The Night of…

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In January 2021, less than one week after a contentious community protest, a bomb destroyed El Monte’s First Works Baptist Church, an institution infamous for its virulently anti-LGBTQ views. Nearly one year later, the case remains unsolved, and the mystery of who was behind it continues to grow...
Art and photographs by Erik Adams.

The bomb detonated during the witching hours of Jan. 23, 2021. Videos of the damage caused by the mysterious explosion that destroyed El Monte’s First Works Baptist Church depict blown out windows and shattered glass. Smoke rose from the roof and spray paint covered the building’s plain gray walls with obscenities like “fuck this church” and “get out.”

Only six days before, a caravan protest organized by the activist group Keep El Monte Friendly (KEMF) drew roughly 100 people to protest the virulently anti-LGBTQ rhetoric of First Works’ pastor, Delfin “Bruce’’ Mejia, a zealot known for his extremist Christian views. In one of the multiple YouTube videos of Mejia using bigoted language, he proudly tells his congregation that LGBTQ people are “stinking, filthy, sodomite faggot[s]” who should be punished with death.

The anti-First Works caravan protest featured activists honking loudly and waving pride flags from painted windows, following a path from Legg Lake to near the embattled church. Once the caravan ended, people still wanted to protest. So they went across the street during Sunday evening services and eventually stood in front of First Works.

The scene, which unfolded in this racially diverse, family-friendly, middle-class suburb in the San Gabriel Valley, elicited media attention, police and an appearance from Mejia himself. When the controversial pastor exited the building, the scene became intense. Protesters surrounded his car, yelling at him and the congregation to the point where police had to escort people to their cars.

Footage from that night shows protesters screaming at the parishioners from behind a police line, and hollering at a person’s car window with people inside. Arguably, it gave Mejia and the church exactly what they wanted from the controversy: attention. And the church was about to get even more of it. In less than a week, it would all go up in flames.

In the months since, little information about the bombing has come to light and the FBI, which is investigating, has yet to name suspects. It’s caused a strain on the KEMF activist group, which has been quiet lately, and the church seems to have used the bombing as free PR. At the heart of it all, one question remains: What happened that night?

El Monte resident Ayble Juarez first came out as gay at 14 years old. “I was always very out and proud,” he says. But his feelings of relative ease being queer in his hometown began to change when he learned about First Works Baptist Church.

When El Monte native Ayble Juarez first came out as gay at 14 years old, nobody shunned him for his identity. He felt glad he lived in a place that seemed to be so accepting.

“I was always very out and proud,” says Juarez, whose bleached-blonde tips and soft-spoken voice give him the appearance of being much younger than his 21 years. “I wasn’t scared to speak up a little bit.”

His friend, 22-year-old Honey B. Hive, who asked that we not use his real name, shared a similar experience. When Hive discovered his love of drag as a teen in El Monte, he says his neighbors and peers left him alone.

But Juarez and Hive’s feelings of relative ease being queer in their hometown began to change when they learned about First Works Baptist Church through a friend’s social media account. The local church, they discovered, had been listed as an “anti-LGBTQ” hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights nonprofit that tracks hate groups nationwide.

In response, Juarez, Hive, and their friends formed Keep El Monte Friendly, a play on the city’s slogan “Welcome to Friendly El Monte.” They began meeting up at a local park to trade ideas about how to energize the community to respond to First Works and what they wanted to see from city leadership.

At first, they floated the idea of attending a church service, but realized they’d be easily spotted with masks on (The church held services throughout the pandemic; YouTube videos show nobody wore masks.) The group eventually decided on a petition asking the mayor of El Monte to remove and designate the church as a hate group. The petition, which was launched in early January 2021, has since garnered more than 15,000 signatures. The same day they published it, KEMF also created an Instagram account that has since amassed more than 3,200 followers.

Hive says he tried to connect with El Monte Mayor Jessica Ancona — whose daughter is his second cousin — to see if she was aware of the situation. He says he didn’t receive a response until her now-deleted Instagram statement went public. In the statement, she expressed support for the LGBTQ community and denounced the church’s views, but noted that she legally could not remove a church for hate speech alone.

Ancona said in a phone call that First Works’ actions concerned her, but she was unsure if she had the authority to designate an entity as a hate group. El Monte is a general law city, meaning it follows the state’s rules for city government. California code does not explicitly outline a process for designating hate groups that have not been criminally charged, though city councils in L.A. County have used resolutions to condemn similar issues in the past.

Not long after the petition was circulated, Hive and Juarez say they started receiving Instagram direct messages, comments and posts that mocked their group and claimed the attention was great for First Works. Hive and Juarez believe the messages came from shadow accounts associated with the church’s members. Through an unidentified spokesperson via email, First Works Baptist Church initially agreed to an interview for this story, but ignored attempts to schedule it and a subsequent list of detailed questions about the bombing and the church’s alleged role in the harassment.

In the days leading up to the January 17 caravan protest, members of KEMF went around the city posting flyers about First Works’ rhetoric. During one occasion, Hive says a member of the church spotted him after he rode his bike to a bus stop to place flyers. The man pulled his car over and started filming him.

“My first reaction was like, ‘Okay, maybe it’s like a concerned citizen who thinks I’m defacing property,’” Hive says. “[I told him], ‘I’m just trying to spread awareness about this hate group in El Monte.’”

The man told him the person on the flyer was his pastor, according to Hive. Later that day, Hive says a photo of himself at the bus stop was posted to an Instagram meme account captioned “little gay fag on his little gay bike.” This photo appears to have since been scrubbed from the platform.

Ancona, the mayor, says that a separate LGBTQ activist, who didn’t respond to a request for an interview for this story, told her that First Works flyers were mysteriously stuffed in their mailbox. “It was really alarming, really creepy. It was almost like members of the First Works church were stalking members of Keep El Monte Friendly,” Ancona says.

The escalating harassment didn’t dissuade critics of First Works Baptist Church. For Hive, the January 17 protest was affirming. “It was like, ‘Whoa, there is a queer scene in El Monte,’” he remembers thinking.

Honey B. Hive says when the FBI came to interview him, the agents weren’t accusatory. “They asked me how would I feel if they found out that it was someone from the LGBT community that did the bomb,” he recalls. “And I was like, ‘Why would I care if they’re from the community or not? Why does it matter? Just find out who did it.’”

Mejia can seem more like a social media influencer than a pastor. He has a YouTube channel for religious content, a podcast called “Rod of Iron,” and he frequently posts clips of his content to Instagram — all centered on his teachings rather than the church body.

Mejia’s teachings under the New Independent Fundamental Baptist Movement join a network of at least 22 other churches in the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The movement is an extremist version of Christianity, founded by Arizona pastor Steven Anderson in 2005. Throughout the years, almost every pastor in the New IFB has made headlines for unhinged remarks, including praising the Pulse Nightclub shooting, praying for former President Barack Obama’s death and calling for governments to “speedily execute” LGBTQ people. The New IFB is also responsible for the Make America Straight Again conferences.

Initially known as Faithful Word Baptist Church, First Works started as a satellite ministry for Anderson’s church in Tempe, Ariz., which Mejia directed starting in 2017. Recordings show him first preaching at Faithful Word in December 2018, explaining to the congregation how it was biblical to view vaccines as “unclean,” saying that they bypassed God’s natural protection. In May of this year, Mejia sowed doubt in the COVID-19 vaccines by posting old sermons questioning vaccine ingredients on his Instagram.

It’s difficult to discern exactly what else the New Independent Fundamental Baptist churches believe — there’s no central website and pastors emphasize their independence from one another. However, every church espouses these key points: only the King James Version of the Bible is allowed (it’s seen as the only Bible to accurately translate the original texts); repenting of sins does not make one saved; and sodomy and homosexuality are punishable by death (by either God or the U.S. government).

The pastors say in sermons that women are not allowed to serve, which Mejia takes another step further by calling women “weak” (his wife is the daughter of a New IFB pastor). So-called “soul-winning” is another key pillar of the movement: Members go out weekly to proselytize door-to-door with the goal of converting as many people to New IFB as possible.

Mejia is not the first pastor to spew hate and bring controversy to the San Gabriel Valley. During the early 1900s, a pastor by the name of H. E. Wilhite, who also happened to be the Ku Klux Klan’s resident Protestant minister and musical director, led the First Christian Church of El Monte as well as churches in Oxnard, San Bernardino, Colton and Rialto, according to Dan Cady, an associate professor of history at Fresno State University. Cady notes that during these years the difference between a benevolent fraternity and a hate group was pretty slim.

“Even the churches of those days were highly segregated,” Cady says. “There’s an overlap between racially oppressive hate groups and religion. Since about 1915, the dominant [Christian] ideology has espoused these types of things that I could imagine this church [First Works] does.”

Like the Klan, New IFB upholds racist views drawing on religion for support. Anderson, who promotes anti-Semitic bigotry in sermons, has called Jewish people who don’t believe in Christ “children of the devil,” according to the Anti-Defamation League in Arizona.

The Klan also tried to root itself into city politics. Wilhite crashed “Pasadena’s City Hall to unsuccessfully demand the reinstatement of Klan-affiliated police officers,” Cady wrote in East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte. Klan member Robert Shuler used his Los Angeles church “to attack Jews, blacks and Catholics,” which nearly earned him a seat in the U.S. Senate. And around 1967, Ralph Forbes led an American Nazi Party branch located in El Monte just a couple of miles away from First Works on Peck Road. The once two-story home, with Nazi flags and white power signs on display, is now an auto repair shop.

The San Gabriel Valley continues to be a stomping grounds for white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups, according to the SPLC’s Hate Map. The Creativity movement, which is a racist and homophobic religious organization calling for a “racial holy war,” was active in Sierra Madre as recently as 2001. Crescenta Valley European American Society also made a small home in La Crescenta espousing white nationalism in 2012. It’s unclear what happened to these groups locally but they’ve since vanished. Cady says El Monte could still be seen as attractive because it’s just enough off the radar in L.A. County and rent is less expensive than areas closer to the city of L.A.

“Generally speaking, I think there has always been a lot really progressive, forward-thinking individuals and organizations before and after the Nazi house,” Romeo Guzmán, an assistant professor of history at Claremont Graduate University and editor of East of East, wrote in an email. “However, they have not always found an institutional home or resources or broad support. The question I think we need to ask is, ‘What would it look like for a city and the larger community of El Monte to center the needs, desires and visions of our LGBTQ activists?’”

On March 31, the FBI announced a $25,000 reward for information, saying two suspects were observed “smashing a church window, then lighting an object and throwing it inside” before the explosion. In images captured by a Nest camera and later released by the FBI, two people wearing disposable face masks and dark hoodies are seen spray painting the walls. The pair then entered a vehicle and left the area before the explosion.

According to the El Monte Police Department, the building was empty when the bomb went off. At this time, the case isn’t being pursued as a hate crime, but the detonation of an improvised explosive device could potentially be “an attempted murder” according to Laura Eimiller, a public affairs specialist for the FBI’s L.A. bureau (She asks anyone with information to call the bureau at (310) 477-6565.)

While the explosion achieved one of KEMF’s goals — removing the church from El Monte — the activist group immediately denounced the bombing. “We kindly encourage everyone to not engage with violence and to not fight hate with hate,” they wrote in an Instagram statement the day of the bombing. “Again, Keep El Monte Friendly was created to unite the community and create a safe space for all.” The post also instructed anyone with information about “this morning’s tragic event” to contact the FBI’s L.A. office.

“The question I think we need to ask is, ‘What would it look like for a city and the larger community of El Monte to center the needs, desires and visions of our LGBTQ activists?’”

Romeo Guzmán

Though KEMF has denied any involvement in the explosion, which resulted in First Works relocating to an undisclosed location, they are prime suspects in the eyes of some of First Works’ members and supporters.

“‘Activists launched an offensive,’” Mejia says in an episode of his podcast, quoting an L.A. Times story. He then provides his own commentary: “They didn’t launch ‘an offensive;’ they launched a bomb.”

The accusations have taken a toll on Juarez. “There were so many people who were blaming it on us because the church was saying, ‘We’ve been here for three years. Nothing happened until you said anything,’” he says, adding that people on Twitter would repost KEMF’s content saying the FBI should investigate them.

Hive says when the FBI came to interview him, the agents weren’t accusatory. He was upfront about his idea that it was an inside job, but then the agents asked him a question he says felt odd. “They asked me how would I feel if they found out that it was someone from the LGBT community that did the bomb,” Hive recalls. “And I was like, ‘Why would I care if they’re from the community or not? Why does it matter? Just find out who did it.’”

In the absence of facts, conspiracy theories have circulated. Juarez says they gave screenshots of comments to the FBI from someone saying they could have “taken out” KEMF with an IED. The activists say they wouldn’t be surprised if First Works did it to themselves. After all, Mejia has expressed in videos multiple times how he sees the explosion as a great thing. He says not only has the attention brought them new members, but it’s also given the congregation a sense of pride for facing persecution.

“New IFB, we thrive on things like that. It’s like cha-ching! You’re giving me a bunch of new ears to listen, to hear the message,” Mejia said on his podcast. “It strengthened our church. People are now like, ‘We go to the church that was bombed.’ We wear it as a badge of honor.”

Throughout my interviews with Juarez and Hive, the two seem drained. They’re unsure about just how traumatizing this year was, but Hive says it’s getting easier. The group has fallen out of touch since the explosion, but they’re satisfied that the church is out of El Monte. While KEMF initially hoped to lobby for an LGBTQ center in the city, another community group has taken the lead in their absence: Memories of El Monte.

At the time of our interview, Ancona said she was drafting proclamations for a “holistic approach” to increase tolerance in El Monte, similar to the LA vs. Hate program, a campaign focused on encouraging Angelenos to unite against, report and resist hate. A march and vigil for El Monte vs. Hate took place on April 3, standing in solidarity against anti-Asian violence.

Mejia’s whereabouts remain a mystery. The church is cautious to avoid sharing identifiable details online. The shadow accounts on Instagram have either gone private or simply stopped posting. Even many of the church’s pastoral leaders have made their accounts private. But if history serves as an example, what people try to keep discreet may eventually play out in public.

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