BERKELEY, Calif. - The pastor of The Way Church in Berkeley on University Avenue says someone tried to burn the building down, less than twelve hours after church leaders put up a "Black Lives Matter" banner in the front of the building.
Mike McBride suspects his church was targeted for taking a stand against racial injustice.
Church leaders don't think the city of Berkeley is taking the arson attempt seriously enough.
The fire damaged a wall, the asphalt and two garbage cans.
"We're only trying to show love and solidarity and do the right thing and this is what we have to put up with so my heart is broken," says Michael Carpenter, facilities manager with The Way Church.
He said he made the discovery Wednesday morning about 12:30 a.m. and learned that neighbor Eugene Gonzalez's quick action prevented the fire from possibly destroying the church.
"I smelled some smoke, " says Gonzalez.
He describes seeing a man who wore a tan-colored poncho with reflective material setting a fire in a garbage can near the church's back door.
"It just went right up. I realized how close it was to the building," says Gonzalez.
He says he didn't get a good look at the man's face, that he was wearing a hood over his head.
Gonzalez describes the arsonist as just under six feet tall with a medium build.
"I used my garden hose and filled up a five-gallon bucket. Try to put most of it out while my roommate called 911," says Gonzalez.
He says the police officer who took the report was professional and respectful, but dismissive.
Gonzalez and church leaders say they're concerned that the incident wasn't taken seriously.
"It just lets me know we're not as far from the 1960s, 1970s racial terror that we might think," says McBride.
The pastor describes the congregation as diverse.
The church was founded in 1972 and has been in its current location 40 years.
Church leaders say it's no coincidence that this attack comes soon after the church displays a "Black Lives Matter" banner.
"We feel it is our duty as people as community servants and faith leaders to raise our voices about the history of racial violence that's been facing black people for centuries," says Ben McBride, the church's outreach pastor and the pastor's brother.
The pastor wants police to investigate this incident as a hate crime.
He says if the arsonist is caught, he wants restorative justice: for him to come to repair the damage.
"Repent your ways. Black people are here to stay. We are not going anywhere," says Pastor McBride.
Church leaders are grateful for their vigilant neighbor.
Berkeley police say they are investigating the incident as arson and that whether it is a hate crime is yet to be determined.
They say they have stepped up patrols to keep an eye on the church.
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin released the following statement regarding the incident: