LOS ANGELES (RNS) — As the FBI and local police investigate an explosion at First Works Baptist Church in El Monte, California, that has been the center of protests for its anti-LGBTQ messages, both supporters and protesters of the church are denouncing the attack.
Brandon Olmos II, an organizer with Keep El Monte Friendly, a group that has led protests outside the church recently, said he and fellow demonstrators were shocked when they heard about the explosion. He said no one in the group was affiliated with the blast.
“We weren’t expecting anything like this,” Olmos told Religion News Service on Saturday (Jan. 23). ”It’s made it harder on our cause.”
Police responded about 4:30 a.m. Saturday to what they initially believed was a vandal who had broken the windows of the church, according to The Associated Press.
“Then we realized that the windows were not smashed, that they had actually blown out from some type of explosion,” Lt. Christopher Cano of the El Monte Police Department told AP.
FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said it was premature to call the incident a hate crime, but “that’s always going to be considered as a theory when a house of worship is attacked.” No injuries were reported.
First Works Baptist’s pastor, Bruce Mejia, told The New York Times the church would continue to hold services but at a different location. The Times reported that Mejia has also made sexist and anti-Semitic comments and has criticized Black Lives Matter.
“It’s not going to really deter us from doing what we always do,” Mejia told the Times. “We’re not afraid of this,” he said.
Olmos said Keep El Monte Friendly had formed about a month ago when a local freelance journalist posted about the church’s anti-LGBTQ messages on social media. Olmos said the group aims to make the LGBTQ community more visible in El Monte, a largely Latino and working-class city in Los Angeles County. El Monte, he said, doesn’t have “a huge queer representation.”
“We want people from El Monte to know it’s a queer safe space for all genders and sexual orientations,” Olmos said. “This church is the opposite of that.”
“We never encouraged any forms of violence,” he added.
The church, founded in 2017, believes “homosexuality is a sin and an abomination which God punishes with the death penalty,” according to its website.
“We oppose worldliness, modernism, formalism, and liberalism,” the church website reads.
Pastor Jonathan Shelley of Stedfast Baptist Church, in the Fort Worth, Texas, area, defended Mejia and First Works Baptist in a YouTube video on Saturday. Shelley, in the video, linked the explosion to the recent demonstrations against the church, calling protesters “sodomites.” First Works Baptist Church shared the video on its Facebook page.
“We preach what the Bible says,” Shelley said. “It’s not our opinion. It’s not Pastor Bruce Mejia’s opinion. It’s the Bible’s opinion that tells us these people are dangerous.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center in 2019 listed First Works Baptist as a hate group for its anti-LGBTQ message.
First Works Baptist is part of the New Independent Fundamental Baptist Movement, a network of 22 domestic and eight international churches led by pastor Steven Anderson, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Anderson, pastor at Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona, has called for the execution of LGBTQ people, the Southern Poverty Law Center said.
Mejia, at a “Make America Straight Again” conference, also called for the executions of LGBTQ people by civil authorities, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. “We don’t advocate Christians to go out and be vigilantes and try to put these f— to death,” Mejia said. “We want the government to do it.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.