Vol. 1, No. 2
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
Catholic Controversy III: Philadelphia
On the Beat: "Irreligion" in Denmark
The Oklahoman's Bible Belt
by Jerry WattsOn 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 husbands involvement with another
woman. The husband gets news of the fire and his wifes 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
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. Petersburgs Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church and president of
the National Baptist Convention (NBC), the largest denomination of black Christians in the
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 Conventions 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
Lyons seemed to be spending money like a Fortune 500 CEO. But whose
money was he spending? He claimed he had never put the NBCs 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 NBCs 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 NBCs 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 Souths 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 wasnt 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
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.