(Secular Humanist Bulletin, summer 1998)

The Lyons Den

By James A. Haught

Hypothetically, millions of ministers who beg money and promise a posthumous paradise might be charged with fraud. However, fraud laws focus on specific offenses - and a classic case of religious fraud has jolted one of America's major churches.

The Rev. Henry Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, and a woman companion, convicted embezzler Bernice Edwards, are accused of swindling nearly everyone: trusting worshipers, a generous charity, banks, a funeral chain, and corporations trying to use the large black church as a marketing aid.

In fact, a Florida indictment says the denomination actually has fewer than 1 million members, but Lyons and Edwards falsely claimed more than 8 million, to suck money from commercial interests. An affidavit said corporations considered Lyons "the black pope."

Lyons, the dynamic pastor of a big St. Petersburg church, was elected National Baptist president in 1994. He gained world prominence and conferred often with President Clinton.

His denomination's nightmare started last July. While Lyons and Edwards were traveling in Africa, the minister's wife discovered a deed showing that the pair had bought a $700,000 luxury home together. He listed himself as "unmarried" on the deed. In a rage, Mrs. Lyons drove to the St. Petersburg home, set it afire, then wrecked her car as she fled. She later pleaded guilty to arson and drew probation.

Since then, more stunning allegations have surfaced. Florida newspaper reports and the indictment make these accusations:

-- In 1991, Lyons was accused of bank fraud. He paid $85,000 restitution and was given a year of probation under a federal "pre-trial diversion" plan. Yet he later was chosen National Baptist president.

-- In 1994, Edwards pleaded guilty to embezzling $60,000 from an alternative high school she had directed, and using the money for furs and luxuries. She drew probation. Lyons appointed her National Baptist public relations director and used $32,600 of church money to pay her criminal penalty.

-- The pair opened secret bank accounts to receive church money and corporate funds. In addition to the $700,000 house, they purchased a $135,000 Mercedes-Benz, a $36,000 diamond ring, a $22,000 condo time-share and other luxuries. They ducked $9,000 tax by putting the Mercedes in the church's name. (Lyons also owns a Rolls Royce, two other Mercedes and a pleasure boat.)

-- Lyons was involved with church employee Brenda Harris, whom the affidavit calls his "paramour." He bought her a mink coat and transferred $623,370 from church accounts to her.

-- A third church member, Earlene Battle, said Lyons had an affair with her, then beat her, then sent her $1,700 in church checks to keep her quiet.

-- The Anti-Defamation League gave the National Baptist Convention $244,500 to rebuild black churches that were burned. Lyons told the ADL he had given six burned-out congregations $35,000 each - but he actually disbursed only $39,000 altogether, and the rest went into his private savings account.

-- The military dictator of Nigeria paid Lyons $350,000 to lobby for the African nation in Washington, but he didn't register as a foreign agent.

-- The Loewen mortuary chain, General Motors, Globe Insurance Co. and other firms paid millions for access to National Baptist mailing lists and assemblies, and for help in marketing their products by the supposedly 8-million-member church. The indictment also accuses the minister and Edwards of defrauding several banks.

As these allegations snowballed, Lyons first said news media were smearing him because he's a black who "enjoyed some financial success." Later he claimed that Satan reached into the church and laid "temptation at our footsteps." The case reveals the hazards of big-money religion.