The Rev. Stephen C. Lee is one of the lesser-known figures indicted alongside former President Donald J. Trump in Fulton County, Georgia, on charges of unlawful conspiracy to keep Mr. Trump in power after the 2020 election.
But on Thursday evening, dozens of people at an evangelical church near Chicago held their arms up and prayed for Pastor Lee at a fundraiser that portrayed him as an American hero — and a victim of religious persecution.
“We’re going to talk about the government’s weaponization of religion,” said Gary S. Franchi Jr., anchor of a conservative online news channel, from the pulpit at Families of Faith Ministries in Channahon, Illinois, at the start of the event. “We will be here tonight supporting ‘America’s Chaplain’ and religious freedom.”
Pastor Lee, 71, is a former police officer turned Lutheran minister who currently leads a small church in Orland Park, Illinois. He says he has offered spiritual support to police officers and victims after some of the worst American tragedies in the last quarter century, including the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado and the September 11 attack in New York.
His attorney, David Shestokas, has argued that Pastor Lee did something similar — engaging in “pastoral activities” — when he showed up in Georgia after the 2020 election.
There he tried to meet with Ruby Freeman, a Fulton County poll worker who Mr. Trump and his allies had falsely accused of voter fraud, a conspiracy theory that was surging online. At the time, Ms Freeman was bombarded with threats and harassment.
The indictment of Mr. Trump and 18 others on August 14, as well as Ms. Freeman’s statements, tell a different story. They place Pastor Lee at the center of efforts to pressure Ms. Freeman into falsely admitting voter fraud and raise questions about why a Midwestern clergyman was so determined to contact an Atlanta poll worker.
Pastor Lee was charged with five felonies, including violations of Georgia’s crime code, and pleaded not guilty. In his presentation on Thursday evening, he pointed out that he could face a prison sentence of up to 20 years on the charge of extortion alone.
“This is a death sentence,” he said.
Four defendants in the case have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors; The rest, including Mr. Trump, are still on trial, perhaps sometime next year.
In recent weeks, Pastor Lee’s version of what he did in Georgia after the election has gained traction in the Illinois evangelical community, as he and Mr. Shestokas have conducted numerous interviews with right-wing media outlets. Thursday’s event attracted around 200 people.
Mr. Franchi, the MC, falsely said that the 2020 election was “stolen outright from every single American.”
The gap between the two narratives about Pastor Lee’s time in Georgia says much about a country divided along political and cultural battle lines as Mr. Trump, the most prominent of Georgia’s offenders, intensifies his campaign for a second term and continues to push creates the false narrative that the previous election was rigged.
Pastor Lee said in a 2021 speech endorsing a pro-Trump candidate for Congress named Jim Marder that he had largely refrained from becoming involved in politics for much of his career. But more recently, he said at the time, something had changed: “We are facing the extinction of America.”
Neither he nor his lawyer have spoken in detail about why he decided to travel to Georgia in December 2020. In an interview earlier this year, Mr. Shestokas said that his client did this “on his own initiative” and that he did not coordinate with other prominent co-defendants such as Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff, or Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former Trump lawyer who amplified false claims about Ms. Freeman.
“His presence in Georgia has to do with the fact that he’s a guy because of his history and he’s trying to get involved in situations where America is in crisis and he thinks he can help,” Mr. Shestokas said of his client in the interview .
Ms. Freeman and her daughter Wandrea Moss were part of a team that processed votes for the Fulton County Department of Registration and Elections on election night. Soon after, video footage of the couple voting was posted online and widely shared among Trump supporters, who falsely claimed that it showed the two women recording fraudulent ballots to skew the election in President Biden’s favor.
In defamation lawsuits against some of their accusers, the black women said they were subjected to “an onslaught of violent, racist threats and harassment of all kinds.” Ms Freeman was forced to leave her home for weeks.
On December 15, 2020, a police officer with a body camera recorded video of Pastor Lee wearing his priest collar while sitting in a car parked near Ms. Freeman’s suburban home. The video shows that the officer was on scene because Ms. Freeman called the police after Pastor Lee knocked on her door and then stood nearby.
In the video, Pastor Lee has a friendly conversation with the officer.
“I’m a pastor, and I’m also with some people trying to help Ruby, okay?” he said. “And also find out what really happens.”
According to the prosecution, Pastor Lee decided that Ms. Freeman was afraid to talk to him because he was a white man. So he sought out Harrison Floyd, who led a group called Black Voices for Trump.
Mr Floyd, who was also charged in the Georgia case, later told Reuters that “a clergyman with ties to federal law enforcement” had asked him to arrange a meeting with Ms Freeman to discuss the prospect of an “immunity deal”.
Ms. Freeman told Reuters that Mr. Floyd and Trevian Kutti, a Chicago publicist who met with Ms. Freeman in early January and was also charged in the case, tried to pressure her into saying she believed there was election fraud committed. Ms. Kutti warned her that she would go to prison if she didn’t “tell everything,” Ms. Freeman said.
At the Families of Faith Church on Thursday, Mr. Shestokas said that if he decided to fight the charges in court, it would cost Pastor Lee $150,000 in hotel stays and round-trip flights between Chicago and Atlanta . Mr. Shestokas’ wife walked through the sanctuary accepting cash from people offering financial support. Other defendants in the Georgia case have also requested input on their bills.
Larry Smith, 77, chairman of the Republican Party in LaSalle County, Illinois, said he believes Pastor Lee’s version of events. “I think he’s an honorable man and a typical man in the industry – he wouldn’t make this up,” Mr Smith said.
Pastor Lee, he said, “was part of this criminalization of Trump supporters. I mean, look what they’re doing with Trump.”
After parishioners blessed Mr. Lee, a reporter asked him why — if he was in Georgia to offer spiritual support — he was on the phone with the leader of Black Voices for Trump and a Chicago publicist.
He referred the question to Mr. Shestokas, who said: “What you’re asking is something for the state to prove. That’s their job, okay?”