MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The newly elected president of one of the country's largest Baptist denominations says he's seeking unification following an election in which his opponent went to court to challenge the group's voting process.
The Rev. Julius R. Scruggs spoke to reporters Friday, a day after delegates at the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention USA overwhelmingly chose him over the Rev. Henry Lyons. Scruggs received 4,108 votes to Lyons' 924.
A District of Columbia court Wednesday rejected a petition from Lyons, currently pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa, Fla., to stop the election. He contended that a new voting process was unfair.
Lyons has not said whether he plans to end his legal fight.
"I'll look at all the options and weigh them," he said Thursday.
The Nashville-based National Baptist Convention USA is the nation's largest and oldest predominantly black denomination with roughly 7.5 million worshippers.
Lyons was forced out as the group's president in 1999 after an investigation revealed he abused his power and stole about $4 million from the denomination. He used the money to buy luxury homes and jewelry and support his mistresses. He served almost five years in prison.
Lyons has previously acknowledged damaging the convention's reputation but said he's a changed man who deserves a second chance as president.
However, some National Baptists said his re-emergence reflected badly on the convention and could even cause a rift in the group, which has a history of splintering.
But Scruggs said his overwhelming victory shows that most members of the National Baptist Convention USA support his leadership and he's not concerned about the group dividing over his defeat of Lyons.
The vote "says a lot about where the convention stands in terms of its positive thrust for our future," said Scruggs, pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala., and a former vice president-at-large for the denomination. "We don't want to get into divisive relationships within the convention. We want to move forward in unity and strength."
Scruggs said he plans to grow convention membership and to increase revenue to support church mission work.
He said he also plans to form a public policy committee that will address health care issues - such as the current national debate on health care reform - and other socio-economic and political matters.