Less than 12 hours after The Way Christian Center on University Avenue put up a large Black Lives Matter banner, a person set fire to several trash cans in the parking lot at the back of the church, slightly damaging the building but invoking fear and anger in the community. Berkeley Police have opened an arson investigation.
The arson was an act of terror, Pastor Michael McBride, who leads the Berkeley church, which was founded by his grandmother in 1972, said at a press conference this morning in the church’s parking lot. But he vowed that he and his congregation would not be cowed by this act of intimidation.
“The Way Church is not deterred,” he said. “We are angry and we are upset. There is nothing more dangerous in the world than righteous indignation.”
The church plans to step up its security by installing cameras, but McBride stressed that “the building is always in service to the people … you cannot break the body of the church because we are the church.”
In the early hours of Wednesday, a neighbor spotted an individual in the church’s parking lot who appeared to be putting something into trash cans at the back of the church. Police describe the individual as “an unknown race/age person (possibly male), wearing a tan poncho/jacket with reflective material.” They were last seen walking eastbound on University Avenue. The neighbor tried to douse the fire and also called 911. BPD and the fire department responded at 12:43 a.m to the church, at 1305 University Ave., and extinguished the blaze. Two plastic trash cans were burned to the ground and caused charring to the wall of the building.
On Thursday, and in a statement released Wednesday, Pastor McBride questioned why none of Berkeley’s senior elected officials — the mayor, city manager or police chief — had called him about the fire soon after it happened.
“You know there is a historical legacy of intimidation, certainly of negligence, and of timid responses by city leaders and others in the face of this kind of terror,” he said.
“For decades church fires were used as a means of terrorizing Black clergy and the Black community. I guess in Berkeley, it’s not something worthy of special attention by law enforcement officials” McBride, who is campaign director of the LIVE FREE gun violence prevention campaign and co-founder of the Black Church PAC, said in the press statement.
Berkeley Police Department spokesman Officer Byron White told Berkeleyside that an officer had left a report receipt under the door of the church. A report receipt includes the case number and the name and contact details of an investigating BPD officer. He said leaving a report receipt is routine for an incident like this that took place in the middle of the night when the church closed and where the damage was minimal. White said that if a business or a church is damaged in such a way that people could get inside — through a broken door or window, say — police would do its best to alert the owner if they had their contact details on file, or they would do so through an alarm company, and they would call public works to fix the damage.
Some city officials did reach out to McBride, but not by phone. Police Chief Andrew Greenwood sent an email “late” Wednesday, said McBride. Dee Williams-Ridley, the city manager, texted him around 4 p.m. the same day.
Such a “minimal response” was not enough for when a church is victimized by arson, particularly one where its leader is known to be outspoken, said McBride.
“We have leaders who claim to be progressive that still offer minimal protection and response to the pain of Black people in this country,” he said.
Mayor Jesse Arreguín issued a statement around 1:45 p.m on Thursday. He called for the arson to be investigated as a hate crime and asked that the police and fire department make the case a priority.
“As our nation continues to confront our dark history of racism, I am glad that the parishioners of The Way and Pastor Mike McBride, who have been at the forefront of social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement, are safe,” Arreguin said in the statement. “However, the fear and trauma this incident creates is unacceptable … Anti-Black hate, and all forms of racism, has no place in Berkeley.”
White told the San Francisco Chronicle that there was currently insufficient evidence to classify the incident as a hate crime.
In June, Pastor McBride organized a protest march calling for the resignation of Chief Greenwood after the chief made comments at a City Council meeting about using firearms and shooting people in the context of a discussion about protests and the potential ban of the use of tear gas as a crowd control method.
News of the fire and possible arson drew leaders of many faiths to the press conference. Among the estimated 100 people who attended were Ben McBride, co-director of PICO and founder of the Bring The Heat campaign, and Rev. Dr. Jacqueline Thompson, Senior Pastor of the Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland.
Former Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport also addressed the gathering, as did comedian and host of CNN’s “United Shades of America” Kamau Bell, who, with Pastor McBride, has raised over $1 million to distribute PPE to those most in need around the country. During the pandemic, while services have moved online, The Way church building became a warehouse to stock PPE. Council members Ben Bartlett and Cheryl Davila were in the crowd.
Rabbi Yonatan Cohen of Berkeley’s Congregation Beth Israel wrote a note to McBride, which he shared with Berkeleyside. “Seeing the images of the arson attempt on your community’s own religious home, fills me with anger, compels me to turn to God in prayer, and forces me towards protest and political action,” he said. “Pastor, our community stands as your ally in the face of racism, bigotry and hate. Our deep sense of solidarity is rooted in our hearts and in our moral commitments, as well as in our history and in our binding devotion to Torah and God. We stand ready to follow your lead.”
Hate crimes and terrorist attacks have been directed against Black churches for generations. The first recorded burning of a black church was in South Carolina in 1822 and has not let up since then. In 1963, Ku Klux Klan members planted a bomb in the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama. When it exploded, it killed four young girls. In 2015, a white supremacist murdered nine parishioners in the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
“There are no other institutions as central to African American life as the church,” Laurie Maffly-Kipp, a Washington University in St. Louis professor who studies religion and American history, told The Guardian. “If you want to go after a really potent symbol, that’s the place you go. It’s sort of like burning the cross. You could say the cross is just a couple pieces of wood put together. But that symbolism means something very important.”
A GoFundMe campaign has been launched to help The Way church raise money to repair the fire damage and fund security measures. BPD is asking anyone with information about the arson to call BPD’s Property Crimes Unit at (510) 981-5737.