FLORISSANT, Mo. — Clutching hands, about 30 members of the Lee family stood over the Thanksgiving spread. Before they could eat, family tradition dictates, they had to go around the room saying what they were thankful for.
First went the grandchildren and young cousins, who quickly declared that they were thankful for the food and for family, before passing the spotlight to the next one. (One did say thanks for his new girlfriend, prompting raised eyebrows and interested whispers from several nosy aunts.)
Then came the adults, who gave thanks for new jobs, children who are starting college and newly born grandchildren.
And then, once everyone else in the family had spoken, it was Pastor Carlton Lee’s turn. Just a few days earlier, the church that is his livelihood and his love had been destroyed by fire in the violence that engulfed Ferguson after residents learned that the white officer who shot and killed Michael Brown would not be charged by a state grand jury.
No one would blame Lee — who is the Brown family pastor — if it was a bit difficult to be thankful this year. With the whole family watching his crestfallen face, Lee took a deep breath, and began: “This last couple days had just been crazy. . . . Since August the ninth, it’s been real crazy.” Still, he said, “I’m thankful for life, and for my wife, my children, our parents. . . . If I lose everything that I have, but I still have my joy, I have enough to build it all over again.”
As chaos engulfed several Ferguson streets Monday, Lee tried unsuccessfully to chase away looters and put out fires along West Florissant Avenue. Then his phone rang.
The officer on the other end of the line told him that he needed to get to his church right away. By the time Lee arrived, the cinder-block structure had been gutted by flames.
“We all know the church got set on fire,” Lee said. “I put everything I had into the church. And to see the smoke shooting out and fire shooting out, it really did something to me.”
As they had Monday night, thick tears welled in his eyes.
Although other buildings were burned during the violence that consumed much of Ferguson on Monday, the flames at Flood Christian Church were different. The church building, purchased in March by the 31-year-old Lee, sits well outside the area where things were violent, far from the riots. The glass storefronts on each side remain unscathed.
An arson unit with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is investigating the fire, which Lee and other community members are convinced was a targeted attack.
Buying the church property — which once housed an auto repair shop — took everything Lee had. It cost all of his savings, and all of the money he had put away for his children, to front the $160,000.
In the year and a half since first finding the building, Lee has built his congregation to about 75 regular members, including Michael Brown Sr. and his wife, Cal, whom he married in July.
A week before the fire, Michael Brown Sr. had been dipped in the water of the baptismal pool.
The two had vowed to bring his son, who they said had just accepted Christ, but he was killed before his first Sunday service.
At first, Lee remained in the background as other preachers with national profiles descended on Ferguson and became spokesmen for the Brown family after the death. Lee held private counseling sessions each Tuesday with Michael Brown Sr.
In September, when it seemed less likely with each passing day that police Officer Darren Wilson would be charged, he broke his silence. He signed up to be a regional representative for Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. He declared publicly, for the first time, that he believed Wilson should be arrested.
That’s when hateful messages and death threats started — from Wilson supporters, from white supremacist groups and from Internet bigots.
“Seventy-one death threats. But I’ll never forget what one man said to me: ‘I’m going to come pick you up with all you other hateful n----- preachers and put you all in your church and burn you straight to hell.’ ”
All that is left of the church, Lee says, is the charred banner that had hung proudly at the front door.
As he ate his plate of turkey and fixings, he teased his young nieces and nephews. He doted over his mother. And he endured sharp ribbing from siblings.
“You want the real story on Little Carlton?” jests Roshion McKinley, who grew up with Lee and considers him a brother. “It was just last year that we taught him to stop peeing the bed.”
The whole family burst into laughter.
Even as Lee laughed with his family, the church occupied his mind. He describes it like the loss of a child. How he is going to rebuild is his singular focus.
While online donors have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to several of the businesses that were burned to the ground, a crowdfunding page for Lee’s congregation registered just $2,000 as of Thursday night.
But even without a building, Flood Christian Church will meet on Sunday. The congregation plans to set up chairs in the parking lot, and a few of Lee’s uncles pledged to work security.
“No matter what we all have been through, we are still here,” Lee said. This has been a very trying couple of days, but we’re going to make it. We’re not running. We’re not backing down.”