SPOKANE, WA (July 24, 2018) – Jose Ceniceros, a staff member at Immanuel Covenant Church, was knocked to the ground at a McDonald’s restaurant on July 12 in a racially charged clash with an angry assailant. But he says the pain he feels is for the teenagers who were taunted with racial and homophobic slurs. A video of the disturbing episode has since gone viral.
“They’re not your typical church kids,” Ceniceros said yesterday. “They come from pretty rough backgrounds and actually don’t go to church very often. They’ve already had a lot of trauma in their lives, and this is one more thing.”
Speaking to the church during the worship service the Sunday after the incident, Ceniceros choked up as he told the congregation, “My heart breaks for these kids. These kids wanted to go to church, and that was it. And they couldn’t even get that.”
Hayden, Idaho, resident Richard Sovenski, 52, was arrested last week on one count of misdemeanor battery and one felony count of malicious harassment under Idaho’s hate crime statute.
Ceniceros, two other adults, and five teenagers were returning from a Christian event in nearby Coeur d’Alene when they decided to stop for ice cream. Inside the restaurant, a verbal altercation occurred between Ceniceros and Sovenski after the Idaho man started yelling at the young people, two of whom are African American and two of whom are Mexican.
Ceniceros told the group they needed to leave. “The kids were out the door. And then as I was leaving, the man punched me in the back of the head and threw me to the ground.”
The yelling continued in the parking lot. The video shows Sovenski and his son shouting a string of vicious and hateful expletives at the youth group.
After being knocked down, Cineceros took a video of the altercation on his phone. (Warning: video features very graphic language).
A McDonald’s employee called police, but the yelling had stopped when they arrived.
Prior to the incident, “It had been a really amazing time with these kids,” Ceniceros said. “And then ten minutes later this happens. You don’t think that this is going to happen. My whole intention was to take these kids to an amazing place and experience worship in its true form.”
During the 45-minute drive back to Spokane, the group discussed the incident and prayed. “One of the kids said this was just a work of the enemy to distract us from what had happened earlier,” Ceniceros said.
He said he was “super proud” of how the young people responded. “These kids saw their leader punched from behind, and then they’re being called racial epithets. Yes, they said some things, but they didn’t resort to violence.”
Ceniceros and several other adults have been in contact with the young people. “They do have some reservations about whether the system is actually going to take care of them,” he said. They were upset that no one was arrested immediately, even though police had seen the video. “They don’t know why it took five days for police to arrest (Sovenski).”
Sovenski gave officers the same account told by his wife and son, saying the group had been raucous and behaving badly in the restaurant. Cineceros refutes the claim.
Although the police said they would contact Ceniceros, he had heard nothing prior to the arrest, he said. The church’s pastor, Rob Fairbanks, then told a reporter at the local paper, the Inlander, about what happened. The paper posted the video on its website.
It was then that it went viral, and the story was picked up across the country.
Ceniceros said he took the video “because all I could think about is they’re not going to believe us. We’ve got street kids with us. There’s me, who’s covered in tattoos. I just got up and thought, I need to record this.”
The incident has brought the reality of racism closer to home for the church and even the adults who accompanied the students, Ceniceros said. “It’s like you’ve seen it on TV and online, but now you know a person, and you can put a face to it.”
Ceniceros said the church has rallied around the kids and that he has received a lot of support from Covenant leaders and ministers.
“It’s been good to share with the kids that there are a lot of people rooting for them.”