Church says setbacks a message from above
Members trying to regroup after arson, killing, infighting
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.”