Pastor Carlton Lee, who lived in Ferguson, Missouri, as a kid, is the Brown’s family pastor. His church, Flood Christian Church, was burned down during the riots following the decision of the Michael Brown court case. He was at Yale as the keynote speaker for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, Let Us Break Bread Together. In his interview with WKND, Pastor Lee showed photos of flaming buildings, lifted his jeans to reveal rubber bullet marks and recounted grim anecdotes that portrayed Ferguson realistically, yet with infectious hope for the future.
Q: Can you tell me a little about your background? Did you always want to be a pastor? What obstacles did you face in becoming a pastor?
A: I never wanted to be a pastor. I grew up in the church. I actually really wanted to go into theater. And then, all of a sudden, maybe when I got older, I was like, “Mmm, this is not for me.” I like doing plays here and there, but memorizing lines never worked well for me. But that’s what I wanted to do. My mom suggested, “You really need to be a lawyer.” And I’m like, “No, Mom, I really don’t like school like that.” But my background is education, believe it or not, go figure, the guy who does not like school. But you know, I don’t get involved in school in that I’m a teacher, but I do love being around kids. I love helping kids.
Q: So, you have four kids — how does Christianity influence the way you talk about race to your children? What do you want them to learn about it?
A: Well, number one, I never want them to get any type of hate in their heart. I tried to shelter my kids from seeing the news at home, because it showed so much, but it didn’t really work out that well because my oldest son is 12. Someone came up to him and said he saw his dad on the news. So, when he found out what happened, my 12-year-old son started to get real angry. And I told him, “Man, we don’t hate. We don’t hate them; we still love them. It’s my love of Christ. God gets up on the cross and says, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
Q: A lot of news sites have recorded you saying you believe it was white supremacists who caused the fire. Why do you believe that? Why do you think they did that?
A: Well, we received so many death threats, 70-plus. Three weeks prior we had someone show up to the church and say, “I will kill all of you niggers, throw you all in the church and set you on fire.” Also, three weeks before the church fire, my dog was poisoned. A six-month-old pit bull, fully trained. We had to put her to sleep because she bled out.
Q: Correct me if I’m wrong, but other news sites are reporting that Flood Christian Church [Lee’s church] was three miles outside the downtown city of Ferguson, where most of the violence was taking place.
A: That’s incorrect, it wasn’t three miles outside of Ferguson. Ferguson is only a stone’s throw away. It would be like the equivalent of right here [the Study Hotel] to [Battell Chapel], where I did the speech. The thing is, there was a police barricade blocking any way to get there. I was having problems getting to my church because of the streets [being] blocked off. So how the hell did someone get there? That was my question for the longest time: How did someone get there? And it just so happened that a police officer passed, saw some chairs in my church on fire, and was like, “Holy crap, they have set this dude’s church on fire.” And he called me and said, “Get your tail down here right now.” And I said, “No man, I’m out here trying to put out fires.” I was literally trying to run in and put out fires with my coat.
[Later] I was beating the hell out of the looters who came up to mom-and-pop stores. Listen, I can’t protect these big businesses. They’re fine — they have better insurance policies that will cover them, but these mom-and-pop stores that are struggling? Come on, guys, chill out with that. They broke in to a cleaners, and stole all of the clothes from the cleaners. They broke in to an auto-tire store and drove off with a car. It was that kind of stuff; it was just that crazy.
Q: What is your congregation doing to support a positive environment after the events that have happened?
A: We still continue to do our weekly outreach events. We go out and feed the hungry. We minister the people in the community. We’re still doing those things. People know our church is a safe place.
Q: For those in your congregation, you preach non-violence. Yet some people in Ferguson have been violent, and that’s what a lot of the media covers. In what ways do you encourage non-violence?
A: Number one, here’s the thing — it’s not as violent as the news is making it. They made it seem like there were just a million people out there [rallying]. No, there’s only a handful of people. On the night of the decision in Ferguson, there probably were about 15,000 to 20,000 people. Not even 10 percent, less than five percent of people that were [there were] causing violence. The majority of people were standing against it. What we teach at the church is, in order to keep acting in a non-violent way, don’t put your hands on anybody. My verbal approach has to be that of love. I can disagree with you all day long, but I can still do it in love.
Let me tell you, the movie “Selma” was like a fairytale compared to what we had to go through in Ferguson. The crap we went through in Ferguson, it was some serious, serious stuff. There was a police officer one time, she was so scared. She stood and she was shaking. I said “Ma’am, I can tell you’re very afraid, have them move you to the back of the line.” And she stood there with her riot stick: a wooden stick, with a metal piece inside of it. I said again, “Ma’am, you’re very afraid, and these guys over here can see that you’re afraid, move to the back.” She wouldn’t move to the back. So I called the captain over and I said, “Hey, do me a favor, and move her to the back.” He asked what was going on, and I said that she is very afraid and these guys are looking at her like savage dogs, and they want to get you guys, and they probably are going to go for her first. He moved her to the back.
Q: At a church service, Rev. Al Sharpton was quoted by the Washington Post saying, “What happened Monday was just a comma, not the end of a sentence.” What do you think we need to do to get to the end of the sentence, and what does the end of that sentence look like?
A: We have a list of several demands we have requested. The Michael Brown Law, which consists of all police officers in the state of Missouri having to wear body cameras — body cameras that they’re not able to turn off. They also have to spend some time out of their car. We’re not asking them to stand outside when it’s cold outside. What we are saying is to spend some time outside your car, in the schools and spending time in the community. We are asking for a civilian review board [with the power to subpoena officers]. In most police forces, the state has taken over. We’re saying that’s okay, but let us be a review board with some power to make suggestions that go into place. Also, we’re asking if there’s a shooting, a special prosecutor be brought in. The prosecutor has been there for 24 years, he’ll be there for another four years. The police and prosecuting attorney, they’re in bed together all the time. How does that make sense?
Q: A while ago, there was a protest in New Haven about the Michael Brown decision. There was woman in the street who got a loudspeaker and said something along the lines of, “I don’t care if you see me on the street and think I’m a slut, think I’m a whore, or judge me for my skin color. The problem is when you shoot me for it.” What I’m trying to get at is, do you think it is just about the way officers are trained, or is it a deeper social issue that needs to be addressed before we can see progress in this area? Is it just body cameras? Or is it the inequality underlying it all?
A: It really boils down to equality. Black kid, white kid, Asian kid, a life is a life. I am a pastor, these are my regular clothes, and I get pulled over and harassed by the police all the time. My wife asks all the time, “Why do they pull you over so much?” It’s not because I’m doing anything bad; we’re just not treated fairly. Treat us fair, that’s all we’re asking for. I got arrested, arrested for walking on the sidewalk. I told the police office, “You got to be the dumbest person ever. You’re really arresting me, for walking on the sidewalk?” My younger brother, who is 17, will pull out of my parents’ driveway and gets pulled over all the time. Everything on their car is legal, but he gets pulled over all the time.
Q: As a pastor, how do you get through to well-meaning sympathizers who can’t grasp what it’s like to be a minority facing discrimination?
A: You know what I tell them to do? Because I’ve done this several times in the last couple of weeks. I tell them, simply, to hang out with me for a day. Literally, hang out with me for a day, and you will see the life. It’s a different type of life we live almost. A white guy told me [about] white privilege, and I asked him to explain it to me. He said, “If I drive drunk, I get a ticket. If you drive drunk, you get your tail beat and go to jail.” Then he said, “If we were walking down the street together, holding the same things, wearing the same thing, both our hands in our pockets, you would fit the profile of a suspect or criminal. Me? I’m the guy that’s going to be the victim.” Then he told me, “How many times have you walked across the street and people start doing octopus-arms: grabbing and holding their things close to them. And locking their doors.” I told him I never paid attention to that, but it happens quite often.
Q: What do you want Michael Brown to be remembered by?
A: He was a martyr. He was a martyr for social justice.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.