There’s a certain feeling that firefighter Bernard Brown Jr. gets when he pulls his engine up to a house fire and sees kids in the front yard watching their home burn.
It’s a feeling of familiarity, of being that 5-year-old boy again in nothing but a T-shirt and his underpants out in the dark night’s chill, still groggy from his father’s sudden rousing, smoke still stuck in his nose.
His family lost everything that night.
Yet, for years Brown never considered becoming a firefighter himself. For a time, he wasn’t concerned with setting many goals at all. He misbehaved and failed fifth grade, setting a course early down a path to failure.
But his grandfather was a pastor, and so was his dad, serving at North Charleston churches within walking distance of each other, even within walking distance of his home and school in the Chicora area. His mother was a musician active in their church, and her father was a pastor, too.
So Brown’s world beyond school became the church, where he loved to sing and play drums. At Jerusalem Baptist, he found Jesus and a safety zone where music and worship steered him beyond the limits his childhood self set for the future.
That new course led him down a straighter path toward fatherhood, marriage and giving back to the community that nurtured him.
“The church has been my lifeline since I was born,” he says.
The man most people know as B.J. Brown grew up off Spruill Avenue, not rich with stuff but rich with faith, family and friends.
At first, he didn’t take advantage of it.
At Chicora Elementary, he found a knack for disrupting class, talking too much, playing too often and getting into a few fights. He met the principals’ paddle more than once. When he went home, he met his father’s too, “for good measure,” he recalls.
Ultimately, he failed fifth grade.
But his grandma worked in the school kitchen and kept an eye on him. And as he headed to middle school, he discovered music in the church. He joined the choir at his dad’s church, Jerusalem Baptist, which the Rev. Bernard Brown Sr. founded off upper Meeting Street in 1990 when he wasn’t on the road for his truck driving job, which helped pay the family bills.
At 13, Brown also started to play drums and loved it so much he didn’t want to risk losing the privilege by acting up in class. At Brentwood Middle School, he also had teachers who reached out to mentor him at a critical time in a young person’s life.
“You’re trying to find yourself, trying to get good grades, figure out your purpose,” Brown says.
Then at Stall High, he fell in love with his high school sweetheart, a fellow student named Shenequa who had a 2-year-old son. That their relationship came with a toddler didn’t phase him.
“I didn’t care. I knew what came along with her,” he recalls. He mostly just wanted to be with her.
Then, a few months after Brown graduated in 1999, now-retired North Charleston Fire Chief Leonard Judge approached him at church.
“Hey, man, we’re hiring,” Brown recalls the chief saying.
At first, Brown didn’t think about watching his old house burn, about maybe saving other people’s homes as a way to earn a living. He was a fresh high school graduate. Mostly he just thought about how much he hated his current job. So he applied.
So when he joined the North Charleston Fire Department, he concedes he treated it more like a job than a calling. Around his eighth or ninth year on the force, that changed.
“It became a passion,” he recalls. “I was a fireman.”
Now 34, as an engineer at a station off Otranto Road, his big boyish smile spreads describing the adrenaline rush of driving the hulking red machine through traffic blaring the siren. Usually, his truck is the first one on a scene.
From there, he turns somber.
“I know what it’s like to lose everything,” Brown says.
His childhood house burned down partly because when firefighters arrived, no water came out of the nearest fire hydrant. The fire likely began with a short in a space heater his father had turned on when their heat system broke.
After the fire, they moved in with their grandparents next door for several years and rebuilt.
“I know what it’s like when I see those kids in the yard watching their house burn,” he says. “That’s why now I focus on prevention.”
He especially loves getting out into the community to teach people about prevention and, corny as it sounds, giving back to the community.
“I’m Firefighter Brown!” he says, laughing again.
All these years, marriage and three children later, he and Shenequa live in Moncks Corner. That toddler Brown met in high school is a sophomore at Berkeley High. Aerimon Gipson, now 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, is a sports standout in football and basketball.
Although Aerimon has mentioned maybe becoming a firefighter, too, Brown is determined the young man will do what he never did: go to college.
“He can be a fireman one day,” Brown says. “He just has to go to college first.”
The couple also have two daughters, Morgan who’s 13 and Mia who’s 11. Then two years ago, Shenequa had another little surprise. And so came their youngest, Makenzie, who’s almost 2.
It was a shock to go back to parenting a baby, “but she’s the joy of the house,” Brown says.
Which means juggling. Shenequa works in global payroll at the State Department, and Brown also runs two side businesses. Southern Wave Media focuses on graphic design, while Southern Lighting & Sound focuses on audio and lighting for stage productions, often for churches and schools.
He’s found his adult church home at Life Center Cathedral in North Charleston, where his brother, Michael Brown, is a minister and musician.
And that’s where he got involved with his own childhood school, now called Chicora School of Communications.
Chicora Principal Shavonna Coakley and Brown have a few things in common. A few really big things.
Like Brown, she attended Chicora herself. She, too, is raising teenagers and now is helping to guide students at her old school. She and Brown even go to the same church today.
“Small, small world,” Coakley said. “Nothing planned, just ordained, I feel.”
Now, the school is gearing up for a big fundraiser on March 7. Coakley hopes to raise money for a range of needs, including enrichment programs, STEM summer camps and accelerated learning options for advanced students.
A fellow Life Center Cathedral member, Donna Lee Williams, caught wind of the event. She happens to run Remnant Productions, which creates original musical theater shows.
So Williams offered up a performance of “The Reunion: A Lil Mo’ Motown,” which she wrote. Then she mentioned it to Brown. “He doesn’t say a lot but is always willing to lend a hand,” Williams said.
Which he did. He volunteered his Southern Lighting & Sound’s services.
“With his help, and the help of a few others, we are hoping to raise at least $10,000 in fundraising for our scholars,” Coakley said.
Now, he’s also helping to create a mentoring project between North Charleston firefighters and Chicora students.
“These kids need some help,” Brown said. “They visually need to see men who are strong role models who take care of their families and are holding good jobs, especially black men.”
Which is to say, they need to see men like B.J. Brown.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.