'Our faith has been challenged': COVID-19 tested beliefs of Louisiana's religious residents
Faith is an integral part of Louisiana's history and culture, and most residents — 84%, according to the Pew Research Center — identify as Christians. Despite that, the practice looks different around the state, with a heavily Catholic southern coast and a "Baptist Belt" across the north, and everything in between.
COVID-19 changed the definition of church and other staples of faith through lockdowns, limits on gatherings and fear. Faith is both deeply personal and communal, and people had to face what it meant when all that was left was the personal.
For some, the pandemic presented more opportunities to share the message they believe in and to wrestle with hard questions that often remain under the surface. For others, it showed them how much of their faith practice was about other people rather than their own journey.
One way or another, COVID-19 left a lasting impression on Louisiana's people of faith.
'What does my faith really look like when I'm in pajamas?'
Nathan Martin, senior pastor of Christian Challenge International in Pineville, spent the first month at home reaching out to his congregation and others on his Facebook feed through live worship and prayer sessions.
"I saw people really looking for authenticity — authentic faith," said Martin, who has led the nondenominational church since 2006. "There is so much we get into doing routinely, as a ritual, that don't have substance. They do have substance, but going to church or Sunday School can become a habit. All of that was taken away from us, and we were left to think 'What does my faith really look like when I'm in pajamas?'"
By the time he reached a month of videos, he was tired. "I felt the weightiness of it," said Martin, who has led the nondenominational, central Louisiana church since 2006.
So he continued his outreach in other ways, talking one-on-one with people, virtually or socially distanced, and hosting livestream conversations with pastors, doctors and mental health professionals.
"A lot of people were questioning — Why did God let this happen? Why can't we pray it away?" Martin said. "We have those questions about cancer and other sicknesses before, but with COVID we really faced them. In wrestling with those questions our faith becomes stronger."
The son and grandson of pastors, his faith has been a part of him for a long time, and he said he was taught to be authentic.
"It's not something I put on," said Martin, 56. "Whether I'm voting on an issue on the city council or organizing a meal train for a family in our congregation, my faith has got to be real. It's not really a conscious decision.
"Your faith is supposed to be who you are."
'More cultural than religious'
The time away from church gatherings also showed people when their faith wasn't really them.
Don de Mahy, 27, was raised Catholic in New Iberia. Now living without roommates in Lafayette, de Mahy was isolated at home during quarantine, which provided time and space to realize that the faith no longer fit.
"In quarantine, you lose the performance parts, the things you just do when other people are watching," they said. "I think my faith was one of those things for me."
Several months into quarantine, around August or September, de Mahy came out as bisexual, transgender and agnostic, claiming neither faith nor disbelief in God.
"It had sort of been building a while, so it didn't catch me off guard, but it came to a head with me committing to a decision," they said. "What's interesting is (faith) could go either way in quarantine or crisis. It could turn you away or toward faith in a higher power. It depends on what you feel personally."
The decision wasn't easy, of course, especially in a region where a belief system is assumed.
"In Louisiana religion, or faith, is more cultural than religious," de Mahy said. "Suddenly you're in quarantine and not experiencing that cultural side, depending solely on the personal part and if it's strong or weak — weak in my case."
But de Mahy sees faith as an ongoing journey.
"It's hard to say where it will go from here," they said. "Faith is something I, at least, will be exploring for a long time."
'Ministries should be focused less on Sunday mornings'
The ideas of authenticity and exploring faith are ones Cole Lusby continues to hear from students he works with and fellowships with in Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship.
Lusby, 28, is director of the student organization at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and one conversation in particular he's hearing a lot now is about "what the broader Church, capital C, is doing wrong, where ministries should be focused less on Sunday mornings and more on Tuesday nights with families in their church."
The experience of being cut off from "fellowship" as it had always been at churches seems to have emphasized that for this younger generation, he explained.
"They recognize that without Sunday morning the church does not exist," Lusby said. "Does that sound like a New Testament church? The students are saying no."
But it's not a brand-new idea, nor is it isolated to southwest Louisiana. It's a broader movement in Christianity that has been building, especially among 18-to-35-year-olds, he said.
"I think there is a movement of believers looking for authentic New Testament churches that model people in a home fellowshipping together," he said. "COVID sped that up. It was coming anyway. COVID just fast-forwarded it and fanned the flame for fellowship, because we didn't have that (during the pandemic)."
He sees it now with his Chi Alpha students. They're showing a greater desire to be in community than they did a year ago.
Jennifer Cantrell, 37, is thankful to be back at Riverpark Church in Shreveport after months of watching services or doing studies from home.
"We went from being super involved and connected to being away from our community and church family," she said. "That separation was different."
The time at home forced her family to "go back to the basics" with their faith, and she wants to keep that focus going forward.
"We will still try to implement that as things go more back to normal — keep faith first and everything else aligns after that," Cantrell said.
'We continued worshipping'
The Rev. Harold McCoy, 68, and the congregation of Greater New Beginning Christian Ministries in Rayville continued to meet throughout the pandemic, whether virtually or in the parking lot of the church.
"We did that for nine months," McCoy said. "Naturally we had to make a shift in the way we did things."
They learned to use social media to reach their church family, which has grown over the past year. They used Zoom, Facebook and YouTube for Wednesday night services and Bible studies, finding they could reach people beyond their facility's four walls.
"We continued worshipping," he said. "We may not have hugged physically, but we hugged virtually. We weren't together physically, but we were together in spirit and in truth."
McCoy, who began the northeastern Louisiana ministry with his wife in 2007, said social media turned out to be "helpful to continue to get the message out, to get the Christ out."
"It opened up a new avenue and new pathways for not only our congregation but to people all over the world," McCoy said. "Rather than cause the message to stop, COVID caused it to go forward."
McCoy said some of his members "really suffered from COVID," physically and emotionally. Some lost friends or family to the virus, and others went through the sickness themselves. McCoy went to many funerals, he said.
"I thank God that over the years me and my wife and others in our congregation, our faith has been challenged," he said, giving as examples other sicknesses and losses they've experienced. "That helped, in my opinion, to strengthen our faith."
Such things — "anything that causes calamities" — "are just a part of life," the reverend said.
Through them, his faith has been strengthened over time, and it happened again during the pandemic.
"I won't say it was shaken; it was strengthened," he said. "My faith still looks up to Him. Rather than be bitter, I'm better for it."
Contact children's issues reporter Leigh Guidry at Lguidry@theadvertiser.com or on Twitter @LeighGGuidry.