Pentecostal preacher Tony Spell didn’t just stand before his congregation on Sunday in defiance of the governor’s order to stay home: He leaped into the pews, paraded, hugged and laid hands on worshipers’ foreheads in prayer.
“We’re free people. We’re not going to be intimidated. We’re not going to cower,” the Rev. Spell said from the pulpit of Life Tabernacle Church in a suburb of Baton Rouge. “We’re not breaking any laws.”
Across Louisiana, the coronavirus has infected more than 3,500 people and led to 151 deaths as of Sunday, with one of the highest per-capita death rates in the country down the interstate in New Orleans. To limit its spread, Gov. John Bel Edwards banned gatherings of more than 50 people earlier this month and on March 22 issued a stay-at-home order.
To comply, Catholic churches canceled Mass and switched to virtual services. Many Protestant churches did too. But some have continued to gather, with none drawing more attention than Life Tabernacle.
The 60-year-old church has continued to use its fleet of two dozen buses to bring hundreds of congregants to services three times a week from five surrounding parishes, including congregants from mobile home parks and public housing in low-income neighborhoods. More than 1,100 people of various races worship by age group at seven sanctuaries on the property. In addition to spiritual guidance, the church offers free breakfast. Only about 10% have stayed away, said Spell's father, the Rev. Tim Spell, 66, including his own 90-year-old father who has been sheltering at home.
On Sunday, 1,265 attended morning services at the church, said the Rev. Tony Spell, 42. Seven were baptized, he said, and 10 were “spirit filled” (spoke in tongues).
So far, no church members have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, said Spell, as he watched buses arrive before Sunday’s service, having passed a half-dozen empty parking lots of other churches up the street.
Like other places across the nation, testing here is limited. Only 27,871 of Louisiana’s 4.7 million residents had been tested as of Sunday, and the disease has spread to all but five of the state’s 64 parishes.
While different states have issued different provisions for houses of worship, 17% of those polled by three political scientists last week said they were still attending church in person. Nearly three dozen people who attended a church event earlier this month in rural Arkansas tested positive for COVID-19. At a church in the Chicago suburbs, 43 people showed symptoms of the virus following a service this month and 10 had tested positive as of Friday.
As people entered the church Sunday, Life Tabernacle volunteers checked their temperatures before allowing them in. Hand sanitizer was available inside; few in the crowd of several hundred in the main sanctuary wore gloves or masks.
Some sat a few feet apart. But others embraced. And as Spell began preaching, the assembled paraded around the room shoulder to shoulder in their usual “victory march.”
Outside, several protesters had gathered in black hazmat suits. More than 9,400 people had signed an online petition calling on authorities to prosecute Spell. The local newspaper, the Central City News, has been boycotted for helping Spell stream services online.
Wearing a blue suit, hair slicked back and clutching a Bible as he stood on the pulpit, Spell explained that he had been advised by attorneys from the evangelical Florida-based Liberty Counsel not to enter the crowd in case law enforcement entered and tried to arrest him.
He did anyway.
Spell joined his wife, son and father in singing gospel classics alongside congregants, including, “We’ll Understand it Better By and By,” “All My Hope Is in Jesus” and “Eye of the Storm.”
He told the group that at least four church members had lost their jobs after employers saw photographs online of them attending services, including one of the singers with him on the altar.
“This is the America we’re living in now, where people are being persecuted for their faith,” Spell said as he took the singer’s hand.
The pastor argued the governor should deem churches essential, as he has some retailers and clinics.
Wall Street, he noted, “is still open.”
“Yes, it is!” a woman cried from the audience.
“If you’re going to persecute our church for staying open, don’t go to Walmart, don’t go to Planned Parenthood, don’t go to the liquor store because you’re a hypocrite,” said Spell, who was greeted with applause.
His sermon veered between American history and brimstone, from Patrick Henry to Satan. At one point, while praying over a woman, both spoke in tongues.
“I’m not so afraid of dying of a disease as I am of living in fear of a virus!” Spell then shouted, wiping his brow and stripping off his jacket.
The crowd stood and applauded.
“A God that brought America a virus can bring America through a virus,” he intoned, and a congregant responded, “Hallelujah!”
Spell said he’s been demonized for refusing to close his doors, “called everything from a killer to Pol Pot to David Koresh,” referring to the Khmer Rouge leader in Cambodia and the pastor who led the deadly 1993 Branch Davidian standoff with the FBI in neighboring Texas, respectively.
But the church, he said, has remained open for all these years despite floods and storms, including Hurricane Katrina, which ripped off the roof.
“I’d rather die than kill the church,” Spell repeated, framing the pandemic as a test of faith. “If you can’t stand up to COVID, don’t expect to stand up to a man called the Antichrist.”
His father, who sang and played keyboard through the service, said the evangelical congregation has been unfairly stigmatized as “snake handlers,” and that fellow Americans should beware any infringement of their constitutional freedoms.
“What’s going to happen when they come for your guns?” he said, noting that authorities in New Orleans have closed guns stores during the pandemic.
Woody Jenkins, a former state representative and lawyer who runs Central City News, livestreamed the morning service. He said the church has been vital not only to Central, a town of about 29,000, but to some of Baton Rouge’s poorest residents.
Jenkins helped craft the state's current constitution in 1973, which he noted protects religious freedom. He’s been trying to stay inside, avoiding his grandchildren who live nearby, but he chafes at the restrictions.
“Are we really alive if we’re living like this?” he said after the service.
Jenkins was joined in Spell’s office by a church member whose employer asked her to stop coming to work last week after seeing a photo of her at the church, which she has attended for 37 years. She asked not to be identified because she hopes to get her job back. She said none of her co-workers were penalized for going shopping, dining or to the gym.
“This is where we get our strength. I can’t get this from livestream,” said the woman, who oversees the bus ministry. “I have an obligation to be here.”
She planned to attend the church’s Sunday night service too.
Spell and church members said they do not believe COVID-19 is fake or that they can heal themselves, as some have reported. But they just can’t imagine spending Sunday away from church.
In the parking lot after services, women's Bible study leader Shyann Parker said she grew up in an abusive home in one of the area’s mobile home parks and takes the bus to church, which “was the first place I felt safe.”
“There is a crisis right now in our world, but if the church closes its doors, what happens to the ones that were just like me?” said Parker, 39, wearing her usual conservative black dress, long brown hair pinned in a low bun.
Before leaving for home, she thumbed through her leather-bound Bible to quote one of her favorite Scriptures, Nahum 1:7: “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him.”
For the record:
8:24 AM, Mar. 30, 2020: An earlier version of this article misspelled Shyann Parker’s first name as Cheyenne.