MONROE Noemi Bernals head was bowed in prayer when the masked man entered with a gun. He came in through the back door of Iglesia de Dios Nueva Vida church and put a shotgun in the hair of one the women who had come to worship on New Years Eve night.
No one spoke.
At first I was afraid, said Bernal, speaking through a translator. I thought I was going to get shot.
The intruder approached each of the six women one by one, taking their purses. With nearly $900, he left the church.
After the brazen crime, pastor Leonel Bernal is making security changes at his Monroe church. But as always he is relying on his deep faith in God to restore a sense of normalcy and safety for his small congregation.
I trusted God, the pastor said Friday as he and his wife Carolina walked through the church. God took care of us.
Leonel Bernal had been a pastor in El Salvador for more than 20 years when he said he was called by God to minister to the Hispanic community in the United States.
Bernal, now 52, packed up his wife and children in 2003 and immigrated to the United States. A year later, he became pastor of Iglesia de Dios Nueva Vida in Monroe, where one in five residents is Hispanic, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
Iglesia de Dios Nueva Vida (or New Life Church of God) is a modest brick building tucked away on Engleside Street next to the train tracks, about two miles from downtown.
The community is quiet, but neighbors keep their doors locked and some have no trespassing signs posted or barking dogs chained to porches.
There is no more crime on Engleside Street than there is in other parts of Monroe, police say, but neighbors said theyve had occasional problems that keep them wary.
In August, a man broke into the home of Max and Ruby Starnes, an elderly couple who lives across the street from the church. The intruder came in through the front door while the Starnes were watching TV and ripped a chain necklace off Max Starnes neck, they said.
Since then, theyve kept their door locked and mostly stay inside their home. As far as she knows, police never arrested anyone for the break-in, Ruby Starnes said.
A few weeks after that break-in, a neighbors truck was broken into, said April Threatt, the Starnes granddaughter and their next-door neighbor.
And now the church.
Threatt, 30, wasnt home when the sanctuary was robbed but said her son was playing in the backyard that night.
Its a very uncomfortable feeling, Threatt said. We all kind of look out for each other around here.
Scared in my stomach
On New Years Eve, Brian Bernal, Noemicq Bernals 11-year-old son, was in the sanctuary, playing a handheld Nintendo game when the robber entered.
When he first saw the mans gun, he thought it was a joke. But as he watched him point the shotgun, the boy edged closer to the front of room, where his grandmother Carolina Bernal knelt by the altar and prayed.
I felt scared in my stomach, Brian Bernal said.
Police still havent caught the suspect, and descriptions of the intruder are vague. The women in the church were too afraid too look at him, Carolina Bernal said. Some thought he was a black man; others identified him as white, a police report shows. He was wearing a black jacket, red shirt and brown or khaki pants.
Monroe police have developed good leads on suspects, Maj. Bryan Gilliard said. The lead detective in the case interviewed those suspects Friday afternoon, but police declined to release details about them.
I have never seen anything like this before, Gilliard said of the robbery.
Guards and locked doors
Leonel Bernal is worried less about what was stolen than ensuring that it doesnt happen again.
He has changed the locks on the church doors. He plans to keep those doors locked during services now, and have two men stand on the front steps when there are people worshipping inside.
Bernal said police advised the church to install surveillance video cameras, and the pastor said the congregation will take that advice.
Some, like daughter-in-law Noemi, said on Friday that shes beginning to feel safe again.
For children like Brian Bernal, it will take longer.
Im still kinda scared, the 11-year-old said.
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