Someone broke into a Fresno church and burned a Christian flag. Is it a hate crime?

A break-in and vandalism at East Fresno Baptist Church on Sept. 9. 2018, is being investigated as a possible hate crime.
A break-in and vandalism at East Fresno Baptist Church on Sept. 9. 2018, is being investigated as a possible hate crime. The Fresno Bee

Police are investigating a possible hate crime at East Fresno Baptist Church on Clovis Avenue following a break-in Saturday night.

A secretary at the church arrived Sunday morning to find a broken window and evidence that someone had been inside and apparently tried to set fire to the church by burning a flag — though someone also used a fire extinguisher to put out the flame, according to John Crabtree, the church’s senior pastor.

The damaged forced the church to move its morning and evening services from the main sanctuary into the social hall.

“We’re still sweeping up glass and powder and all that,” Crabtree said. The church is still determining how much cleanup will be needed, but early damage estimates were said to be between $700 and $1,500.

A flag at the East Fresno Baptist Church is similar to one that was burned during a break in at the church Sept. 9, 2018. Larry Valenzuela The Fresno Bee

Police do not have a suspect in custody and a motive remains unclear. Nothing was stolen, Crabtree said. In fact, money that had been collected from offerings was found scattered on the ground.

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, who visited the church on Sunday, said that the fact a church was targeted and a Christian flag was burned leads the police to believe this was a possible hate crime.

They will be investigating it as such, “until proven otherwise,” he said.

The church has had issues with the homeless population in the area, including an incident on Saturday afternoon. Church officials worry the break-in could be a form of retaliation.

Fresno City Council member Luis Chavez, who represents the 5th district where the church is located, thinks the vandalism deserves the “hate crime” label.

“It has the tell-tale signs of a hate crime,” he said. “Why else would they burn the Christian flag?”

Chavez was at a community event Sunday when he was contacted by a deacon at the church.

“It was pretty despicable,” Chavez said. “This is not who we are a Southeast Fresno. We are a cohesive community.”

In fact, the church, which has been in the area since the 1940s, is known for helping the homeless and others who are down on their luck, he said.

Crabtree doesn’t know if the break-in and vandalism fit the legal definition of a hate crime. He will leave that to the police.

“I take a spiritual approach to this,” he said. “And there is a soul out there who needs some help.”

Joshua Tehee: 559-441-6479, @joshuatehee