Florida Today

Time was when we could make fun of greed, wretched excess and the temptations of the flesh, especially when the transgressor was one who was steeped in rectitude and sanctimony. We still can, but at considerable peril.

For years, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and their PTL scam were untouchable. Then Jessica Hahn rang the bell on Jim. Tammy Faye began blubbering on national television, touching off major mascara slides, and the walls of Heritage U.S.A. came a tumblin' down.

Bakker was not the only moral preceptor to fall from grace. It wasn't long before we learned that when Jimmy Swaggart, another sub-Potomac pillar of integrity, wasn't brandishing his rubber Bible and foaming at the mouth, he was busy among the hookers in southern Louisiana.

The list of profiteering prophets is long: Oral Roberts and his visitations from a 7-story-tall Jesus; Jerry Falwell, peddling his trashy videotapes that chronicle the alleged misdeeds of W. Clinton, Jack Van Impe and his sidekick Rexella, whose Sunday morning sitcom is the funniest thing on weekend television, and the capo di tutti capi of corporate Christianity, Pat Robertson.

The one thing these charlatans have in common, besides greed, is that they are all caucasian. But whites are hardly alone in exploiting the God business. Blacks have been mining that vein for years. Father Divine comes to mind, as do the Reverend Ike, Sweet Daddy Grace, Elijah Muhammed, Louis Farrakhan and Adam Clayton Powell.

They, too, made for great copy, but that was before the dawning of the Age of Sensitivity. Now, anyone who dares so much as snicker at the predicament of a Henry J. Lyons leaves himself open to charges of racism. Well, let's risk it.

Lyons is pastor of the Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. He is also president of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., the country's largest black church denomination.

Recently, while Lyons and Bernice Edwards, the NBC's public relations director, were traveling in Africa "on church business," Deborah Lyons, the cleric's wife, dropped by the $700,000 manse that her husband maintains ostensibly as a "corporate guesthouse."

Deborah Lyons discovered some of her husband's clothing. She was further taken aback to find that her husband and Edwards were co-owners of the place, as well as a 1987 Rolls Royce, while she is forced to make do with a mere Mercedes-Benz. As if that were not humiliating enough, she learned that on the house's deed her husband listed himself as unmarried.

Whereupon, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Department, Deborah torched the place, which sustained an estimated $30,000 in damages. Subsequently, following a few hurried overseas phone calls from hubby, Deborah recanted.

Neither Lyons nor Edwards, it turns out, is exactly pristine. Six years ago, Lyons was investigated for bank fraud but escaped indictment by agreeing to repay $85,000 in restitution to a bank. He was also placed on probation for a year.

For her part, Edwards was convicted in 1994 of conspiring to embezzle approximately $60,000 from an alternative school in Milwaukee. She, too, did probation time and made restitution.

And how does Lyons explain all this? It's a racist plot. "What are you trying to imply," he asked rhetorically at a news conference, "that blacks in this country cannot be successful?"

That isn't funny, it's preposterous. Since when has God's work been measured in rolling stock and real estate? Martin Luther King Jr. and his father before him captured the conscience of a nation without living like potentates. And it is a gross insult to the pastors of small black churches that are often bastions of stability in their communities.

These are men who measure success in terms of a homeless family sheltered, hungry mouths fed and dampened spirits lifted. At the risk of being presumptuous, the guess here is that Jesus would be a sight more comfortable with them than he would be with Henry Lyons.


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