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Holy War in D.C. Courtroom

Even though it was the day before the election in Memphis for the presidency of the National Baptist Convention, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons stopped campaigning to be in a D.C. Superior Court room Wednesday in the hope that a judge would delay the important vote.

At one time, Lyons was one of the most powerful voices in the black church as president of the 7 million member National Baptist Convention. That was before he was convicted on state charges of racketeering and grand theft and pleaded guilty to federal charges of tax evasion, fraud and making false statements in a scandal that began after his wife burned down a $700,000 home that Lyons co-owned with his mistress.

After spending five years in prison, Lyons has asked his flock to forgive his past sins. But neither D.C. Superior Court Judge Jeanette Clark nor the current leaders of the National Baptist Convention have been willing to extend much grace to Lyons, who attempted unsuccessfully to halt the election on the grounds that he hasn't been treated fairly.

"The procedures that the convention put into place are not consistent with the constitution of the National Baptist Convention," said Lyons' lawyer Frederick Cooke. "We wanted the judge to either stop the election or make the election in accordance with the constitution."

Even though the National Baptist Convention, the largest of several African American Baptist bodies, is headquartered in Nashville, Cook said the proceeding was held in the District because this is where the organization was first incorporated.

Cooke was unable to convince Judge Clark to grant an injunction. A few hours after her decision, the Rev. William Shaw, the current president of the National Baptist Convention, announced during the organization's Memphis gathering that the voting would take place.

Shaw, a Philadelphia pastor, can't run for a third five-year term under the convention's rules. The Rev. R.B. Holmes, another popular Florida minister, was thought to be Shaw's likely successor. But after he didn't file his paper work in time, he threw his support behind Lyons, who since getting out of jail has become the pastor of a church in Tampa.

Lyons, who served as president of the National Baptist Convention from 1994 to 1999, is running against Rev. Julius Scruggs, a 67-year-old Huntsville, Ala. minister, who is the convention's current vice president. The 75,000 delegates attending the Memphis convention began voting at 7 a.m. today, and the polls will close at 7 p.m.

The Rev. Frank Jenkins, pastor of the Mount Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola and First Vice President of the Florida Baptist Convention, said he and many of his colleagues voted for Scruggs because it is time to move on.

Lyons "did his time in jail and he said he has repented, but when he ran for president of the General Baptist State Convention and didn't win, he pulled out and split the convention," Jenkins said. "My hope is whoever loses this election will rally behind the winner in a spirit of unity."

-- Hamil R. Harris

By Anne Bartlett  |  September 10, 2009; 3:26 PM ET
Categories:  Church and State , Hamil R. Harris  
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