For 100 years, The First Baptist Church of Venice has called Venice home but a fire this week threatened to destroy a century’s worth of history. And residents believe it wasn’t accidental.

Los Angeles Fire Department officials responded to a fire near the location after receiving reports of a structure fire, LAFD spokesman Brian Humphrey said. “Our units arrived quickly to find fire at the rear of the structure. It was described as rubbish from part of a homeless encampment. There were no reports of any injuries, and firefighters had the flames extinguished fully at 1:26 a.m.”

Miguel Bravo is a local Venice resident who has spent the last few months organizing clean-ups and rallies at the local church alongside others who are part of the SaveVenice collective, which was formed shortly after the building was sold in 2017 to publishing entrepreneur Jay Penske.

“Obviously, we’ve been battling the Penskes for the last two-and-a-half years to hold them off from building a mansion here because we feel the sale of the church properties here was done unscrupulously, so there’s been a lot of controversial and political shenanigans here recently,” Bravo said, detailing how developers will often leave a property in disrepair so they have an excuse to tear it down. “So, we did a major cleanup to the front areas of the property a couple weeks ago and we’ve done it a few times since. We’ve really been fighting for this church and we are actually starting to get some traction going.”

The church and the efforts of local residents were recently profiled by National Geographic, “and it’s just sad because the way it’s looking — what we know so far — is there was a homeless guy in the back. He’s relatively new in the area, according to the guys who usually stay around there, and they say he deliberately started a fire in the back.”

Bravo arrived to the scene of the church around 5 a.m. Thursday to notice the church didn’t suffer any critical damage. “If the fire department hadn’t been there so quickly to put it out it, then it would definitely have been a lot worse,” he said.

“You can make a case for arson but the department said we’d have to wait as more information comes in. But we know there was this guy who came in the last week or two and set the fire up and now he’s gone,” Bravo said, mentioning he found a gas canister while he walked the property shortly after the fire.

“We’ve had some rallies here and had a lot of momentum for racial justice as we’ve tried to tie it into city policy. As I said, we were just getting momentum in the last seven, eight months or whatever it’s been now,” Bravo said, “so I don’t get why someone would try to kind of do something to sabotage that momentum.”