Arson and hate crime investigations are underway after three crosses belonging to Sylmar Christian Fellowship Church in Sylmar were set ablaze early Thursday.
The fire was reported in front of the church around 4:40 a.m., the Los Angeles Fire Department said.
The flames were already extinguished when crews arrived at the scene. Officials say a neighbor saw the fire and used the church’s garden hose to douse the flames.
“Probably an accelerant was used, but we’re not sure at this time,” an LAFD captain told KTLA.
The Los Angeles Police Department, LAFD, FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are working to determine if the incident was a hate crime, as the church’s membership is predominantly Black and Latino.
There are new clues that the arsonist who damaged the crosses may have vandalized the church even earlier than Thursday.
“I passed by there yesterday and someone had thrown the crosses into the street,” said a witness named Veronica.
The church’s pastor, Pierre Howard, said the middle cross had fallen over prior to the arson.
Howard believes the arsonist targeted the crosses and not his mostly Black and Latino congregation.
“I think it’s an individual attack on God and Christianity,” Howard said. “There’s nothing that signifies that it was more than a crime of opportunity of a person who was not happy with God.”
The crosses have stood outside Sylmar Christian for eight years. Neighbors said they often see people kneeling in front of them.
“It looks like when people have troubles, they come and sit and they pray at the crosses,” said neighbor Karen Camacho. “For someone to come and burn them, that’s just a disgrace.”
The area has not seen any similar fires at local churches in the past, an LAFD spokesperson said.
In the meantime, Pastor Howard said the church will stay strong and continue moving forward.
“The crosses will stay up,” Howard said. “The crosses will be fine. It’s a shame that people still want to do things like this, in this day and age. We’re going to put those three crosses back up. We’re moving forward. Nothing stops us.”
Local and federal investigators are working with very few clues so far and whether any security footage captured the arson is unknown.