Central’s Man, Woman of the Year for 2020

REV. TONY SPELL, WIFE SHAYE HONORED FOR FIGHTING TO PROTECT RELIGIOUS LIBERTY • By Woody Jenkins, Editor, Central City News • CENTRAL — In recognition of their historic work to protect Freedom of Religion in the United States and the persecution they have endured as a result, the Central City News is proud to recognize Pastor Tony Spell and his wife Shaye as Central’s Man and Woman of the Year for 2020.

Rev. Tony Spell never intended to become a celebrity, a spokesman for churches across the nation, or a resident of the parish prison, but 2020 was a year like no other. It was a year when even the right of a pastor to hold church services came under attack.  It was as if the state and federal Constitutions didn’t exist, the Bill of Rights had been repealed, and the governor had somehow been given the power to close any business and even any church.

On Friday, March 13, 2020, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards issued an Emergency Order demanding that schools close and all “non-essential” businesses close.

In Edwards’ decree, churches were considered “non-essential.”

The problem for Rev. Spell was not so much that he and his grandfather, Bishop Bervick Spell, had never missed a service in 61 years. Rather, it was that the Bible exhorts believers to Not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as provided in Hebrews 10:25.

Despite the governor’s decree, on Sunday, March 15, 2020 Life Tabernacle Church held its regular 10 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. services. Some in the media said that a church in Central had “defied” the governor’s “mandate.”

As a former seven-term member of the Louisiana House of Representatives, I was familiar with the Governor’s Emergency Powers Law. In fact, I had written part of it. I marveled that John Bel Edwards would attempt to use that statute as the basis for closing down businesses and churches.  The law grants the governor no such power. In fact, La.R.S. 29:736(D) specifically says that the governor may not diminish any of the rights contained in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution or the Declaration of Rights of the Louisiana Constitution. I assumed the governor would soon read the law and pull back the heavy fist he had slammed down.  However, over the next 10 months, the governor never did that.  He continued to issue one “emergency order” after another — almost all without any basis in law.

The Threats Began

On Tuesday morning, March 17, Rev. Spell reached out to the Central City News. He said he heard they were coming to arrest him if he opened the church and attempted to hold services again.  He asked if we would come to the church that night and broadcast the services live on Facebook. “This may provide us some protection. If they are going to arrest me, at least the world will know,” he said. We agreed.

A series of officials soon came to Life Tabernacle to urge, threaten, or beg Rev. Spell not to hold services. Many demanded that he meet them outside the church out of fear they would get Covid by going inside.

These included the Commander of State Police, the State Fire Marshal, the Sheriff, and others. “We’d hate to put you in jail,” one said.  All of them warned Pastor Spell that things would get very ugly if he did not comply.

Hostile Media

The Baton Rouge Advocate and other local media got into the fray again, calling Rev. Spell every name in the book. He was described as a threat to public order, law, the constitution, and good health. Everyone at the church would soon die, many said on Facebook. Some commentators seemed to relish the idea.

Nevertheless, the service went on that Tuesday night as scheduled, and the Central City News broadcast it in its entirety to a huge audience around the world.  As the service was winding down, a Central city police officer arrived in the front of the church and asked Pastor Spell to come out.  The pastor complied, and we videoed the encounter live.

The police officer advised the pastor that the National Guard would be coming for him the next day if he failed to assure them that he would shut down the church.

At that point, almost every church in Louisiana was closed to normal worship services.

Our video of the encounter went viral and was viewed by nearly 1 million people across the country.

First Arrest

The next day the National Guard did not arrive but on March 31 Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran did. He came into the sanctuary, advised Rev. Spell of his rights, placed him under arrest and finger printed him. He then released the pastor without taking him to jail.

Over the coming days, weeks, and months, the “Church That Wouldn’t Close” became a national story.  Almost every major news outlet in the country wanted to interview Pastor Spell.

Almost all the stories were negative. Rev. Spell was uniformly depicted as a scoundrel, a killer, and a religious fanatic. The language in the stories knew no bounds.

As the governor issued more and more edicts requiring masks and “social distancing,” Life Tabernacle continued as it always had. It continued to hold church with no masks and only modest attempts at social distancing.

Gov. John Bel Edwards and Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome both called out the pastor and ordered the public not to attend “that church.”

Government Persecution

The pastor and his wife Shaye began to be followed by unmarked vehicles, obviously from federal law enforcement.  Security cameras from some unknown law enforcement agency were installed overlooking their master bedroom.

Sheriff deputies appeared in the parking lot during Sunday services and began taking photos of the license plates of every car in the parking lot.  Members of the church were followed.

Sister Shaye Spell said it created a climate of fear and uncertainty.  “We wondered if we were still living in America,” she said.

A protestor soon arrived at the church. Before every service, he would stand out front and shout obscenities at members of the congregation as they entered and left the church property.  Despite complaints to law enforcement, nothing was done.

Arrested, Sent to Jail

On Sunday, April 19, Rev. Spell was returning from the church’s bus ministry.  He went to talk to the protester.  The bus stopped about six feet from the protester who later claimed the bus put him in fear of great bodily harm. However, video of the incident shows the protester did not move or jump back as though in fear.  Nevertheless, District Judge Fred Crifasi ordered Rev. Spell arrested on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon. He was taken into custody and incarcerated in the Parish Prison. He bonded out later that day, but not before preaching to a cell full of appreciative inmates.

On Thursday, April 23 Judge Crifasi held a hearing via Zoom on the charge. He stated that he had not personally looked at the video of the alleged crime.  At the hearing, Judge Crifasi told Rev. Spell that unless he agreed to stop holding church, he would be held in contempt of court and be sent to the Parish Prison until September.  Rev. Spell said he would like to consider his answer. The judge gave him until 4 p.m. When Rev. Spell did not answer by that time, the judge gave him until 5 p.m.

At that time, Rev. Spell sent his answer, which was, 1 Peter 3:14 – “But and if ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled.” Judge Crifasi asked Rev. Spell to explain, but the pastor said that was his answer. The judge said he took it as a no.

Ankle Bracelet, House Arrest

Judge Crifasi ordered Rev. Spell fitted with an ankle bracelet like a common criminal.  The bracelet was applied on Saturday, April 25. The Central City News was there and videoed it live.  More than 200,000 people watched. 

Under the terms of Judge Crifasi’s order, Rev. Spell was prohibited from leaving his home, which is on the same property as the church. If he left from under the roof, the ankle bracelet set off an alarm. The judge renewed his threat to send the pastor to jail if he left his house to hold church.

After much prayer, the next day, which was Sunday, April 26, Rev. Spell walked to church and presided over services. Immediately after the service ended at 12 noon, Judge Crifasi ordered the pastor arrested.

Events Intervened

However, events intervened. That afternoon a Baton Rouge policemen was killed.  The Covid was in progress. Rev. Spell’s attorney at the time, Joe Long, told the judge that hundreds, perhaps thousands of people would be coming to Baton Rouge to support Rev. Spell.  It would be a mistake to provoke such a scene with the police shooting and Covid. The judge agreed.  He ruled that Rev. Spell would not be sent to Parish Prison because there was a risk he would infect the inmates with Covid.

After a few weeks, the judge agreed to have the ankle bracelet removed.

Superspreader that Wasn’t

Since then, Rev. Spell has continued to hold church. Life Tabernacle meets at 10 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays and at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays.  Since March, he has presided over 120 services.  They have ranged from 500 to 3,000 people.  There have been no deaths and few cases.  

Life Tabernacle was supposed to be a superspreader and everyone was going to die, but that hasn’t happened.  In fact, Life Tabernacle has had far less impact from Covid than most churches that closed.

The news media was on top of Life Tabernacle 24/7 and seemed eager for an outbreak of the Covid, but it never came.

Instead, Rev. and Sister Spell showed the importance of standing strong against oppression and fighting for our religious liberty.

Life Tabernacle was fighting not only for its right to hold church in a time of crisis but for the right of every church in America to open up and have church.

It also stood as embarrassing proof that the narrative of the state was false — that it was not necessary to stay home, wear masks, and close the church.

By late April, a few churches across the nation reopened. By May, the number grew significantly.  By mid-summer, most churches that survived financially were open to one degree or another.

At first, the Governor’s orders had a devastating effect on Life Tabernacle.  Church attendance and the bus ministry saw numbers drop by two thirds.  But as Pastor Spell and wife Shaye continued to have church, the people began to return.  Now attendance is at pre-Covid levels.

In fact, Life Tabernacle has prospered.  Here are the numbers. They include the down weeks because of the Covid.

Year 2020 Attendance

•17 and under – 14,375 – Average: 276

•18 and up – 37,448 – Average: 720

•Total Attendance – 51,823 – Average: 997

•Number who received the Holy Ghost: 457

•Number of baptisms: 460

 Sunday School

•Nursery – Total: 1,606 – Average: 31

•Little Sprouts – 1st Place – Total: 3,723 – Average: 72

•Girls Connect –  2nd Place –

Total: 3,356 – Average: 65

•Boys Connect – 3rd Place – Total: 3,110 – Average: 60

•Girls Connect – Total: 1,310 – Average: 25

•Boys Elevate – Total: 1,270 – Average: 24

•Yearly bus totals 20,622 riders 

•1st place – Bus 14 – 1,521 riders

•2nd place – Bus 6 – 1,499 riders 

•3rd place – Bus 3 – 1,464 riders 

Home Bible Studies 8,579 

Bus Ministry

The church is very strong on outreach. It has 32 buses. Every Saturday, bus leaders drive out into the community and invite people to church, especially children whose parents do not have a church.  On Sunday, the buses pick them up and feed them a good meal. They go to church, and then the buses bring them home.


One of the amazing things about the year at Life Tabernacle was the summer youth conference Revolution.  Every year, Pentecostal youth from across the country gather at summer conferences. The largest is held in Tulsa.  However, because of Covid, the conference was cancelled, simply because no large arena would host a large national conference.

Pastor Spell was concerned that the young people of Life Tabernacle would lose the opportunity to meet and mingle with youth from across the country and experience three days of camp meeting-style worship and revival.  He also knew that these summer conferences are the place where many future pastors and church leaders make a commitment to devote themselves to the ministry.  Others find job opportunities or even a spouse.

So the pastor decided to sponsor Revolution, a national youth conference, at Life Tabernacle.  In order to accommodate such a large conference, he rented a massive tent.  For three days in July, the tent was filled with 3,000 young people at five services.  The event was broadcast worldwide.

Once again this summer, Life Tabernacle will host Revolution on the church campus.  The dates are June 30 to July 4, 2021.  Registration is free. To register, go to ltcbr.com.

Live Broadcasts

Since March, the Central City News has broadcast Life Tabernacle services — more than 120 services. The church also broadcast its services on its youtube channel.  Audiences have ranged from 5,000 to 1 million per service.

Today Life Tabernacle is one of the most viewed church services in the United States.

Rallies at the Capitol

Life Tabernacle has played an active role in promoting rallies at the State Capitol challenging the decrees issued throughout the year by Gov. John Bel Edwards.  The church and Pastor Spell have kept the pressure on to open Louisiana and return things to normal.


Rep. Danny McCormick of Caddo Parish introduced legislation to protect Life Tabernacle and all other churches in their right to assemble.  The legislation overwhelmingly passed the House committee and the House floor, but died in a Senate committee. 

However, the clear language of the Governor’s Emergency Powers Act and the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn case should provide Life Tabernacle with all the protection it needs.

Pastor’s Wife and Partner

For Sister Shaye, 2020 has been a very busy and difficult year. As the pastor’s wife, she must be everywhere and serve the needs of a large and growing congregation. But as a wife and mother, she must also maintain a very busy household that always seems to be full of people.

The stress of having your husband thrown in jail, wearing an ankle bracelet, and being subject to arrest at any time has certainly made life more difficult.

Yet, the vibrant Christian wife and mother always sparkles with a smile, a hug, and an encouraging word for all.  She makes it all look easy when of course it’s not.

Sister Shaye plays a major role in all aspects of the church and is a worthy partner in everything Rev. Spell undertakes.

The Spells still have legal problems to overcome.  However, recent Supreme Court decisions will make it difficult for Gov. John Bel Edwards to harass Rev. Spell or close down the church.

Pastor Spell says 2020 was the most difficult year in the history of Life Tabernacle but also the very best.  If all continues as it has, 2021 should be another banner year for Life Tabernacle.

Meanwhile, Christians throughout America can be grateful that one church led by a brave pastor and his wife took a stand for religious liberty and have kept their doors open through one of the most difficult periods of peacetime history.

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