Every day Landon Spradlin was growing weaker, and now, on the morning when he would leave New Orleans for the last time, the 66-year-old preacher and blues guitarist was unable to load his bags into the white Ford F-250 that was supposed to carry him home.
The world had changed since the Spradlins crossed the same bridge weeks earlier to begin their annual New Orleans street ministry. The couple from rural Gretna, Va., had arrived Feb. 18, several days before President Trump declared on Twitter that the novel coronavirus was “very much under control in the USA.” They left on March 16, the same day the president would recommend that Americans stop gathering in groups of more than 10.
New cases of covid-19, the deadly disease once confined to central China, were emerging rapidly across the United States. Cities and states were beginning to lock down. After a teeming Mardi Gras, New Orleans had canceled its similarly boisterous St. Patrick’s Day celebration. The French Quarter was all but empty.
And the Spradlins were sick.
This happened to them almost every year: After the crowds and the music, the conversations and prayers with countless strangers, they would come home from Louisiana with some kind of bug. Landon had bad lungs, and when he began wheezing in the days after Mardi Gras he assumed it was one of the periodic visitations of bronchitis, pneumonia or severe asthma he endured. Jean, who is 63, came down with a slight fever and shortness of breath.
But there were, as always for the Spradlins, ample reasons for hope. An Air Force veteran, Landon had sought help at the New Orleans Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He was tested for the coronavirus, and the result was negative. The doctors diagnosed him with pneumonia and prescribed a course of antibiotics.
The Spradlins were also counting on a power greater than a Z-Pak or an albuterol canister. Their fervent brand of charismatic Christianity held that God regularly intervened in the world to alter the course of believers’ physical ailments.
“I don’t believe there are incurable diseases. God can heal anything,” Landon said during an interview at a 2016 motorcycle rally in Daytona Beach, Fla. “There are documented cases of God healing AIDS. God can cause limbs to grow out where they’ve been chopped off. God can raise the dead.”
A new malady had emerged as his Mardi Gras ministry ended last month. But not everyone acknowledged its threat. Three days before leaving, Landon — an avid Trump supporter — posted a meme on his Facebook page about the coronavirus, which at the time had killed about 40 people in the United States. The media, it warned, was trying to “manipulate your life” by creating “mass hysteria.”
As the truck picked up speed on Interstate 10, the pastor who believed in prophecy had no idea what lay ahead — isolation, unanswered prayers and a horrific death that would make his Facebook post the target of widespread derision.
When Jean pulled into a North Carolina gas station to use the bathroom, Landon had been quiet and she thought he was asleep. “You need to go, too,” she said, opening the passenger-side door to help him out.
Instead he collapsed to the ground.
‘A heart for the lost’
Jean Crabtree had just moved to southwestern Virginia to work as the office manager for a shoe warehouse in 1984 when she walked into an unfamiliar church. The non-denominational Blue Ridge Gospel Tabernacle had been founded by a retired motel construction supply man who believed God had spoken to him with instructions to build a “School of the Prophets" in the small town of Rocky Mount.
Crabtree, a 28-year-old from San Diego, was greeted at the church’s entrance by a short, blue-eyed man wearing a gray suit.
“We’ve been expecting you,” Landon Spradlin said, shaking her hand.
“He had heard there was a girl from California coming,” Jean recalled. “But when he said that, I heard — I don’t know how to put it — like, an echo of eternity.”
He was a “dynamo,” Jean said, irrepressible in his drive to confess his love of Jesus and, soon, his love of her. He called every day, and after five months of calls they were married. Landon was rooted in the sparsely populated hills of Pittsylvania County, and Jean abandoned her plans to return to California. Some might call their meeting serendipitous, but in the world they inhabited, nothing happened by chance.
It was a world of Christians who believed God had never stopped revealing himself in the ways described in the books of Exodus or Acts, a world of cancers spontaneously cured through prayer, of car salesmen and grocery cashiers who turned their eyes heavenward on Sundays and began speaking in tongues.
It was a world of dramatic conversions and hard hearts melted by the Lord. Landon counted himself among them, and he wouldn’t hesitate to share the story of how, after a youth given over to booze, drugs and women, he woke one night while in the Air Force in Upstate New York to a disembodied voice instructing him to turn on the radio. The first song he heard was “Presence of the Lord” by the British rock supergroup Blind Faith.
“The presence of God filled up the room, and God spoke to me,” Landon recalled years later during his Daytona Bike Week interview. “He said: ‘You want to know what to do with your life? Do this.’ ”
Landon found his calling in the nascent Christian blues movement, which refashioned conventional 12-bar blues music about everyday sorrows into a soundtrack of spiritual renewal. A talented musician, he used his Fender Stratocaster and Dr. Z amp as the tools of a ministry aimed at those furthest, physically and spiritually, from the pews. Meth-addled bikers, strippers, the homeless — none were too far gone for a hug and a pep talk from Landon about God’s relentless love.
“Landon’s message was never condemnation and death. It was always full of life and hope,” said Ken Gerry, a pastor from Norfolk who met Spradlin in the 1980s. “He just had a heart for the lost.”
His message and style didn’t always fit into more conventional church settings, and over the years the Spradlin family — the couple would ultimately have four daughters and one son — moved restlessly across the South. They spent a couple of years in New Orleans, running a church-cum-coffeehouse on Bourbon Street, followed by several years in Fort Worth. There was a period in Savannah, Ga. Eventually, they came back to Virginia, spending the past 12 years leading a church of two dozen in Gretna.
Always, they returned to the streets of New Orleans. As Mardi Gras 2020 approached, Landon and Jean again set up their speakers in view of the sharp spires of St. Louis Cathedral, joined by two of their daughters and several friends. Tourists, drunk parade-goers and street characters wandered by. Some stopped to listen. Some said they yearned for salvation. Some the Spradlins or their friends embraced, blessed or prayed over.
The coronavirus never came up.
“We didn’t have no hand sanitizer or nothing. It was just like it didn’t exist,” said Brad Mullen, a blues guitarist who was with them. “I’d heard of it. But it was in China, in Seattle.”
On March 17, however, as her husband was rushed by ambulance from the gas station parking lot, Jean began to understand that the virus might be much closer than they had understood.
That night she waited at a hospital in Concord, N.C., as her husband, his body drained of oxygen, was intubated. The reliability of the previous test, at the New Orleans VA, was now in doubt.
The doctors in North Carolina took another swab from their unconscious patient.
Results arrived the next day. Landon was infected.
'God was going to heal him’
“I love you.”
They were the last words Jean heard her husband say. Barely conscious, he managed to speak around the ventilator tube snaking from his mouth. She stared into the blue eyes that had welcomed her to church nearly four decades ago. It was the last time she would see those eyes open.
Landon was awake for just 10 minutes before a nurse entered and told Jean — who was gowned, gloved and masked for the visit to her husband’s bedside — that she was raising his blood pressure. Soon the hospital staff told her more: For the safety of others, she had to immediately enter quarantine.
Atrium Health Cabarrus, the hospital’s operator, tested her repeatedly for the virus and rented her a house. Friends sent snacks, socks and coloring books. The hospital staff offered to bring pizza if she felt like it. She lost 15 pounds.
“I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I was numb,” she recalled. “I couldn’t remember to take my morning pills. I didn’t know when the last time I had a drink of water was. I was just sitting there waiting for news from the hospital that he was better.”
Nearly 400 miles away, Lyons was also in quarantine, also waiting for good news. The 53-year-old guitarist who had helped pack up the truck in New Orleans, and who considered Landon his best friend, had been tested for the coronavirus after arriving home in Kimball, Tenn. It would be two weeks before Lyons received his positive result, but because of his symptoms — fatigue and shortness of breath, “sicker than I’d ever been” — he stayed inside his home.
Landon, not long before he collapsed, had called Lyons from the road, managing to gasp out a question about how his friend was feeling. He called again from the hospital, before he was intubated, asking Lyons to pray, which he did.
“We were believing God was going to heal him,” Lyons said.
Word of Landon’s plight had spread through his network of believers, and people began praying for him across the country. There were prayers on the plains of North Texas and in the dying hill towns of southwestern Virginia.
“We just knew he was going to pull out of this,” Mullen said.
Supernatural acts of healing are central to Christianity, from the Gospel accounts of Jesus restoring the blind and lame to the cures attributed by the Catholic Church to the intercession of saints. Almost all Christian congregations pray for the sick.
What distinguishes many charismatic Christians is their belief that such miracles are not extraordinary but routine, said Bill J. Leonard, a professor emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity and an expert on Southern Protestantism. Those believers see faith healing as a practical measure to combat pain or illness, sometimes carried out by laying hands on the unwell or anointing them with oil.
A deadly contagion like the coronavirus poses special challenges to such convictions, Leonard said.
“By making these claims, you overpromise in God’s name,” Leonard said. “And that can be daunting to the faithful.”
In Concord, the nurses who checked in daily with Jean were making no promises. “It’s not looking good,” she heard over the phone, night after night.
As Landon lay unconscious and alone, Jean underwent three rounds of testing for the virus. The first was inconclusive, the next two negative. The results were mystifying, given her classic onset of symptoms and proximity for weeks to her infected husband.
On March 24 — seven days after Landon’s roadside collapse — Jean was asked to authorize a dialysis port in his groin. There was no disguising his condition. Landon’s kidneys were shutting down, and the doctors expected that his heart would soon stop.
Jean approved the procedure and asked the hospital staffers to do all they could.
“Give him every opportunity for a miracle,” she said.
The next day, about 4 a.m., he died.
‘I don’t understand it’
The first Thursday in April was bright and windy in Gretna, warm in the sun and cold in the shade. Lent — the six weeks of repentance and sacrifice that began immediately after Mardi Gras — was coming to an end. But for the handful of people on a hillside next to a Shell station in the almost empty town, a much longer season of privation was just beginning.
The Spradlin family estimated that, in better times, a thousand people might have attended Landon’s funeral. Instead there were fewer than 20, spread out in accordance with the social distancing requirements that had become commonplace. Gerry delivered the eulogy, recalling Landon’s “anointing” — the magnetism he exuded when he played Christian music.
Jean had seen him, up close, one last time. His face was swollen, and the mortuary had dyed his beard. She was warned that touching the embalmed corpse, even a week after death, could be risky. But using a tissue, she placed her hand on his chest anyway.
“He just felt like a rock,” she said.
In the days after Landon succumbed to covid-19, his death brought words of sympathy from people who knew him — and jeers from people who didn’t. The New York Post, the Daily Mail and an atheist blog published articles seizing on his March 13 Facebook post. Landon was posthumously attacked as a victim of misguided beliefs — in the assurances of his president and the protections of his God.
Jean received caustic messages from strangers on social media about her husband’s politics. Her children, who managed their father’s Facebook pages, received notifications for every new piece of vitriolic commentary.
“The thing that blew my mind is that people would laugh at it,” said his daughter Jesse Spradlin, 29. “People would literally just leave comments that say, ‘Ha ha ha ha ha, I’m glad he got what he deserved.’ ”
Others who downplayed the coronavirus have also been vilified after dying from covid-19. Last week, the family of an Ohio victim who had criticized social distancing measures before contracting the virus canceled the live stream of his funeral after a torrent of online abuse.
“I don’t care who you are,” Jesse said. “I don’t understand finding joy in a family’s sorrow.”
It made little difference to their attackers that when the Spradlins went to New Orleans, they were acting indistinguishably from most other Americans, including those much better informed about the risks of contagious diseases.
John Barry, a scholar of the 1918 influenza pandemic who teaches at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, lives in New Orleans. He was closely tracking the spread of the virus and would become an active critic of the Trump administration’s response. Even he took no precautions as crowds streamed into his home city in February.
“I didn’t avoid parades because I was concerned about the virus,” Barry said in an interview. “I ignored the parades because I didn’t feel like going to a parade.”
For those Landon left behind, a puzzle persists: Why didn’t Jesus intervene on behalf of the man who so often espoused the Lord’s healing power?
“Dude, I don’t understand it,” said Lyons, who has fully recovered from his bout with covid-19. “… We prayed for him and believed that we would all get better. And I got extremely better, through it all, and I believe God touched me. And I don’t know the difference.”
For Jean, looking back on the final days of her husband’s life — the false assurances from the country’s highest government officials, the Mardi Gras crowds unwittingly carrying their deadly contagion, the faulty VA test and misdiagnosis — there is only one force that merits blame.
“I know that Jesus was against this,” she said. “I'm not angry. I know who did it. It's the devil that comes to steal, to kill and to destroy.”
Jean is now packing up her and her husband’s belongings at the farmhouse they rented in Gretna, preparing to move to Texas, close to her daughters. She mostly ignores the news about how far the virus has spread, who else it has killed, how it might eventually be stopped. A narrow focus on the work of moving has helped her navigate her grief.
But on Easter Sunday, the household’s mourning was interrupted by joyous music from Landon’s upstairs recording studio. Three of the Spradlin children, all musicians like their father, live-streamed songs of praise to Granite Creek Church in Claremont, Calif.
Landon Isaac Spradlin, the only son, is one of the church’s pastors. In the video, he comes into view, flanked by sisters Jesse and Naomi — a grinning 32-year-old man carrying an acoustic guitar and rocking on his heels. Jesse, who also holds a guitar, begins to chant. Landon closes his eyes.
“Even during this crisis, God, even during the quarantine, Lord, I thank you that we still have the ability to be a part of what you’re doing,” he says.
He looks at each of his sisters in turn. The first song in their set is a staple of contemporary Christian rock, called “Happy Day.”
Landon Spradlin’s children begin to play.