MAXWELL:  The price of Lyons’ redemption

9/7/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Well, we, as a race, have done it again: We have made fools of ourselves in front of the nation and the rest of the world.

And as I write, I feel a profound sense of shame.

I am ashamed _ but hardly surprised _ that the National Baptist Convention USA, America’s largest black organization, has forgiven its president, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, his unethical behavior and his shady, perhaps even criminal, activities.

Trouble started for this 55-year-old, silver-tongued personage of the cloth _ who had been viewed as a financial savior four years ago when elected to head the 8.5-million member organization _ on July 6. This is when St. Petersburg police arrested Lyons’ wife, Deborah, on a charge of setting several fires in the $700,000 house that her husband owns with another woman.

This incident, apparently born of jealous rage and frustration, has led the news media and other investigators, including the Internal Revenue Service, into a seemingly unending maze of personal and financial high jinks. Many of the deals link him with women other than his wife, and they also involve possible misuse of church funds for personal gain.

Lyons, also the pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, asked the convention for forgiveness at the group’s annual gathering last week in Denver. Lyons, the grand puppeteer that he is, knew how to pull the strings, how to manipulate the wooden, jointed limbs of his marionettes.

Going into the meeting, he, along with his inner circle of fellow scoundrels, knew that black people _ especially church folk who see life on earth as a kind of living hell to be escaped _ are sentimental, increasingly nativistic and, of course, forgiving to a fault.

In Denver, the puppeteer delivered a sterling performance. Listen to him as he addressed a crowd of nearly 10,000:

“I prayed to God down on my knees. I’ve prostrated myself before him, day in and day out. I know God has forgiven me. I come to you to ask you to forgive me. I need your forgiveness. I’ve come again to ask you to forgive me for my errors, to forgive me for my mistakes . . . to look upon me as your brother. I need to know I am forgiven.”

They forgave him.

Therein lies much of the shame. To say that he made “mistakes” and committed “errors” is not the same as saying: “Good people, I was wrong. I have sinned.” But he said nothing of the sort.

Lyons is not seeking forgiveness. He wants to be excused. He is not contrite. He is the classic conjure man, dispensing his toxic potion to the gullible and the faithful alike.

And as any good conjure man would, Lyons uses others to front for him. In Denver, he served up his wife, compelling her to play on the sentimentality and raw emotion of the conferees, to elicit their sympathies.

“Yes, (my husband has) made mistakes,” she said to a hushed meeting hall. “We’ve all make mistakes. . . . Let me stop right here and pause and tell you about my mistake. I’ve never told this to a body and nobody but my family knows this, but I’m a recovering alcoholic. And through all of that, when my husband was preaching all over the United States and the world, he had to come get that phone and say, “How is your mother doing?’ and “How is she holding up?’

“And many times, I couldn’t stand up, but through his love and through the grace of God and my family, I did that. So I’m coming here today to say he made mistakes. We all make mistakes.”

Then, Lyons himself mesmerized his flock with the chant: “Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me . . . and give me a second chance.”

He received his undeserved second chance, a move that will hurt the National Baptist Convention for decades. Moreover, by playing the cheap race card against the press, the convention has further isolated itself from mainstream America. Even worse, it has undermined the integrity of bona fide issues and instances of race.

Did Lyons and his cohorts not know that the rest of America has been tuned in? That intelligent readers, radio listeners and television viewers know damned well that the so-called “white establishment press” did not cause Lyons’ problems? That the press has not singled him out?

If the press, especially the St. Petersburg Times, is guilty of anything, it is that because of our naivete, we initially were shocked and disappointed that Lyons, a man the overwhelming majority of us respected, had fooled us all those years.

Again, why am I ashamed? After all, I am not a Baptist. Nor am I religious.

I am ashamed because Lyons, like me, is black. We share the burden of being perpetual outsiders. We are people who have everything to prove to the rest of the world. We are tested and judged not as individuals but as a group.

I am ashamed that members of the National Baptist Convention are so unthinking and obsessed with racism and race that they have confused forgiveness with retaliation against a press believed to be out to destroy “successful black men.”

I am ashamed that in our drive to protect the black male, too many of us have become moral relativists, much too willing to ignore and excuse the misdeeds and crimes of our own.

In the end, though, all African-Americans will pay for Lyons’ redemption in Denver. And if we are not very careful, we are going to forgive _ or excuse _ ourselves to death.