Authorities are investigating an early Saturday explosion at an El Monte church whose stance against same-sex relationships has raised tensions in the community in recent weeks.
The FBI, which is probing the incident at First Works Baptist Church along with local law enforcement, called it a bomb “attack” and asked the public’s help for tips that could lead to those responsible. A bomb had been thrown at the building, the agency told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.
“An improvised explosive device was apparently detonated here at the church, causing some damage,” El Monte police chief David Reynoso said.
Bureau spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said it’s too early to call it a hate crime, but “that’s always going to be considered as a theory when a house of worship is attacked,” according to the Associated Press.
While the motive remains under investigation, L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis said she was aware of “anti-LGBTQ+ and misogynistic sermons” given by the church’s pastor.
She said that her office has referred the case to the county’s human rights commission, but stressed that “violence is never the answer.”
Officials responded to the church at 2600 Tyler Ave. along with the L.A. County Fire Department at around 1:15 a.m., El Monte police Lt. Christopher Cano said.
Patrol officers who heard an explosion in the area initially thought it was a transformer, Cano said. The department received multiple calls about the noise, and officers later found the source to be a church with broken windows from which smoke was coming out, according to the lieutenant.
The windows had “blown out from some type of explosion,” Cano said. The walls outside had been vandalized with profanity.
Officers evacuated 14 homes and eight apartments within the vicinity, the city said. No injuries were reported, and residents were allowed back into their homes by 8 a.m.
Police called for a bomb squad from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department “just to ensure we have no secondary devices,” Cano said.
Labeled a hate group for being “anti-LGBTQ” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the First Works Baptist Church is the subject of a Change.org campaign that’s seeking to oust the place of worship from El Monte. The petition was started three weeks ago and has so far garnered more than 14,790 signatures.
According to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Pastor Bruce Mejia recently reported an arson threat on social media, and that the police chief said his department was monitoring the situation. During public comments at an El Monte City Council meeting earlier in January, some residents called the pastor’s sermons hate speech, the paper reported.
A group called Keep El Monte Friendly had planned a protest at the church this Sunday morning. On Saturday, the group said of the incident on Instagram: “We are aware of what’s happening. We will update the page when we have more information. Stay safe everyone.”
First Works Baptist Church Pastor Bruce Mejia said what happened Saturday won’t change anything in his sermons.
“It doesn’t change the convictions that are already embedded in my heart,” the pastor said. “I’m never going to stop, so burning down my building or blowing it up does absolutely nothing but make you look bad in front of the community.”
It’s still unclear who detonated the device or whether it is connected to the backlash the church generated.
“At this time, we don’t know the motive, the reasons for this violent attack,” the police chief said. “We do ask if the public knows of who might have done this, what person or persons are responsible, that they please contact law enforcement.”
Investigators urged anyone with information to call the FBI’s L.A. field office at 310-477-6565 or visit fbi.tips. gov