put their reputations in
jeopardy when they stood by him? Church leaders who allowed
the embarrassment to drag on for months also need to answer
questions. It is unconscionable that they did not ask Lyons
to step aside while the case was under investigation. Their
behavior was irresponsible and caused a great deal of damage
to the NBC. I hope that they too can explain themselves to
those who placed them in leadership positions.
Until very recently
the clergy was one of the few avenues to civic and political
authority open to black Americans. As a result some of the
greatest minds in our community became religious leaders. Unfortunately
it also meant that some of the less gifted among us also heard
the call to preach. The time has long passed when the pulpit
should be the last refuge of a scoundrel.
Freedom Rider column appears weekly in . Ms.
Kimberley is a freelance writer living in New York City. She
can be reached via e-Mail at [email protected].
You can read more of Ms. Kimberley's writings at http://freedomrider.blogspot.com/