Members of a predominantly black congregation suspect racism is behind two fires a week apart at their historic downtown Bakersfield church. The second blaze, discovered Monday morning, was accompanied by racist graffiti.
No one was injured in either fire and Cain Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church suffered only superficial damage.
Bakersfield Fire Department arson investigators investigated the scene Monday, along with the Bakersfield Police Department.
“At this point we don’t know if the two fires were related,” said city fire Battalion Chief Anthony Galagza. “It’s still under investigation.”
Police are investigating the incidents as possible hate crimes, said police spokeswoman Michaela Sims.
On Sept. 9, a member of the church who lives in nearby apartments called the pastor’s daughter to say there were fire trucks at Cain. An abandoned wooden storage shed behind the church had burned to the ground, but it was empty and the pastor assumed it was a casualty of one of the many homeless people in the area, some of whom smoke cigarettes.
Volunteers from the church hauled the remnants of the shed away and thought nothing more of it.
Then Monday about 8:30 a.m., the same congregant called to say there were fire trucks at the church again.
This time when the Rev. Timothy Coston arrived, he found the contents of a large trash bin behind the church had caught fire. The blaze scorched a section of the building’s rear, north-facing wall, but caused no internal damage.
“That’s the good news,” he said in an interview in a rear room of the church. “We’re sitting in the good news right here. The fire did not breech the walls.”
The bad news was that in two areas of the rear wall, racial slurs were written in black marker. In one location was a swastika and the letters “KKK.” In another section “N------ GO HOME” was written next to second swastika.
“I was shocked,” Coston said.
Although Cain's membership is predominantly black, it has members of all backgrounds, including whites and Latinos, the pastor said.
“We’re an interracial church, and I like that,” he said. “That’s the way God intended. That’s what heaven’s going to be like.”
Coston and his wife of more than 50 years were married in the church and have been members since childhood.
“We’ve never had any sort of racial problems, and we’ve been in this building for years, since the earthquake in the ’50s,” Coston said.
But in light of the racist scrawling, there is speculation at the church that the fires may be related.
“At first I just thought it was the homeless people,” said longtime church secretary Angela Williams, herself an ordained minister. “You see cigarette butts out there from time to time, and we’ve had trash can fires in the past.
“But this, this is different. We’ve never had anybody write anything like that. I saw that and said, ‘Hmmm. We’re being targeted.’”
The pastor’s wife, Johnatte Coston, said she couldn’t help but think about the rash of black church burnings in the South in the mid 1990s. Thirty-seven churches burned, causing millions of dollars in damage.
“You just have to wonder about the timing of it,” she said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Cain held a prayer breakfast Sept. 8 to celebrate the 133rd anniversary of its founding.
Cain was organized in 1880 and moved into its current location in 1954, according to a plaque mounted on the building.
The congregation only a few months ago installed stronger locks after a vagrant broke into the church to steal food. Now it will have to explore more costly security measures on top of the building repair, Coston said.
He estimated the damage to the wall at about $10,000.
Williams said she isn’t worried or frightened.
“God has it under control, and I know he’s going to take care of it,” she said. “At the same time, I will be vigilant. I’ll be checking things out more, but I know God has it.”
Anyone with information about the incidents is asked to call Bakersfield Police at 327-7111 or Det. James Moore at 326-354.