The emotional, physical, spiritual and even economic impact of the coronavirus on the Baton Rouge-area faith community and its resilient response to the pandemic was without doubt the top local religion news in 2020.
There were those who learned to adapt under the shutdown orders imposed by Gov. John Bel Edwards to slow the spread of the virus, and those who chose to fight the mandates.
Churches that had never offered online services quickly learned how. Some, like Star of Bethlehem and First Emmanuel Baptist churches — both led by the Rev. Henry J. Brown — started services and Bible studies on Facebook Live and through a conference call line.
While some churches eventually resumed in-person services at the allowed 75% capacity and with proper protocols, Brown held drive-thru services in the parking lot from the beginning of the pandemic through the end of the year.
But over in Central, the Rev. Tony Spell garnered national and international headlines when he was charged with a half-dozen misdemeanor offenses alleging he violated the governor's emergency order when he preached to hundreds of people at his church in the spring.
Spell, pastor of Life Tabernacle Church, saw the early mandates as a violation of First Amendment rights to freedom of worship and assembly. A judge rejected the Pentecostal preacher's claims, ruling the governor had the authority to issue emergency directives during a severe public health threat.
In late November, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Spell's request to have his case heard after lower federal courts in Louisiana ruled Edwards' coronavirus mitigation orders were either constitutional or moot after his stay-at-home order lapsed.
As the pandemic continued to rage, churches worked as the "hands and feet of Jesus," doing mission work and reaching out to the community, providing food and conducting other programs.
Istrouma Baptist Church was among those in the forefront with several community outreach efforts, including buying lunch for health care or other essential workers while supporting a local restaurant owner; offering free lunch in local neighborhoods; and buying groceries weekly for area families.
During the holidays, when many families were struggling like never before, churches offered a helping hand. On Dec. 19, Bethany Church of Baton Rouge teamed up with the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank to give out about 1,000 boxes of food to area families.
When they weren't serving at home, area churches were helping neighbors from afar through disaster relief and other missions. That was evident during the record-breaking hurricane season as many Baton Rouge-area churches sent supplies, food and volunteers to Lake Charles and other areas of Louisiana hit hard by the storms.
Some other noteworthy local religion items and events in 2020 included:
More than a half-dozen area churches welcomed new leaders in 2020.
Chris DeGeorge took over as the pastor of Parkview Baptist Church on May 1. DeGeorge, a Houma native and Nicholls State University graduate, came to Parkview after four years as the senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Tupelo, Mississippi.
Clint Newsom was installed on Sept. 6 as the pastor of Zoar Baptist Church in Central. Newsom, a native of Tupelo, Mississippi, spent the past four years at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He replaced the Rev. Kevin Hand, who retired after 20 years leading Zoar.
Nathan Ryan was named the new senior minister at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge. After serving as the church's associate minister for the past eight years, Ryan will take over on Jan. 7. The Slidell native is a 2002 graduate of LSU, with a Master of Divinity degree from Meadville-Lombard Theological School in Chicago. He began his ministry in 2012 at the Baton Rouge church.
Preston Nix is the interim pastor at Greenwell Springs Baptist Church. Nix, a Texas native and a professor of evangelistic preaching at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was named interim in November. Nix has been in the preaching ministry for 45 years. Brian Robertson had been Greenwell Springs' pastor since January 2018.
John Amos, a Southern University graduate, took over this summer as the president of the Louisiana-Baton Rouge Mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The mission has 226 young missionaries and encompasses most of Louisiana. Amos, an Opelousas native — along with wife Michelle Wright Amos, a Baker native and fellow Southern graduate — came to Baton Rouge for the three-year Baton Rouge mission.
Winton R. Anderson was installed as the pastor of the historic Greater Philadelphia Baptist Church in Slaughter on Nov. 7 after COVID-19 concerns delayed the event from the spring. Anderson, a graduate of LSU and Dallas Baptist University, also is pastor of the Praise Temple of Baton Rouge.
Jeff Ginn resigned May 1 as senior pastor of Istrouma Baptist Church to work with IMB missions in South and Central America. Ginn had been the pastor of the church since August 2011. Istrouma is being led by its pastoral lead team along with a transition team.
Loss of leaders
2020 also saw some area churches lose their leaders.
Bishop Christopher D. Huddleston, pastor of St. James Baptist Church in Slaughter and on the management team of the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging, died Jan. 6 at the age of 35. The Baton Rouge native started preaching at age 10 and was called to be a pastor at age 22.
The Rev. Harry Richard, whose church in Opelousas was one of three churches destroyed by an arsonist during a 10-day spree in spring 2019, died Jan. 11. He was 66. Richard, an Army veteran, was pastor of Greater Union Baptist Church for more than 16 years, working as an assistant pastor before that.
Prophetess Robbin Hardy died April 6 from the coronavirus. She was 56. Hardy worked in ministry along with her husband, the Rev. Ronald Hardy Sr., at Faith, Hope and Love Worship Center. She was an author and, more than 30 years ago, founded Young Women For Christ, which evolved into Girls Enrichment Mentorship Services.
The Rev. J. Bertell Davis, pastor of Magnolia Baptist Church for 21 years and First Little Rock Baptist Church for 10 years, died July 1 at age 66. In addition to his role as pastor, Davis was a longtime chaplain and mentor to Southern University Laboratory School, his alma mater.
The Rev. Dan Alexander Sr., pastor of New Prospect Missionary Baptist Church for 25 years, died Aug. 4.
The Rev. Lee Wesley, a civil rights leader and longtime pastor of Community Bible Baptist Church in Scotlandville, died Nov. 10. The 76-year-old Wesley was also the pastor of Plymouth Rock Baptist Church in Plaquemine. Ten years ago, he helped start Together Baton Rouge, an organization of religious institutions, civic organizations, unions and nonprofits. He was also the first Black moderator of the Baptist Association of Greater Baton Rouge.
Clergy abuse list
Two priests who served in Ponchatoula were added in 2020 to the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge's list of clergymen credibly accused of abuse.
The additions of the Rev. Richard Raphael Archer, a Dominican friar, and the Rev. Lawrence Dark, a Congregation of the Holy Cross priest, brought the total of Catholic clergy members who worked in and around Baton Rouge and were credibly accused to at least 45.
Bishop Michael Duca released the original list in January 2019, acknowledging and apologizing for the crimes of the clerics. The initial list included 14 diocesan priests, 15 from religious orders, a seminarian and seven priests assigned to the Archdiocese of New Orleans who had served in Baton Rouge.
Istrouma Baptist Church celebrated its 100th anniversary Jan. 26.
The church started with a few members in 1920 and grew into a large congregation on Tecumseh Street in north Baton Rouge. The church moved from that location in 1988 to its current site at Interstate 12 and Airline Highway. It completed its large worship center in 2002.
The church also started a Spanish-speaking worship service at the main site and opened a campus in Ascension Parish.
Among the church's more prominent pastors was Samuel C. Rushing, who led Istrouma from 1939-1962. The entrance road to the church bears his name.
New Bethany Church
Bethany Church opened a new state-of-the-art church in Denham Springs in February after spending the previous six years meeting at Walker High School.
The new church is at 28115 Juban Road, near the corner the Juban Crossing shopping center.
Cameron and Melissa Wiggins are the Livingston campus pastors. Bethany, with campuses in Baton Rouge, Baker and Houma, is also planning a New Orleans campus.
In one of the last significant religious gatherings in Baton Rouge before the pandemic shutdown, U.S. Senate chaplain Barry Black spoke to a crowd of about 1,000 people at the 56th annual Louisiana Governor's Prayer Breakfast on March 10 at the Crowne Plaza.
Black, a highly decorated and respected leader, is an ordained minister in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and is known for his eloquent prayers to open Senate sessions.
“I’m living on borrowed time, and I resolve never to do anything I would be afraid to be doing if I knew it were the last hour of my life,” said Black, in his inspiring message. "In other words, I am going to live like I am dying.”
In addition to Gov. John Bel Edwards, guests included U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, Christian recording artist Charles Billingsley and LSU coach Ed Orgeron.
Church arsonist sentenced
Holden Matthews, who torched three historically Black Baptist churches in Port Barre and Opelousas in a 10-day arson spree in spring 2019, was sentenced to 25 years in prison in November.
Matthews was sentenced for three counts of intentional damage to religious property, a hate crime under the 1996 Church Arson Prevention Act, and one count of using fire to commit a felony for burning the three churches — St. Mary Baptist, Greater Union Baptist, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.
The maximum sentence for the four counts was 70 years and prosecutors asked for a minimum sentence of 30 years.
Matthews said he was deeply sorry for his actions and wanted the church communities to know he had again found his faith, although some doubted his recommitment story.
“I will never rejoice in anyone’s downfall, and I will continue to pray for the young man, and I will continue to pray for his family,” said a Greater Union member.