With his wife at his side pledging her love, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, the embattled leader of the nation’s largest black denomination, Wednesday survived a no-confidence vote at the National Baptist Convention meeting.
Dissident ministers had attempted to oust Lyons over allegations of financial impropriety. In what onlookers described as an extraordinary moment for the 8.5 million-member National Baptist Convention U.S.A. Inc., delegates rejected a motion to expel Lyons after he and his wife begged for a second chance.
“I’m asking you, I’m begging you in the name of Jesus to give him another chance because he deserves it,” Deborah Lyons told the several hundred delegates at the Denver Convention Center.
“I have not taken one single dime, not one single cent of this convention’s money,” Henry Lyons said. “I ask you to please, please forgive me.”
The failed motion was introduced by the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III of New York. He is considered one of the most influential ministers in the country and has accused Lyons of “deceitful and deceptive actions.”
Butts was one of about 200 dissidents who tried to mount the stage Wednesday but were blocked by Roscoe Cooper, the Baptist Convention’s general secretary, who led the audience in a gospel song in an effort to drown out protesters shouting, “Let the people speak.”
Lyons asked that seven of the dissidents and seven of his supporters be allowed to address the convention. Lyons has been accused of using church funds to purchase real estate, a luxury car and jewelry for a woman he had named to a high church post.
As the dissenters took the stage, about 50 reporters were escorted from the auditorium and surrounded by security guards. Some reporters, however, managed to remain inside to hear the debate.
“They want you out so you can’t see the corruption that happens in this convention,” the Rev. Jasper Williams Jr. of Atlanta said. “This is not what the Baptist church is about. It’s about the freedom to express ourselves.”
Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, who is a Baptist, also criticized the decision to remove the press and intervened to allow them back inside. “The best democracy has to be done in the open,” he said.
After Butts’ motion failed, delegates sang “Amazing Grace.” Later, at a news conference, Lyons said he was grateful for the support and acknowledged that he had committed errors of judgment. “I do consider this a serious, serious wake-up call,” he said.
Before the vote, dissidents handed out documents they said showed evidence of Lyons’ financial improprieties. The documents included a canceled check for $10,000 made out to a jewelry store. Lyons has been accused of using church funds to purchase a $36,000 diamond ring for Bernice Edwards, hired by Lyons to handle corporate public affairs for the Baptist Convention.
“There is no question that the consensus of this convention is to forgive Dr. Lyons for his mistakes of judgment,” Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, told delegates. “And while we are commanded to forgive, we also are admonished to be faithful stewards of God’s resources. Therefore, in an attempt to be faithful to the whole word of God, this body is directed to look at the deceitful and deceptive actions by Dr. Lyons that could be fatal to this convention.”
But the Rev. E.V. Hill of Los Angeles, one of Lyons’ strongest allies, said the Christian response would be to grant Lyons’ “plea for forgiveness.”
After the vote, many delegates said they were concerned about the damage done to their church’s reputation. “We have become a spectacle in the eyes of the country,” said Denise Harris of Chicago, who voted to oust Lyons. “We are willing to turn a blind eye to the transgressions of a man who is asking us to forgive him only because he got caught. We are supposed to be Christians. What kind of moral example are we setting? It’s embarrassing.”