‘Satan will not stop us’: Some Christian pastors plan showdown with coronavirus this Easter

Eight US states have granted exemptions for churches from coronavirus lockdown measures   

Richard Hall
New York
Friday 10 April 2020 21:19 BST
Pastor Kenneth Copeland tries to blow away coronavirus

It didn’t take long for evangelical Christian leaders in the United States to identify the coronavirus as an agent of Satan. Once they had, many were initially reluctant to retreat from the battle by obeying social distancing measures.

Some had hoped the lockdown would be over by Easter — the most important event in the Christian calendar. They were buoyed by Donald Trump’s optimism, when he said at the end of March that he wanted the country “opened up and just raring to go” for the holiday.

But as the virus continued to spread across the country and the death toll rose, churches began to adapt their services by organising online services and worship to protect their congregation.

Not all were willing to stop, however. This Easter Sunday, a number of churches are planning to go ahead with services, ignoring the advice of public health experts in what they are pitching as a test of faith.

"Satan and a virus will not stop us," megachurch pastor Tony Spell, of the Life Tabernacle Church in Louisiana, said of his plans to hold services this Easter Sunday. "We are not afraid. We are called by God to stand against the Antichrist creeping into America’s borders. We will spread the Gospel," he told Reuters in an interview.

The pastor said he expects a crowd of more than 2,000 to gather in worship at his megachurch.

Mr Spell has already been in trouble with police for violating an executive order by Louisiana’s governor banning gatherings of more than 50 people. He was arrested and charged on 31 March with six misdemeanours.

Despite criticism for potentially putting people’s lives at risk, the pastor doubled down again this week and said he planned to go ahead with Easter Sunday services.

“True Christians do not mind dying. They fear living in fear,” he told TMZ.

Pastor Tony Spell talks with journalists before attending Sunday service at the Life Tabernacle megachurch challenging state orders against assembling in large groups to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana U.S., April 5, 2020. (REUTERS)

He added that holding services over livestream, as other churches have done, "does not work.”

“If it worked then why did America spend billions and billions of dollars on churches,” he said.

Pastor Spell is not alone. In Houston, Texas, Reverend John Greiner said his Glorious Way Church would hold in-person services on Easter, after initially holding some online.

"We can't do what God called us to do on livestream," he said.

The restrictions over large gatherings across the country has sparked a backlash from Christian leaders who argue that it constitutes a breach of religious freedom. It has led to a number of confrontations between churches and local authorities.

Jon Duncan, a preacher at the evangelical Cross Culture Centre in Lodi, California, was locked out of his church by the owners when he tried to defy stay-at-home orders from the San Joaquin County Public Health Services.

Instead, he held a service on the curbside outside the church, and he plans to do the same again this Easter weekend. He is keeping the location a secret to avoid being scuppered by the police.

"God commands us to meet and that's what we're going to do Easter," he said.

In eight states, pastors have found support from sympathetic local governments who have classified churches as “essential services” and exempted them from the measures.

A panel of lawmakers in Kansas even went so far as to overturn an executive order by Democratic Governor Laura Kelly which banned religious services of more than 10 people during the coronavirus outbreak.

Florida megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was also arrested at the end of March for hosting Sunday services at his church with up to 500 attendees. The pastor was defiant, saying his church would “never close”, but later changed his mind, blaming a “tyrannical government”.

Following the arrest, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican and ally of Donald Trump, issued a statewide stay-at-home order that exempted religious services conducted in houses of worship, deeming them "essential business."

According to Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, an activist law firm that took up Howard-Browne's case, the pastor "has not made a decision on what he plans to do on Easter Sunday", according to NBC.

Public health officials are concerned that church services could lead to a spike in coronavirus cases in those communities. Since the pandemic began, there have been a number of cases of infected people unknowingly spreading the disease by attending church services.

In South Korea, a so-called “superspreader” reportedly infected 37 people at the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony in Daegu. Authorities there referred to the service in question as a “super-spreading event”. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention also identified a church service in Chicago as the location for someone contracting the virus from a spreader.

Despite the few holdouts, however, most churches across the US are adapting to the new reality and new dangers posed by the virus.

Pastor Rich Wilkerson Jr.’s Vous Church in Miami, Florida, is one of hundreds of churches hosting live streams of its services throughout Easter Sunday on YouTube and Facebook, in Spanish and English. Joel Osteen’s non-denominational Lakewood megachurch in Houston will do the same.

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