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Controversial El Monte church damaged by homemade bomb; FBI investigating

The LA Times logo The LA Times 1/23/2021 Alex Wigglesworth
a car parked on the side of a road: Authorities are investigating an improvised explosive device attack that rocked an El Monte church early Saturday. (KTLA) © (KTLA) Authorities are investigating an improvised explosive device attack that rocked an El Monte church early Saturday. (KTLA)

The FBI and local authorities are investigating the explosion of a homemade bomb at an El Monte church that had drawn protests due to its anti-LGBTQ teachings.

The attack took place early Saturday at First Works Baptist Church in the 2600 block of Tyler Avenue, authorities said. No injuries were reported but the building was damaged.

El Monte police arrived at the scene shortly after 1 a.m. and saw smoke coming 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,” Cano said. “[They] appeared at first to be smashed and then we had realized that the windows were not smashed, that they had actually blown out from some type of explosion.”

The church's pastor, Bruce Mejia, filed a police report about two weeks ago after receiving an arson threat on social media, said El Monte Police Chief David Reynoso. It's too soon to know whether the explosion was linked to the threat, Reynoso said.

"We're very thankful that no one was inside the church and no one was driving by during the explosion that might have been injured," he said.

The church had been the site of protests in recent weeks because its teachings promote bias against the LGBTQ community. An online petition asking El Monte’s mayor to remove the church from the city has gathered more than 14,900 signatures.

There's no indication that the protests were related to the arson threat or subsequent attack, Reynoso said Saturday.

"I don’t even want to talk about the protests because it wouldn't be fair in any way, shape or form to link the two together," he said. "We cannot speculate that anyone involved in previous demonstrations is connected to or involved with this in any way."

The group that organized the protests, Keep El Monte Friendly, issued a statement expressing "profound shock" and said a demonstration planned for Sunday outside the church would be canceled.

“We understand that what they preach can make people upset,” the group wrote in the statement released via social media. “However, we would never promote, encourage or condone any violence or acts of harm.

“Our intent is to unite the community and keep El Monte a safe place for all regardless of gender identity, race or sexual orientation.”

The city of El Monte has been working with the office of Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis and the county Human Relations Commission to defuse tensions between the church and community members by trying to set up talks between the two sides, said Alma Martinez, El Monte city manager.

“Even though we don’t know at this time who is involved in the crime, as a city we want to make sure that we continue to work on deescalating the situation to promote peace, safety and respect in our community,” Martinez wrote in an email. “Crimes of this nature are not acceptable.”

Although the protest organizers have expressed a willingness to meet with church leaders, the pastor has declined, a source close to the investigation said.

Solis said she’s aware of anti-LGBTQ and misogynistic sermons given by the pastor but that “violence is never the answer, even in response to hate speech.”

“I also support the right to peacefully protest; however, this attack is wrong and it is dangerous,” she said in a statement. “I urge city leaders, church leaders, and civic leaders to come together and work together to address hate issues in our community.”

First Works Baptist is part of a network of about 30 churches called the New Independent Fundamental Baptist Movement, which, experts on hate and extremism say, is growing and spreading violent rhetoric against LGBTQ people. At a preaching conference near Sacramento in August 2019 attended by Mejia, several of the speakers called for the U.S. government to start executing LGBTQ people. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists First Works Baptist as one of 88 hate groups in California.

In keeping with the movement's teachings, Mejia has cited Bible verses that he says justify putting LGBTQ people to death and has preached that it’s acceptable to kill a person if they’re a thief or pedophile. He has also used the pulpit to speak out against the arrest of Kyle Rittenhouse in the fatal shooting of two protesters during unrest in Kenosha, Wis., last year, to urge men to prohibit their wives from working outside the home and to argue against vaccines and coronavirus precautions.

El Monte Mayor Jessica Ancona described the incident at the church as “highly concerning” and said she was calling for a full and thorough investigation.

"At this very moment we must stand together to uplift one another in affirming the City of El Monte’s slogan, 'Welcome to Friendly El Monte,’” Ancona said in a statement.

The FBI said its bomb technicians, along with experts from the L.A. County sheriff’s bomb squad, were continuing to process the scene and that a joint investigation was underway for the person or group responsible for the attack. Anyone with information was asked to contact the FBI’s Los Angeles field office at (310) 477-6565.

Times staff writer Hailey Branson-Potts contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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