Before the Rev. Tony Spell gained massive notoriety for his refusal to stop holding church services amid the coronavirus shutdown, the unyielding, Scripture-quoting pastor was weighing his options about how best to serve both God and man.

He held a mid-March weeknight service with hundreds in attendance at his church in Central, violating Gov. John Bel Edwards’ first order limiting public gatherings. The next day, Spell was hearing from all sides.

Some wanted him to follow the example of other pastors and stop holding in-person services entirely. Others were egging him on, encouraging Spell and his church of Apostolic Pentecostals to take up the mantle of firebrand evangelists willing to go toe-to-toe with the government over the murky line between public safety and religious freedom.

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Controversial Life Tabernacle Church pastor Tony Spell talks Wednesday, May 13, 2020, just outside the front door of his residence behind the church.

Seeking a middle ground, Spell spent $14,000 on an outdoor Sunday service. He said he now regrets it — not because of the potential for spreading the coronavirus, but because he believes he showed weakness by wavering even for an instant. The price tag also vexes him.

He made a choice afterward to not only ignore the governor’s order but to defy it. Since then, Spell has bused congregants from Gonzales to Glen Oaks to his services, where he sings, preaches and even perches on top of pews when he gets revved up. He still hugs and shakes hands ostentatiously.

Spell said during a recent interview on his front porch that 80,000 American coronavirus deaths — now approaching 100,000 — are “not a large number,” given the hundreds of thousands of abortions in the U.S. each year. In his mixed-race church, Tony Spell has compared himself to Rosa Parks for his willingness to resist.

“I said, ‘No more games, no more gimmicks,’ ” Spell said. “We’re going back to full-blown church, with no restrictions. That’s what I regret — I regret that I ever capitulated to their ungodly, unconstitutional requests.”

The self-proclaimed prophet is making international waves from Baton Rouge — a city where the words “famous pastor” conjure Jimmy Swaggart. Spell’s critics see him through that lens, casting Spell as another smooth-talking preacher out to make a buck, and Spell himself is unapologetic about his appetite for money to sustain his ministry.

But many of Spell’s congregants see him as a sincere and gung-ho servant of God who knocks on doors in some of Baton Rouge’s most forlorn neighborhoods to carry out his mission — without much recognition outside their faith’s insular community.

“The man is literally the embodiment of what a Christian should be,” said Anner Daniel Gomez, 22. His father, Salvador, who emigrated from El Salvador in the late 1980s, is now a restaurateur and contractor who remains heavily involved in the church’s breakfast program, which feeds up to 600 children a week.

But others, including some people who have dealt with Spell in the secular world, where he built and sold homes, see him as a wheeler-dealer whose word can’t be trusted.

Monique Wallace, who bought a house from him that she soon decided was a lemon, found herself sued by the subsequent buyer.

“It leaves me unsettled on trusting someone like him, and that makes me sad because I am a Christian,” Wallace said. “Because of what we’ve experienced, it leaves me questioning whether he’s making good choices for his congregation.”

These days, Spell has embraced the role of lightning rod. Central police have issued him six summonses for defying the stay-at-home order, and a Baton Rouge judge placed him under house arrest, though it was lifted May 15. Spell said he’s trying to top the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s arrest tally.

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Controversial Life Tabernacle Church pastor Tony Spell points out his house arrest ankle bracelet as he talks Wednesday, May 13, 2020, just outside the front door of his residence behind the church.

As he rocked on a white chair on a recent morning, he kicked up his black dress shoe to show off an ankle bracelet that buzzed each time he ventured past his patio.

He quipped that it’s the only jewelry he’s ever worn. Spell’s personality might be flamboyant, but he preaches against worldly flashiness. He is quick to tell jokes but equally quick to take offense when politicians and other pastors chastise him.

The governor is a favorite target. Spell sued in federal court to block Edwards’ order, though a federal judge recently tossed out several of his claims. He calls the governor "King Edwards," a sly nod to his favorite cigars. Though he and Edwards are both devout Christians who staunchly oppose abortion, Spell says they disagree on fundamentals.

“You know why King Edwards hates me?” asked Spell. “Because I’m taking his voters off of the plantation. I’m taking his voter base from him. It stands to reason, when a man starts coming to church and gets off welfare and government subsidies, he starts pulling the Republican ticket instead of the Democrat ticket.”

Spell draws many congregants from low-income communities of color, and he says he turns no one away — even if they’re gay, something he inveighs against. But he also reserves contempt for church regulars who don’t share at least 10% of their income. Such a person is “a thief,” whether the person has a job or survives on food stamps. Spell warns attendees: “You’re not going to come up in here and suck up our air conditioning for free without paying for it.”

The payments bring a return, he says. Spell prays for his congregants, officiates their weddings, baptizes their children, visits them in the hospital.

“Ask me and I’ll tell you their number,” he said. “That’s how special they are to me. So I’m special enough to them that they give tithing and offering. Come to a service and watch people throw money on the platform while I’m preaching. I don’t ask for that. They do that because it’s a sacrifice.”

Life Tabernacle stands out among Apostolic churches

When Spell was arrested, dozens of congregants waited for him in the gravel parking lot of East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. They sang, clapped and danced to gospel songs. It was hot, but the women wore modest long skirts while the men wore slacks and dress shirts.

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Shaye Spell, wife of Life Tabernacle Church pastor Tony Spell, flashes currency for bond money just before entering East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, after her husband was arrested and booked Tuesday, April 21, 2020. The pastor, who has defied the prohibition of large gatherings put in place because of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 epidemic and continued to hold services, was arrested on a Tuesday on allegations he tried to hit a protester Sunday with one of his buses.

Spell’s wife, Shaye, flashed the $5,000 cash for his bail to cheers and Spell soon emerged, promising to keep up the fight. Hours later, he was preaching again, half-singing, half-speaking. When a big line landed, his congregants ran laps around the church.

As Apostolics, Spell and his congregants are a small subset of 644 million Pentecostals worldwide. They believe they must be baptized both in water and through the Holy Ghost to reach salvation and that speaking in tongues is evidence of the spirit’s presence. They adhere to strict “holiness” standards for dressing and grooming — no hair cutting or makeup for women — to steer clear of worldly vices.

The denomination made news after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, and Kim Davis, a clerk of court in Kentucky, refused to issue licenses to same-sex couples, citing her Apostolic faith.

Unlike many Christian denominations, Spell’s church is not part of a hierarchy, though it belongs to a loose confederation called Worldwide Pentecostal Fellowship. An individual pastor has vast authority to guide his flock, according to Daniel Isgrigg, an instructor at Oral Roberts University and director of its Holy Spirit Research Center. Apostolic pastors often embrace criticism as proof that they were called by God.

“It helps them feel they are justified because the ‘world’ resists them doing what they believe is right,” he said.

Even so, in the influenza pandemic of 1918 — when the Apostolic branch was just taking shape — Pentecostals largely followed the rules, canceling revivals and quarantining members.

That was long before the birth of Life Tabernacle, founded in 1959 as First Pentecostal Church of West Baton Rouge by Spell’s grandfather, Bishop Bervick Spell. In 1967, Bervick Spell moved his ministry to Plank Road and renamed it Life Tabernacle.

The church moved again in 2005 to its current site, at the corner of Hooper and Blackwater roads, following the eastward migration of its flock. In a 2009 church service, Bervick Spell handed over the reins to his grandson, who built up the busing effort.

“It’s really not glamorous what they do,” said Tony Spell’s son-in-law Jordan Copeland. “They go into the worst parts of Baton Rouge, they pick up kids, they feed them, they clothe them.”

Bervick Spell was known for a light touch. He was easily able to mend divides and smooth over tension, according to written testimonials from other Pentecostal leaders.

Two generations later, Tony Spell has exposed deeper rifts within his faith community. Andrea Johnson, a history professor at California State University at Dominguez Hills who has written extensively about Apostolics, said Spell’s belief that his faith requires in-person services is unusual. She said most Apostolics have chosen to follow social distancing guidelines.

But she and others noted that Apostolics share a belief in a person's ability to receive a call directly from the Holy Spirit, which leaves followers reluctant to question one another.

“There are few ways that an organization can rein them in,” Johnson said.

How far do tithing, offerings, real estate go?

It’s not cheap for Spell to hold services every Sunday and Tuesday, to feed hundreds of attendees, to maintain dozens of buses and a 34-acre campus. Life Tabernacle does it through “tithings and offerings,” according to Spell.

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Buses lined up outside Life Tabernacle Church, seen Wednesday, May 13, 2020.

Life Tabernacle has also dabbled in real estate over decades. Primarily under Bervick Spell, the church bought and sold property, at times offering owner financing.

Often, Bervick Spell would buy property and flip it, though the profits were rarely spectacular. Before becoming a full-time minister, he had operated a Piggly Wiggly in Eunice; later, he ran Lifeway bookstores.

“Bishop Spell was a very astute businessman,” said Edwin Wildman, a former church board member.

Zachary City Court Judge Lonny Myles said Bervick Spell, an old friend, completed the church’s capstone deal in 2004. He sold Life Tabernacle’s Plank Road property — built up with houses of worship and book warehouses — to another church for $4.6 million.

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Olld home of Life Tabernacle Church, at 8903 Plank Road, across from the airport, seen Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Now called Saintsville, it's now the home of La. East Jurisdiction One Headquarters.

“He probably got twice what anyone else would have paid for it,” Myles said. “He did a great job.”

The property’s current owners, who declined to comment, are still making $24,582 monthly payments to Life Tabernacle.

Around the same time, the church took out a multimillion-dollar mortgage on its new property to finance the new church’s construction. Tony Spell lives there, in a modest house with a swimming pool owned by the church. He shares a Nissan Rogue with his wife.

Tony Spell estimated the church’s properties are worth $12 million, but he declined to disclose the value of all of its assets.

“I don’t have any upper-echelon members of society here,” Spell told his congregation May 3. “I don’t have a lot of really educated people in the church, and people think I’m crazy. And they don’t know how — how can you buy all those buses, and 34 acres and millions of dollars in real estate? Well, there’s no rich people here. All I can really say is, to God be the glory.”

Spell said Life Tabernacle has also loaned money to hundreds of aspiring pastors.

“The borrower is serving to the lender, that’s biblical,” he said. “If I don’t make a profit, I’m a fool. What do I make a profit for? To in turn subsidize other people.”

Unlike other nonprofits, churches are not required to disclose where their money comes from, what they spend it on and how much they pay top employees.

Spell says he draws an annual salary of just $48,000 from the church, and he is its only employee.

But, he also said however he spends the church’s money is between him and God, and that pastors should not apologize for driving luxury cars and owning private jets — though he has no plans to do either.

“Could you see me in a jet?” he said with a laugh. “Crop-dusting the Governor’s Mansion, with a ‘Take that, John Bel Edwards.’ No, I’m never going to own a jet.”

Philip Hackney, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who used to oversee tax-exempt organizations at the Internal Revenue Service, said nonprofits generally pay no income taxes. In Louisiana, churches are also exempt from property taxes.

Johnson, the California history professor, said pastors of independent churches like Spell’s typically need a secondary source of income. Real estate is a common option.

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Sign for Life Tabernacle Church bus service, seen outside home of pastor Tony Spell as he talks Wednesday, May 13, 2020, just outside the front door of his residence behind the church.

“If you amass a lot of money from real estate, then what do you do with that cash is the question,” Johnson said.

Offering loans through the church, she said, could be a way to create a new income stream without running afoul of tax law.

'I feel sorry for his church members'

Spell said he felt called to be a pastor when he was just 6 and spent most of his childhood traveling the country as part of a family musical group, even performing in the Gospel Tent at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

But before taking over Life Tabernacle, Tony Spell worked in the private sector. He spent two years building neighborhoods in Central and Baton Rouge for the national homebuilder DR Horton; he also worked as a millwright at industrial plants. His contracting work led to a few disputes.

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Entrance to Central's Hampton Village subdivision, where controversial Life Tabernacle Church pastor Tony Spell built more than 70 homes, seen Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

In a typical example, Natosha Toliver said she felt hoodwinked after she bought a Hampton Village home from Spell in 2006. Spell had described the house as his personal dream home, and Toliver figured it would be nothing short of perfect.

But the backyard flooded when it rained. The air conditioner didn’t cool evenly. She said she told Spell about their concerns, but he did not fix them. After spending thousands of dollars on a pump to drain the yard, she and her husband moved out, frustrated after two years.

“Tony Spell, he’s always talking about being a man of God,” Toliver said. “But he was horrible to me. He didn’t care.”

“I feel sorry for his church members, I really do,” she added. “I just think this man’s all about money.”

Spell acknowledged Hampton Village had drainage problems, but he said as the homebuilder, rather than the subdivision developer, he was not to blame.

Wade Evans, a Central councilman, was also left with a sour taste in his mouth after doing business with Spell.

Evans, who builds cabinets, said he hired three men at the minister’s urging after the 2016 flood. He said Spell assured him he would insure them.

But he didn’t, and the men messed up the jobs, Evans said. He said he had to buy new materials and redo the work at a cost of thousands. Lately, he’s been thinking about it again as Spell basks in the limelight.

“A man of faith does not have to mislead or lie, even if it’s just little white lies,” Evans said.

Spell said he was handling many contracting jobs at the time and didn’t recall the incident but insisted his dealings are “always scrupulous, ethical and above board.”

“Anybody that says I owe them money is a liar,” he said.

At the same, he said he’s open to meeting with Evans and doing what it takes to make it right.

'Never given me a fair shake'

Tensions between the Spell family and the surrounding community mounted a few weeks ago, when the Spells found four cameras trained on their home.

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One of the cameras looking toward the residence and church of controversial Life Tabernacle Church pastor Tony Spell, seen Wednesday, May 13, 2020 on a utility pole along Blackwater Road.

Shaye Spell said a church employee spoke to a man parked across the street last month and the man identified himself as a State Police trooper.

Lt. Nick Manale, spokesman for State Police, declined to comment “on any investigation that may or may not be underway.”

Earlier this month, on the same day Tony Spell’s house arrest was lifted and his lawsuit against the state was partially dismissed, two of four cameras were removed. The cameras were raised in the suit but not addressed in the dismissal order.

“I’m tired of being watched,” Shaye Spell said in a recent interview.

Central police and East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies have denied surveilling the church or the family.

The Spells also grouse that authorities have ignored their complaints about death threats and church buses being vandalized.

Law enforcement officials dispute that.

Casey Rayborn Hicks, a spokeswoman for Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, said they took fingerprints from a metal object after the Spells reported broken bus windows.

Gautreaux also noted that he and Tony Perkins — president of the powerful Family Research Council — met with Tony Spell on March 24 to ask him to stop holding in-person services. The sheriff’s prepared statement took a dig at Spell’s motivations.

“Pastor Spell refused and stated that if people were not in his church, he would not make money,” Hicks said.

Spell, however, insists that Gautreaux threatened him during their conversation — which the sheriff denies.

Spell said when he was weighing whether to follow the stay-at-home order, he cared most about what God thought of him, then what his church thought of him. But what Central thought about him was less important.

“The community’s way down at the bottom of the list because this community, Central, has never given me a fair shake,” Spell said. “They’re 88% white; there are no multicultural churches in this city except for mine.”

He said he’s long felt unwelcome in Central.

“During the great flood of 2016, I destroyed eight buses rescuing people in high water,” he said. “I got no thank-you's from the mayor, from the governor, from congressmen, from senators. I didn’t get one good article.”


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.