Aside from a few empty pews in the back of the sanctuary, this seemed like any other Sunday. Except it wasn’t. This was Sunday, March 15. Most of the country was already being reminded to stay at home, to practice social distancing, to flatten the curve of the coronavirus outbreak, which President Donald Trump, the man Jeffress supports at every turn, had just declared a national emergency. Every major sports league had suspended play. The city of Dallas had banned gathering over 500 people and canceled its beloved St. Patrick’s Day parade and party, scheduled for the same weekend. Most ministers, rabbis and imams in North Texas had decided it was safer to share the faith on camera rather than in person. But not Jeffress.
On Twitter, the church’s announcement that it would hold live services—there were two that morning—received dozens of replies. Some messages thanked the church. But the vast majority said things like “blood will be on your hands” and “criminally negligent” and “this is foolishness.” Dr. Shelley Conroy, dean of the Louise Herrington School of Nursing at Baylor University—the same university Jeffress attended in the mid-1970s—tweeted: “We should not be putting our elderly members at risk by encouraging them to come to church right now. We should have complied with the intent of the public health orders to keep everyone socially distant for one week to control the spread of this virulent disease.”
Against all these criticisms, the doomsaying and alarming news on television screens and newspaper headlines, Jeffress remained resolute and unmoving. “How do we avoid what I call the pandemic panic?” he told a television station.
“We wanted to have as much normalcy as possible last morning,” he’d explain to me later.