Image: Rev. Henry J. Lyons
Willie J. Allen Jr.  /  AP
Rev. Henry J. Lyons preaches in 2003 at the First Baptist Institutional Church in Lakeland, Fla.
updated 9/10/2009 10:35:39 AM ET 2009-09-10T14:35:39

A preacher who went to prison for stealing millions of dollars from the National Baptist Convention U.S.A will learn Thursday whether members think he deserves a chance to once again lead the denomination.

An unsuccessful last-minute effort by the Rev. Henry J. Lyons to get a court to derail the election underscores the long-shot nature of his bid to regain the presidency of the nation's largest and oldest predominantly black denomination.

Lyons was forced out as president in 1999 after an investigation revealed he abused his power to steal about $4 million from the denomination. He used the money to buy luxury homes and jewelry and support his mistresses. Lyons was eventually convicted and served nearly five years in prison.

Some National Baptists say his re-emergence now has reflected badly on the convention, which has roughly 7.5 million worshippers. About 40,000 are in Memphis for the convention's annual meeting.

Crucial decision
"A crucial decision is before National Baptists as it relates to transition and leadership," said the Rev. Forrest Harris, president of American Baptist College. "They certainly do not need to recycle a period of convention culture that led to the way in which the convention was led by the previous leadership."

The Rev. James Thomas of Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church in Nashville is a member of another national Baptist group, but he plans to be in Memphis to support Lyons' opponent, the Rev. Julius R. Scruggs.

Thomas went to theology school with Scruggs, pastor at First Missionary Baptist Church, in Huntsville, Ala., and vice president at large for the Nashville-based National Baptist Convention.

"If Lyons wins, every black Baptist will be looked down on in America because of the low standards that Lyons has had in the past," Thomas said.

'Reconciliation'
Supporters of Lyons point to significant good done during his presidency. The Rev. Darin Freeman, pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Charleston, W.Va., praised Lyons for reducing the convention's debt by two-thirds in four years and said he was an effective mentor to the group's young ministers — including himself.

"I believe in reconciliation," another supporter, the Rev. Jesse Shaver, 49 of Sacramento, Calif., said Wednesday. "I believe in giving a person a chance and that we should restore that person. He (Lyons) just got caught up. All of us get caught up sometimes."

A District of Columbia court Wednesday rejected a petition from Lyons, pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa, to stop the election.

Lyons couldn't be reached by The Associated Press on Wednesday. He has previously acknowledged damaging the convention's reputation but said he's a changed man who deserves a second chance as president.

'Unnecessary and disruptive'
Scruggs shied away from discussing Lyons' candidacy this week but called the lawsuit "unnecessary and disruptive."

"It may have been (filed) just to be disruptive," Scruggs said.

Many in the denomination are willing to forgive Lyons but they can't forget what he did.

"God forgives, but he's scarred my mind," Thelma Peake, 54, of Philadelphia said of Lyons. "And it's hard for me to remove it. I can forgive him, but I don't trust him."

Current president the Rev. Dr. William J. Shaw couldn't seek a third five-year term under convention rules. He acknowledged "mixed feelings" about Lyons' candidacy, but he said the former president had a right to run again under church rules.

Scruggs said he hopes if elected to unite and grow convention membership and to increase revenue to support church mission work.

Lyons' downfall came after his wife Deborah set fire to a $700,000 waterfront home he co-owned with a mistress, and the resulting investigation revealed he'd stolen money from the organization. The Lyonses have since divorced.

Lyons was convicted of racketeering and grand theft in 1999. He resigned as president and pleaded guilty to federal charges of tax evasion, fraud and making false statements.

"All of us have fallen at one time or another in our lives and made mistakes," Freeman said. "And all of us deserve to be restored."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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