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Is religion the opiate of the people? As a bible toting Baptist I take umbrage at efforts to equate religious belief with stupidity. But sometimes my fellow believers make it difficult to rise to their defense. Rev. Henry Lyons is the poster child for the specious argument that religious belief is synonymous with ignorance.

In 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 and died in prison this year while serving a term for parole violation.

The 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.

When 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 certainly did.

The 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.

Lyons 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 new life. 

When 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.

The 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.

The 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.

If 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.

Margaret Kimberley’s 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



December 25, 2003
Issue 70

is published every Thursday.

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