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Church leaders condemn arson at The Way Church as act of racial terror

A day after a Black church in Berkeley put up a Black Lives Matter sign, someone tried to burn the church down, church leaders said Thursday.

Police said officers and firefighters went at 12:43 a.m. Wednesday to The Way Christian Center, known as The Way Church, at 1305 University Ave. after someone reported a fire.

A person had set fire in two plastic trash bins in the rear parking lot of the church, according to police. The Black Lives Matter sign, which was on the front of the church, was not damaged.

Rev. Michael McBride, who has worked against police brutality, registered people to vote and spoken out against white supremacy for decades, said:

“The fire was going up the building.”

He said the fire burned so hot that it completely melted the trash cans and  asphalt.

He wondered whether the sign irritated the suspect, and he called the fire an act of racial terror. He said the church has operated at the same location for 40 years.

Someone saw a person standing over the fire. The person left the area walking east on University Avenue in a tan poncho/jacket with reflective material, police said. Officers searched for the suspect, who remains at large.

McBride said in a statement:

“Regardless of the intentions of the suspect, we will not be silenced or intimidated. Were it not for an alert and courageous neighbor, my entire church could have been burned to the ground.”

Police spokesman Officer Byron White said police are looking into whether the fire was a hate crime.

Police added extra patrols overnight, White said.

Berkeley Police Department A fire was set in trash cans outside The Way Christian Center, known as The Way Church, in Berkeley, Calif. early on the morning of Wednesday, July 29, 2020. The church had hung a Black Lives Matter sign the day before.

White said:

“This is important to us.”

Church leaders are also upset about the way city officials handled the arson. The church leaders said police did not call the pastor or an elder, but only left a card under the front door.

McBride 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.”

White said Police Chief Andrew Greenwood reached out to the church on Wednesday, but White didn’t know exactly when that was.

Neither the chief nor Mayor Jesse Arreguin was at a news briefing Thursday morning at the church, the people who attended said.

McBride asked:

“How long will our houses of worship burn?”

Adding that the church cannot be broken because “the people are the church,” he said:

“The Way Church is not deterred.”

McBride added:

“We will repair the damage. We will hire security.”

Berkeley police are asking anyone who has more information about the arson to call the Police Department’s property crime unit at (510) 981-5737.

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