Voice of America Features BR Mother

Reprinted from Voice of America Worldwide By Martin Haines

Some folks in the U.S. State of Louisiana have strong opinions about attending religious services during the coronavirus shutdown.

“I don’t give a rat’s tail who [Louisiana Gov.] John Bel Edwards thinks is essential and who isn’t,” said Tricia Slaughter, a member of Life Tabernacle in Baton Rouge.  

Edwards issued a stay-at-home mandate for Louisiana on March 23 that remains in effect. The order limits the operation of businesses that government and health officials consider nonessential.

Of the categories of activities restricted, religious services have been among the most contentious.  

Louisiana joined more than two-thirds of the U.S. states in prohibiting or substantially restricting in-person services to limit the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. Edwards has capped the number of individuals able to worship at once at 10.

Churches across the country have temporarily switched to online services to accommodate the restrictions, but some believe these mandates constitute a violation of their religious freedom.

One of the most visible challenges to coronavirus-related mandates has come from Life Tabernacle Church pastor Tony Spell, who continues to hold weekly in-person services with hundreds of congregants despite being placed under house arrest for violating the order.

Many religious Americans sympathize with the desire to congregate and pray together during these challenging times, but they worry churches like Life Tabernacle are unnecessarily putting the public at risk.

“Surely there’s a way to worship without sacrificing the wellness of the world,” said Amanda Pitts, who has attended virtual services with her Texas church.

But Slaughter insists it’s precisely Life Tabernacle’s in-person services that have maintained her wellness, as well as the wellness of many of her fellow congregants.

Who’s essential?

Slaughter’s defense of her church’s right to hold services is more personal than a debate about the First Amendment.

“I’m an alcoholic,” she explained. “When I first found Life Tabernacle, I was drinking vodka with my blueberry juice every morning. I was abusing prescription drugs. I was dating a married man. My life was a mess.”

Slaughter said she tried Alcoholics Anonymous, but that the 12-step program never stuck for her.

“I told Pastor Spell all of this,” she said. “I told him about my addictions and abuses, and he told me, ‘You are welcome here.’”

That’s part of what makes Life Tabernacle so special to Slaughter. She says it isn’t like the megachurches often in the news. Her fellow congregants are on average much poorer, and many struggle with issues like her own.

For three years, Slaughter almost exclusively went to Sunday morning services, but she says the uncertainty around COVID-19 makes her anxious. To ensure she didn’t turn to alcohol, she recently began attending Tuesday Bible study groups and another service Sunday evening.

“I never imagined I’d live a day without vodka, but now my family at Life Tabernacle is helping me stay sober during a very difficult time,” she said.  

“But I’m not any of those things,” she said. “That’s what’s so special about being in-person at Life Tabernacle. We’re all treated like we’re essential here.”

“I don’t have high-speed internet or a smartphone,” Slaughter said, “and that’s the case for many in our congregation.”

Many members of the church also are without vehicles. Life Tabernacle has 27 buses it sends around the region to pick up congregants each Sunday. Members say this makes it unfeasible to organize into smaller 10-person services.

“They’re making it so hard for me to go to the place I need to fight my alcoholism,” Slaughter said. “But do you know where they make it really easy for me to go? The liquor store. The liquor store is considered essential.”

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

Comments are closed.