Sean Feucht didn’t like the headlines about him. The controversial Christian worship leader had spent months touring the country and putting on large outdoor concerts protesting Covid-19 restrictions, and what Feucht calls the “mainstream media” was taking notice. Politico described his style as “hippie-religious Covid skepticism” (the “hippie” designator in part a reference to Feucht’s signature long blond curls). Religion News Service called his events “a mix of Christian concert, healing service, guerrilla street theater, and spectator mosh pit.” Rolling Stone gave him a new title: “Jesus Christ, Superspreader?”
The last one particularly displeased Feucht. He took to Twitter to say: “Antifa & BLM protestors looted/ravaged cities across the country for months. @RollingStone applauded it. But Christians gathering to pray & sing is a dangerous act of civil disobedience?” The tweet captured Feucht’s typical response to the criticism he has faced for equating pandemic-related safety measures with the persecution of Christians, for denigrating protests for racial justice, and for jeopardizing the health of residents in pandemic-stricken cities.
But Feucht has consistently leaned in to the storm of controversy that surrounds his #LetUsWorship movement, and this was no exception. “Thanks @RollingStone for the brilliant idea! Limited run of the JESUS CHRIST SUPER-SPREADER shirts out now!!” he tweeted a few weeks after the piece’s publication, with an accompanying link to purchase the aforementioned item for $32.
Now fears are growing that Feucht’s slogan might become an ugly reality for a population particularly vulnerable to the pandemic. Feucht is currently promoting an upcoming series of events across Los Angeles County on December 30 and 31, culminating in an outdoor concert billed as “the party of all parties.” He is calling the two days of gatherings “#LetUsWorship Azusa,” invoking Azusa Street in downtown Los Angeles, home to a series of historic revival meetings stretching from 1906 to 1908. Besides the prayer event that he plans to hold at the exact spot of the Azusa Street Revival on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, Feucht will also hold two outreach events at Skid Row and Echo Park, both home to significant numbers of homeless people. Given Feucht’s history of bringing unmasked crowds into densely populated areas, his plans are raising concerns among advocates for Los Angeles’ unhoused population that Feucht’s party could end in tragedy.
On a December 17 Instagram Live, the worship leader cited as an inspiration Aimee Semple McPherson, the famed Pentecostal evangelist who held revivals during the 1918 flu pandemic: “Aimee launched her healing ministry during a pandemic—everyone said people are sick, you can’t go out, and Aimee said ‘forget that’ and people just started getting healed in the middle of a pandemic.”
While Feucht has not responded to a request for comment, Los Angeles city officials said that no permits had been issued for Feucht’s event (and indeed, that no permits were being issued for any event for the foreseeable future due to the pandemic). This fact does not seem likely to stop Feucht, who has hosted his “worship protests” in other cities without the proper permits. By the end of 2020, Feucht will have organized concerts in 52 cities, purposefully targeting places like Seattle, Kenosha, and Minneapolis in which protests for racial justice have been held. Moreover, he has a history of defying local pandemic rules such as limiting crowd size and wearing masks over what he sees as the “bigotry” of politicians who enforce Covid-19 limitations on in-person church services while allowing Black Lives Matter activists and protesters to gather in large numbers.
This isn’t Feucht’s first foray into the political realm. In 2019, he launched a longshot campaign to flip California’s third congressional district red, despite the fact that a Republican Party-endorsed candidate was already running for the seat. Feucht planned to succeed with the help of “disillusioned millennials,” but wasn’t able to connect with such voters in his own district—the vast majority of his donations came from outside both his district and his state. Feucht did receive national attention for his efforts, securing an interview with Fox News and support from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s PAC. Feucht was even welcomed into the White House alongside other worship leaders. In the photos that emerged from this meeting, Feucht is notable for being the only person in the group shot to lean forward, reach out, and touch President Trump’s arm.
When Feucht lost his primary, the worship leader set his sights in the different, but no less partisan, direction of countering “godless politicians.” Despite Feucht’s enormous post-campaign success—in addition to his national tour, he’s held rallies on the National Mall, published a memoir, and released a collection of worship music recorded on tour which reached the top of the iTunes charts—his message has not changed: The church is under attack, now during the Covid-19 pandemic more than ever, and Christians must fight back. He has shown no indication of backing down from taking this fight directly to Azusa Street.
Understanding the significance of Feucht’s choice to appeal to the Azusa Street Revival in order to promote his events requires an understanding of the historic revival, which acted as a catalyst for the spread of Pentecostalism. Feucht gained his platform as a worship leader with Bethel Church, a megachurch in the charismatic tradition (meaning it shares some Pentecostal theology while remaining closer politically and culturally to evangelicalism). Charismatic Christians like Feucht still claim Azusa Street as a part of their origin story, a place where the “‘color line’ was washed away in the blood,” as one white Pentecostal writer and evangelist put it.
A gathering primarily made up of immigrants, Black people, and formerly enslaved people, the Azusa Street Revival was led by a Black preacher, William J. Seymour. On Instagram Live, Feucht spoke of Azusa Street as a place where “African Americans and whites [were] together worshipping—that was a big part of the revival, reconciliation.” It is the only mention Feucht made of the revival’s racial history in the video’s nearly 24 minutes. Cheryl Bridges Johns, the Robert E. Fischer Chair of Spiritual Renewal at Pentecostal Theological Seminary, told me, “People can look at Azusa Street and say there was racial reconciliation without looking at any of the actual racial tensions that were present.” While the three-year-long revival was characterized by enthusiastic worship services, the practice of speaking in tongues, and interracial fraternization, tensions were brewing.
Those tensions materialized in the form of an influential white Pentecostal preacher, Charles Parham. Though he had formerly acted as a mentor to Seymour, Parham was disgusted by what he considered the “worshipers’ scandalous, unrestrained and disorderly race-mixing.” Christopher House, a Pentecostal pastor and professor at Ithaca College who specializes in Black Pentecostal rhetoric, said, “This countercultural religious movement was happening during the height of Jim Crow. Many of the papers at the time reported that it was scandalous to see white and Black people hugging each other and worshipping together.” The interracial character of Azusa Street was too controversial for some white Pentecostals like Parham; the movement began to split, with white members leaving to practice their own form of Pentecostalism.
Dante Stewart, who writes on the intersections of race, religion, and politics, said he sees parallels between Parham in 1906 and Sean Feucht today, particularly given Feucht’s rejection of the Black Lives Matter movement: “[Parham] couldn’t see the work of the Spirit because he was so bound by his understanding of the world through the lens of whiteness. Sean Feucht can’t even imagine seeing the work of the Spirit, because he has been so bound to a certain type of evangelical whiteness that cannot engage with social movements beyond itself.” Feucht recently shared a video on Twitter in which a white protester prays with a Black pastor: “This is what Azusa Street was all about,” Feucht proclaimed, painting over any racism embedded in the story of white Pentecostals’ response to Azusa Street with a broad brush.
Such whitewashing is not new, nor is it unique to Feucht. “The story of Azusa Street has been coopted by white people for decades,” Bridges Johns said. White Pentecostals and charismatic Christians also invoke the history of Azusa Street, exalting it as their own origin story. House emphasized that “Azusa was started by a black man in a black neighborhood and a black church; it was held amongst people who were excluded from power, who were marginalized.” Feucht’s choice to use Azusa Street to publicize his events, which he is advertising as opportunities for Christians to “rise up with one voice and tell our government leaders that we refuse to be silenced,” does not respect the faith of those Christians at the turn of the twentieth century, Bridges Johns added. “[He’s] moving into sacred ground, bringing with him a mass gathering of people who likely aren’t going to be wearing masks, and that counters the value of the lives of people who live on Skid Row.”
It is for those lives that advocates for homeless people throughout Los Angeles now worry. Although new stay-at-home orders recently went into effect for the state, case counts continue to reach all-time highs and Los Angeles County’s ICU capacity has been reduced to zero percent. Feucht’s track record of defying Covid-19 restrictions does not offer much encouragement that he will cancel the event in accordance with such orders (which do make exceptions for worship gatherings that implement safety measures), but there are some who hope Feucht can be stopped.
Kevin Nye, who works for a non-profit in Los Angeles dedicated to ending homelessness, has been asking Feucht to cancel his event since November, when few details were available other than that it would be a gathering at Azusa Street—which is directly across from Skid Row. Nye was particularly upset when he saw that Feucht was selling his “Jesus Christ Super-Spreader” shirts, prompting him to bring attention to the upcoming event via social media. Nye’s concern has only grown for the area’s homeless communities now that Feucht has released more details about his plans—including that he intends to bring attendees directly into Skid Row and Echo Park to “go after healing and signs and wonders, bring food and clothing, and see the power of God show up.”
Feucht’s entrance into the downtown area, accompanied by an unmasked crowd (in the style of Feucht’s other rallies), could “unintentionally bring a very dangerous super-spreader event to this community,” Nye told me. Compounding the risks are the health hazards that homeless people already experience, including exposure to the cold, preexisting conditions, and poor access to healthcare, housing, and nutrition. Nye also worries about counter-protesters, which he feels would do significantly more harm than good: “The last thing I want is a counter-protest doing the exact same thing it’s protesting—bringing more people to the area, increasing exposure, and playing into Feucht’s persecution narrative.”
Feucht is not the first Christian to conduct outreach in downtown Los Angeles without fully considering the needs of the area’s residents. Stephen Cue Jn-Marie, the founder and lead pastor of the Church Without Walls on Skid Row, has seen such groups come through Skid Row many times before. For the last fourteen years, Jn-Marie and his church have been working to provide for Skid Row’s unhoused population; throughout the last nine months, they’ve been on the street every week providing meals, PPE, hand sanitizer, and other supplies. Jn-Marie told me that earlier this year, a group of Christians entered Skid Row without masks, preaching to anyone who would listen that wearing masks was an act of fear. When he attempted to intervene, one of the group’s members tried to reassure him that they were all on the same team. Jn-Marie recalled: “I said, ‘No, we’re not on the same team, and we’re not trying to do the same thing. We’ve had to work to educate people about this virus. We have been here, and you don’t know this community.’”
It is this lack of knowledge and experience that Jn-Marie sees in Feucht’s choice to hold any event near such a vulnerable population. “People like Sean don’t show any respect to this community,” Jn-Marie said. “I’ve been on Skid Row for fourteen years. A lot of people have come and said they’re bringing revival. They’re not here anymore. They’ve moved on to the next thing.” He added, “I’ve never seen any place in Scripture where Jesus put someone in danger. He was healing people. He wasn’t putting them in danger.”
In addition to spreading the word on social media, Nye has been reaching out to city officials in Los Angeles, asking them to take action to shut down Feucht’s events. He has also appealed directly to Feucht in hopes that the worship leader might consider the lives of those on Skid Row above his own plans. I asked Nye why he thinks he might be able to break through to Feucht. “The Christian optimist in me hopes and believes that everyone is redeemable,” Nye told me. “It’s the same reason I work in homeless services—we don’t give up on anybody.”
And if Feucht doesn’t change his plans? Nye sighed as he told me what he fears will happen: “This could really put us over the edge. Our homeless services systems don’t have the capacity to deal with an outbreak of any more magnitude than we’ve already experienced. We won’t be able to contain it. And a lot of people will get really sick.”
Elena Trueba is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She holds a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and her work has appeared in the Institute of Christian Socialism’s Bias Magazine.