EL MONTE, Calif. (CNS) — The investigation is continuing Sunday into the vandalism and explosion that damaged a controversial church in El Monte, and a group planning a protest Sunday against the church's views has cancelled the demonstration and issued a statement denouncing the attack.
Firefighters and paramedics were dispatched at 1:13 a.m. Saturday to the church at First Works Baptist Church, 2600 Tyler Ave. in response to reports of smoke coming from the building, according to a Los Angeles County Fire Department dispatcher.
What You Need To Know
- Authorities are investigating vandalism and an explosion that occurred Saturday at a church in El Monte
- Officers from the El Monte Police Department heard the explosion and were the first authorities to respond
- The church has been the focus of community protests in recent weeks due to what are perceived to be teachings against the LGBTQ community
- Anyone with information regarding the incident was urged to contact the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office at 310-477-6565 or fbi.tips.gov
Firefighters cleared the scene at 4:23 a.m. Saturday, he said.
"The FBI responded overnight with the El Monte Police Department to an IED attack at the First Works Baptist Church," FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said Saturday. "FBI bomb technicians and an evidence response team are processing the scene, which sustained damage."
No injuries were reported, Eimiller said, adding, "A joint investigation is underway for the person or group responsible for the attack."
At 2:53 p.m. Saturday, Eimiller reported the FBI had finished processing the scene and turned it back over to the El Monte police. "We are continuing to investigate and seek information from the public."
The group Keep El Monte Friendly, which demonstrated outside the church last Sunday, Jan. 17, and was planning to so again this Sunday to protest what they consider teachings against the LGBTQ community and other groups, cancelled those plans and issued a statement instead.
"We are in profound shock and hope that no one was hurt during this tragedy," the group posted on Instagram. "Our movement was intended to bring light and awareness to the hateful rhetoric taught by this group. We understand that what they preach can make people upset. However, we would never promote, encourage or condone any violence or acts of harm."
The Sunday protest was cancelled "for everyone's safety." The statement added: "We would like to advise everyone to stay away from the church and allow the city and its officials to continue their active investigation."
Officers from the El Monte Police Department heard the explosion and were the first authorities to respond. They called the county fire department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which in turn contacted the FBI since the target was a church.
"When our units arrived at the scene they found that (the church) ... was having some smoke come out of the windows," Lt. Christopher Cano told reporters. "It appeared that the walls to the church had been vandalized as well as all the windows. (The windows) appeared at first to be smashed, then we realized that the windows were not smashed, that they had actually blown out from some type of explosion."
The church, headed by Pastor Bruce Mejia, has been the focus of community protests in recent weeks due to what are perceived to be teachings against the LGBTQ community. A Change.org petition seeking to get the church out of El Monte had collected more than 15,000 signatures as of Sunday.
Mejia has said his doctrine since the church was launched three years ago includes condemnation of same-sex relationships.
On Saturday, he told reporters the attack on his church would not stop him or his congregation.
"It's not going to really deter us from doing what we always do," Mejia said. "We're not afraid of this. It's just a little bump in the road, and we're still planning to have church tomorrow, obviously not at this current location, but we're still planning to have church and once this is all said and done, we're going to go back."
The church is part of the New Independent Fundamental Baptist Movement, a network of 22 American and eight international churches known for rhetoric some consider hateful.
This includes calling for the government to round up and execute gay people, denouncing Black Lives Matter for its "wicked agenda," calling women "inherently weak" and preaching against Jewish people and their "filthy lucre."
In 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that analyzes hate and extremism, listed First Works Baptist Church as a hate group.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who represents the El Monte area, said she was aware of community concerns about the church.
"Violence is never the answer, even in response to hate speech," Solis tweeted Saturday.
"Although we do not yet know the motive, I am aware of the anti- LGBTQ+ and misogynist sermons given by the pastor of First Works Baptist Church; and my office has referred concerning matters pertaining to the pastor to the County's Human Rights Commission who has been working in collaboration with the City of El Monte to de-escalate the situation," Solis continued.
"I value inclusivity, diversity and equality. I also support the right to peacefully protest; however this attack is wrong and dangerous. I urge city leaders, church leaders, and civic leaders to come together and work together to address the hate issues in our community."
El Monte Mayor Jessica Ancona echoed Solis' calls for calm.
"We are a city that cares and protects all its residents and visitors," Ancona tweeted. "We respect and uphold the laws that protect each one of us, regardless of who we are."
Anyone with information regarding the incident was urged to contact the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office at 310-477-6565 or fbi.tips.gov.