Baptists Show Support for South L.A. Minister


It was solidarity night at the midwinter board meeting of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., which says it is the nation’s largest black religious group.

Several thousand of the faithful from across the nation, decked out in feathered hats and freshly pressed suits, had gathered at the Regal Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

Seeking shelter from a storm that has raged for months around the venerable organization and its embattled president, the Rev. Henry Lyons, they came to show unity.


They came, from Compton and Alabama and Indiana and beyond, to shore up Lyons and support the host of the evening, the Rev. E.V. Hill, who many say is largely responsible for helping Lyons keep his job despite a raft of misconduct allegations.

California, speaker after speaker declared, is Henry Lyons country. And although that may be true, it was also clear throughout the recently concluded four-day meeting that California is Hill’s turf.

Hill, 64, a longtime pastor of the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in South Los Angeles, is one of the most powerful men in the 117-year-old convention.

“He’s a very influential preacher, who has strong mass appeal and is a strong fighter for what he commits himself to,” said the Rev. Albert Campbell, a board member from Philadelphia who considers himself Hill’s friend but who supports the ouster of Lyons.

Although he has not been officially charged, Lyons is facing allegations of misusing church funds, conducting extramarital affairs and having an improper relationship with a foreign government.

Even the size of the denomination is in question. Convention materials proclaim a membership of 8 million, but Lyons has acknowledged that the true membership is far less.


Hill is fighting to help keep Lyons in office. Last fall, he headed a truncated church probe into the allegations against Lyons. Elected in 1994 to a five-year term, Lyons last week announced that he will seek reelection.

This year, Hill has continued to send missives to convention members laying out the facts of the case in a light most favorable to Lyons.

The declaration by Hill’s investigative committee that no convention funds were missing was instrumental in helping keep Lyons in place, said convention members on both sides of the debate.

As the case continues to unfold, two views have emerged of the enigmatic Edward Victor Hill.

In the eyes of a vocal group still trying to oust Lyons, Hill’s continued attempts to buoy the beleaguered president are hurting the organization. Hill’s critics cite a rash of church defections in recent months.

But to most of those assembled at the midwinter caucus, Hill is a tireless worker who has refused to jump ship even as the tempest rages.


“As far as I know, there is not a better man on this Earth than Ed Hill,” said the Rev. F. Brannan Jackson, president of the Indiana Baptist convention. “For me, I don’t know a finer man.”

The controversy began in July when Lyons’ wife of 26 years set fire to a $700,000 Florida home her husband bought with another woman--a former Baptist convention employee who had been convicted of embezzlement in Milwaukee.

A tearful Deborah Lyons initially told authorities that her husband was having an affair with the woman, known by several names, including Bernice Edwards. Deborah Lyons later pleaded guilty to arson and was placed on five years probation.

The house, Henry Lyons conceded, was purchased in part with funds kept in a bank account in St. Petersburg, Fla. The account was opened by Lyons on behalf of the convention but was unknown to the church board of directors until the scandal broke.

While the Florida home and Deborah Lyons were smoldering, Henry Lyons and Edwards were in Nigeria. One of Lyons’ attorneys, Grady Irvin, met recently with Justice Department officials who are questioning Lyons’ relationship with Nigerian officials after allegations that he received money from the country’s government.

Henry Lyons has urged lawmakers to soften the U.S. government’s Nigerian policy.

All in all there have been enough questions swirling around Henry Lyons and his associates to keep state and federal investigators busy for months. And the investigations continue.


Hill, as head of the convention’s internal review board, did not have the luxury of time. His committee was selected Aug. 2, 1997, just four weeks before the group’s annual convention was to meet in Denver.

Some charge that Hill never intended to dig deeply into the Lyons matter.

“It was very clear from the get-go that he was in there to save Lyons,” said one dissident convention member who asked not to be identified. That minister charged that Hill and other members of the ethics panel “were determined to forgive [Lyons] before they heard even one piece of evidence.”

Hill disagrees, calling his leadership of the short-lived group impartial and his preparation thorough. He said he drafted a list of 101 questions that he called on Lyons to answer.

After talking with Lyons and reviewing internal convention reports, the ethics commission concluded that no funds donated directly to the National Baptist Convention were missing.

Hill concedes that the commission’s investigation was hardly exhaustive: The entire group never met, there was no examination of canceled checks or other bank documents and the inquiry took just a few weeks.

He said he wanted to continue the probe, but the convention thought it was time to move on.


And the convention, he said, is moving on.

Citing mission work abroad and social outreach and Christian education at home, Hill added: “The work of the convention is continuing . . . no matter what’s swirling around the president.”

But to some the swirl feels more like a windstorm. Scores of ministers have asked Lyons to resign.

The convention has lost member churches before, particularly in the 1960s, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and hundreds of other ministers pulled out of the convention to form the Progressive National Baptist Convention.

“If it’s 60, 70 or even 100” churches leaving now “that’s not a problem compared to what we’ve been through,” Hill said.

Hill sees himself as neither the savior of Lyons nor as one who has tried to obstruct justice.

“I didn’t keep Lyons in office,” said Hill. “That was the will of the people.”

This is not the first time Hill has taken a position that some might consider unusual.

A conservative Republican who tends to his flock in a Democratic stronghold, Hill is one of the few public figures to still refer to African Americans as Negroes.


In the Lyons matter, Hill has saved his most stinging criticism for the white news media, and has made race even more of an issue than Lyons has, speaking of what he sees as a conspiracy to bring down black leaders.

Yet he is a darling of the white Evangelical community, serving on the board of the Rev. Billy Graham’s organization and even urging forgiveness for Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart during their sex scandals.

“People call me an Uncle Tom because I have such fellowship with the white Christian community,” said Hill, whose evangelism has taken him around the world. “They call me an Uncle Tom, but really I’m a militant.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who attended last week’s meeting, said he and Hill are “usually on the opposite ends politically, but we’re still friends.”

“He’s extreme right wing, and I’m always trying to emancipate him, with varying degrees of success,” joked Jackson, who has known Hill for more than 30 years.

Other longtime associates of Hill have expressed surprise, and even disappointment, about his continuing support of Lyons.


“I don’t know,” said the Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, the former church of Adam Clayton Powell. “I want to believe that Rev. Hill had more integrity than to support this kind of behavior. Many of us believe that Rev. Hill has his eyes on the presidency.”

Hill’s initial response was: “I’d have to be drafted and drugged” to run. He amended that, saying he would leave it in the Lord’s hands, but added “as of now, that’s not high on my totem pole.”