A Louisiana pastor whose church has remained open during the coronavirus pandemic urged his followers to donate their stimulus checks to evangelists like himself ― on the same day one of his elderly parishioners reportedly died due to the virus.
Pastor Tony Spell, who leads Life Tabernacle Church in the suburbs of Baton Rouge, has been openly defying his state’s ban on large public gatherings, drawing hundreds to in-person worship services while insisting that “true Christians do not mind dying.”
Harold Orillion, a 78-year-old member of Life Tabernacle Church, died on Wednesday from complications related to COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, according to several Louisiana news outlets. The local coroner listed Orillion’s cause of death as “acute respiratory distress syndrome, 2nd pneumonia, 2nd COVID-19,” according to a statement obtained by the Daily Beast.
Nevertheless, Spell is insisting that Orillion’s death was not related to COVID-19.
“He died of a broken heart,” Spell told local NBC affiliate WVLA-TV on Thursday. “Harold’s son died last week,” he said, adding that Orillion had Parkinson’s disease.
“Harold did not have Coronavirus, he was never on [a] ventilator, he did not have Covid-19,” the pastor said.
A lawyer hired to represent Life Tabernacle Church in its fight to ignore Louisiana’s stay-at-home order has also fallen ill from the virus and has been hospitalized since Tuesday, according to local newspaper The Advocate.
It’s not clear where exactly these two men contracted the coronavirus.
On the day of Orillion’s death, Spell posted a video to his YouTube page encouraging viewers to get involved in a “stimulus challenge.” He asked people to donate the relief checks they’re receiving from the federal government as part of the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package. Spell suggested donating the money to evangelists, missionaries and music ministers who “haven’t had an offering in a month.”
The pastor said he is donating his entire stimulus check of $1,200 and his wife is doing the same. His son is also donating his check of $600, the pastor said.
“If you don’t have a church, give through my website,” he added before spelling out that website address in the video.
Spell declined to answer HuffPost’s questions about Orillion’s death and about the stimulus challenge, telling this reporter in an email, “If you really want to know come see in person.”
Spell is part of the Oneness Pentecostal tradition. Like some other Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians, Oneness Pentecostals tend to believe that a faithful giving of tithes will result in increased financial blessings, according to Lloyd Barba, a scholar of Pentecostalism at Amherst College.
Although Oneness Pentecostals would spurn the label, Barba explained, this belief aligns closely with the “prosperity gospel” ― which proposes that God grants health and wealth to those who are faithful in just the right way.
“Given Pentecostal ideas about giving, there is no doubt that Spell and others would believe that giving either some or all of the stimulus money would result in a blessing back from God,” Barba said.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) issued a stay-at-home order on March 22 directing all residents to leave their homes only for essential needs. Houses of worship are not on the state’s list of essential infrastructure.
Local police charged Spell on March 31 with several misdemeanors for defying Edwards’ orders. But Spell pledged to continue holding services.
Barba noted that Spell’s approach to the pandemic is an exception among Oneness Pentecostal denominations, most of which have published statements about heeding the government’s directives. Still, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t received support from his fellow Oneness Pentecostal pastors watching from the sidelines.
“They themselves have not nor will not risk the course of action that Spell has taken, but they indeed admire that he has taken a stance in the name of religious freedom,” Barba said.
In an interview with TMZ last week, Spell was asked to hypothesize about what he would say if one of his parishioners eventually died of COVID-19.
“I have to say that they died like free people, fighting for their convictions,” he responded.
Spell told WVLA-TV that he planned to move forward with Sunday services this weekend.
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