If there is an upside to vandalism like the Jan. 13 break-in and torching of the sanctuary at the Church of the Angels in Pasadena, the Rev. Robert Gaestel says it must be the outpouring of love and support from the diocesan and surrounding community. Also in the reclaiming of sacred space, the determination and resiliency of a community of faith, bound together in mission, to move forward and even to forgive.
“We’re getting things fixed,” Gaestel told The Episcopal News Jan. 20. “The insurance adjuster’s been here, and we’re starting to do stuff like get the pulpit moved back to where it belongs. That’s the first thing we got fixed.”
A few days later, Christian Michael Garcia, 25, was arrested and charged with arson and vandalism at several Los Angeles-area churches of different denominations, including most recently The Angels and a Catholic church in Boyle Heights.
The Church of the Angels congregation quickly mobilized to clean up for the regular 7:45 a.m. and 10:15 a.m. Sunday services the day after the break-in, and Gaestel believes something of a miracle prevented more extensive damage.
“Two young men, one of whom used to live near the church, but now lives in San Francisco, were in town for a wedding,” he said. “They had gone to a venue in Highland Park not far from us, and late that night decided to walk over and see the church.” The two, later identified as Jinsoo Hah and Frank Noz, reportedly smelled smoke and saw flames inside the sanctuary. They quickly alerted authorities and Gaestel, who lives in the church rectory.
“The Fire Department was on its way and they soon arrived,” Gaestel said. “But if those two people hadn’t come to the church, we would not have known and it could have been catastrophic. As it is, the wood was slow burning and so the damage was limited.”
Quick responses also came from about 40 parishioners, neighbors and friends, who mobilized to ready the church for Sunday worship. Bishop Diocesan John H. Taylor visited later that day and Bishop Suffragan Diane Jardine Bruce also quickly connected with him in a show of love and support. Gaestel said.
The services included the baptisms of two children. “It was a reminder that the eternal work of the church continues, even when hearts are heavy,” said parishioner Steve Leland. “It was a lively coffee hour, with some members not having heard the news until they arrived and were able to see the damage.”
The Rev. Canon Melissa McCarthy, canon to the ordinary, attended worship services on Sunday and the “church was completely full,” according to Leland, a parishioner for four years. McCarthy said that despite the fire worship felt joyful.
“There were people who were upset by this, because it is upsetting, but they were really gracious and warm and cheerful and praying for the person who did it, clearly somebody who is disturbed,” according to McCarthy. She praised Gaestel’s grace in difficult circumstances. “He preached the sermon he had prepared and welcomed everyone, noting the vandalism but adding that when a congregation experiences a trauma like this, it is important to continue worshipping together and not to let this kind of hateful act stop us from being the Body of Christ,” she recalled.
Built in 1889, and constructed of sandstone from the San Fernando Valley and olive wood from Mission San Gabriel, the church is home to one of the finest stained glass windows in North America, according to its website. It has been featured in the television series Bones, Desperate Housewives, The Office and Parks and Recreation and in such Hollywood movies as Just Married, Heathers, and Since You Went Away.
Damage estimates were not available immediately, but Leland, a member of the buildings and grounds committee, said vandals defaced with graffiti an angel sundial statute, “a memorial to the woman who built the church,” in the garden outside. Similar graffiti — with the words ‘Jehovah lives’ and other sayings — was spray-painted on a nearby area of the pavement and inside the church.
The vandals broke a stained glass window to enter the church, he said. Inside, a statue was broken, the baptismal font and pulpit were vandalized. A fire was set, using prayer books and hymnals as kindling. Pews were in disarray, and the lectern, carved in the form of an angel and dating to the founding of the parish, was completely destroyed.
Authorities have said the damage mirrors similar incidents in the Southland. According to a Jan. 20 Los Angeles Times report, the graffiti seemed to resemble messages left on other vandalized churches. Using green spray paint, the intruders wrote “Jehovah” on a stone statue of an angel outside the building, as well as the words “Jehovah Lives” and a reference to an Old Testament Bible verse on the sidewalk.
The Bible verse, 2 Kings 19:35, reads: “And that night the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies.” The same verse was spray-painted at Ancient Church of the East Mar Shaleeta Parish, an Assyrian church in San Fernando, in November 2016. In February 2017 police discovered similar graffiti at three West Covina churches: Christ Lutheran Church, St. Christopher Catholic Church and West Covina Christian Church.
Leland said that after investigators allowed them to enter, about 40 parishioners, neighbors and friends worked for hours to prepare the church for next day worship. “We removed the burned pews and other material, mopped up the water, and cleaned up the ash and soot. The process of mitigation will continue,” he said, with more extensive smoke and soot removal and the restoration of various decorative and architectural elements to be performed in the coming months.
But, he added, “We were determined to get the church up and running for Sunday. When there is a disaster, be it natural or man made, those parishes that hold worship on the Sunday following are the ones that survive and flourish. Everyone jumped in and we made it happen.”
The Very Rev. Canon Michael Bamberger agreed. “We know that congregations that are fundamentally healthy, and clear about priorities recover well,” said Bamberger, who is a coordinator for the church’s disaster relief agency, Episcopal Relief and Development. “It was so important that the Church of the Angels held their Sunday services the next day — in the sanctuary that had been violated — so that the critical work of the church being church didn’t miss a beat.”
The arson investigation continues; no one is in custody in connection with the incident. Meanwhile, Leland said, the congregation’s emotions continue to run the gamut, from shock, anger, dismay, sadness and disbelief, undergirded by “the resolve to move forward, to repair the damage, to draw close to each other, and not be redefined by this hostile act against our place of worship.”
He said church officials are “working with law enforcement as needed. And we’re doing our best — even though it’s incredibly hard — to pray for the person who did this.”
Both he and Gaestel said they are grateful the damage wasn’t more severe, and grateful for the kindness and support of the community.
“A professional carpenter who lives across the street boarded up the broken window and brought us the right chemicals and brushes needed to remove the graffiti, then worked alongside parishioners to scrub it away,” Leland said. “Another neighbor brought us his commercial ozone generator to help mitigate the burned odor inside the church. Various other neighbors have come by, often with tears in their eyes, to ask how they can be helpful. We strive continually to be a good neighbor, but I don’t think anyone realized that someday our neighbors would have a chance to return the favor in a moment of need. That’s been profoundly encouraging.”
Gaestel added that the strong show of support from the bishops and Bamberger conveyed the message “that we were remembered across the diocese that Sunday, with many parishes praying for us and our recovery.
“The church was full at both services and the liturgy was a powerful affirmation of our faith and values as Christian people. We’re going forward with the repairs,” he said.
“It could have been so much worse. We are very lucky. So, onward and upward. Thank you all for your thoughts and prayers and expressions of support. I and the parish as a whole really appreciate it.”
People wishing to assist with the restoration and repair of the church may visit www.coa-pasadena.org/giving.