Church says set­backs a mes­sage from above

Mem­bers try­ing to re­group af­ter ar­son, killing, in­fight­ing

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO &STATE - By Sarah Port­lock

HOUS­TON — The sanc­tu­ary at First New Mount Cal­vary Bap­tist Church is in shambles from an ar­son fire. The pas­tor is charged with murder. The church is em­broiled in a nasty law­suit.

Mem­bers of the Bap­tist con­gre­ga­tion be­lieve it’s all a mes­sage from God: Stop bick­er­ing, and re­build the church to­gether.

“We got to have faith — if we got noth­ing else, we got to have faith,” in­terim pas­tor Earl Jack­son tells his con­gre­gants as they swel­ter un­der a white tent in a park­ing lot just west of down­town.

Be­fore them are the charred re­mains of their beloved church. The odor of a raw sewage pipe wafts past. Jack­son’s ser­mon gets in­ter­rupted by the sound of freight trains roar­ing by about 100 yards away. The fu­ture will be bright, he preaches. “We can do it,” he tells them as they cool them­selves with paper fans and sip from bot­tles of ice-cold wa­ter. “You can do it. We’ll be vi­able again, more so than ever.”

The three dozen or so wor­ship­pers — who live in a work­ing-class black com­mu­nity, many of them in their 50s and 60s — cheer. They need a rea­son to.

Early on May 12, flames tore through the church cafe­te­ria and licked at the pews and or­gan. The build­ing’s bricks still stand but are ringed with thick ash. Hous­ton fire in­ves­ti­ga­tors ruled it ar­son and are in­ves­ti­gat­ing leads and sus­pects, depart­ment spokes­woman Ali­cia

White­head said, de­clin­ing to be more spe­cific.

Six days af­ter the fire, po­lice got a call that the pas­tor’s wife, 56-year-old Pauletta Burleson, had been shot in the head while sit­ting in her drive­way in a small sub­di­vi­sion 14 miles away near Lake Hous­ton.

Burleson’s hus­band, Tracy, and step­son, Wil­liam Fuller, were ar­rested June 8 and charged with murder. Fuller told de­tec­tives his fa­ther paid him an un­known amount of money to kill Pauletta Burleson.

Even be­fore the fire and killing, bick­er­ing be­tween fac­tions at Cal­vary had spilled into the courts in a 37-page com­plaint filed in March 2009 that aimed to get Burleson re­moved as pas­tor of the 93-year-old church.

Al­le­ga­tions in­cluded fi­nan­cial mis­man­age­ment, an ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fair be­tween Tracy Burleson and a choir mem­ber, and church lead­er­ship dis­re­gard­ing church by­laws. Mem­ber­ship plunged by twothirds in two years, long­time church­go­ers said.

A month be­fore the killing, po­lice re­sponded to a call at The First New Mount Cal­vary Bap­tist Church in Hous­ton was heav­ily dam­aged by an ar­son­ist in May. The church is em­broiled in a law­suit, and the pas­tor has been ar­rested on charges that he killed his wife, but the con­gre­ga­tion be­lieves it’s all a mes­sage to stop bick­er­ing. The fire ‘was God get­ting our at­ten­tion,’ dea­con board chair­man Sam Mangum said. the Burlesons’ home that “a known sus­pect” had tried to as­sault Pauletta Burleson with a base­ball bat.

“All the cases are be­ing in- ves­ti­gated to see if there’s any link be­tween them,” Deputy Har­ris County Sher­iff Thomas Gilliland said.

The news has shocked those ac­quainted with the fam­ily.

“It hurt me, up­set me very bad,” said Sam Mangum, Cal­vary’s dea­con board chair­man and Tracy Burleson’s stepfa- ther. “I didn’t raise him like that.”

Ron Carter, who lives two doors down from the Burlesons, heard Paulette, as she was known, and Tracy ar­gu­ing the night she was killed. Carter re­turned home from work about 8:30 p.m. and saw his neigh­bors sit­ting on the trunk of their blue sedan.

“I heard him say, ‘I’m tired of you go­ing through my (ex­ple­tive) phone and my Face­book,’” he said. Carter did not hear her re­sponse but said he “used to hear them ar­gu­ing ev­ery day, just about crazy stuff.”

Two hours later, Ta­nia McGib­boney said, she was in her drive­way around the corner when she heard a sin­gle shot.

“I’m think­ing, this isn’t the Fourth of July,” she said. “Thirty min­utes later, we got a call she was dead.”

McGib­boney’s son and Fuller were friends, and Fuller called her Mama. The news has rocked her en­tire fam­ily.

“Never in a mil­lion years I’d think it would be him,” she said.

A third per­son, Ty­onne Palmer-Pol­lard, was ar­rested, ac­cused of help­ing get rid of the gun. The 31-year-old lives two streets away from the Burlesons and is free on $50,000 bail. She de­clined to talk about the case.

She, Burleson and Fuller face ar­raign­ment Tues­day.

Pros­e­cu­tors be­lieve Burleson and Fuller both were see­ing Palmer-Pol­lard. Burleson was also caught this spring hav­ing sex in a church of­fice with a choir mem­ber, ac­cord­ing to the law­suit filed by church mem­bers.

The cou­ple had a crim­i­nal his­tory of child abuse charges. Court records show Paulette Burleson pleaded guilty to a charge of in­jury to a child in 1997. In 2005, she and Tracy Burleson were ar­rested but not in­dicted for the same charge, and the cou­ple was ar­rested again a year later. Tracy Burleson’s case was dis­missed, and Paulette Burleson re­ceived three years of pro­ba­tion.

Mangum said he never asked about their mar­riage or fam­ily, but prays for Tracy Burleson and for the fu­ture of his di­vided church.

“All that fire, it didn’t burn those bricks,” he said. “It was God get­ting our at­ten­tion be­cause that could have busted to the ground.”

Sarah Port­lock

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