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A few minutes before Sunday morning service on March 8, Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor Jermaine Landrum spotted Ronald Rhodes sitting in his usual spot in the pews.
Ebenezer Baptist is a small, 98-year-old church in New Orleans. With only about 75 members, everyone at Ebenezer knows one another, and Landrum knew the 28-year-old Rhodes, one of a handful of young male regulars at the church, as a welcoming and playful guy.
“I would even make jokes with him during the sermon,” Landrum said. “So as I passed by his pew, I was speaking with him, and we just laughed a little bit.”
That morning Landrum spotted something else: Another of the church’s fixtures, 86-year-old Antoinette Franklin, wasn’t there. Landrum couldn’t recall a time when Franklin, a member of Ebenezer for more than 60 years, had skipped a Sunday service, including those months after Hurricane Katrina when the physical church had been reduced to folding chairs on a cement foundation. “She doesn’t miss church,” he told me when we spoke this week.
A few days later, Landrum called off service for the following Sunday, something he hadn’t done since Katrina. There were reports that the novel coronavirus was rapidly spreading around town, and Landrum decided it was best for the members not to gather. He never saw Rhodes or Franklin again.
Antoinette Franklin died of complications from COVID-19 on March 23; Ronald Rhodes did the same on March 29. Several more of Landrum’s congregants ended up in the hospital, and some others who had not yet been tested were running fevers and showing symptoms like the ones associated with the coronavirus. Most tragically, in a span of just nine days, three of Franklin’s sons died from the virus.
“We lost everything in Katrina,” Landrum said of the last time the small church and its community had to deal with such adversity. “These losses are what’s making it tougher [this time]. Because we didn’t have any losses like that during Katrina.”
Jacqueline Franklin, the ex-wife of one of Franklin’s sons, agrees: “Losing everything during Katrina, including the clothes on my back, has not shook me like this here.”
Ebenezer Baptist sits in the Central City area of New Orleans, about a mile west of the Superdome. It’s a black church in a historically black neighborhood, one of the enduring institutions in a gentrifying city post-Katrina.
It’s also near the center of a city where black residents disproportionately live in poverty and suffer from chronic disease, putting them at the mercy of a virus that thrives on density and weakened immune systems.
The deaths at Ebenezer represent only a fraction of the crisis in a city and parish rocked by a wave of coronavirus infections. As of Saturday, Orleans Parish had recorded 5,416 cases and 225 deaths. Those figures are the highest in Louisiana, one of the states hit hardest by the virus. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards announced earlier this week that his state would release preliminary data on race and coronavirus deaths, noting, “Slightly more than 70 percent of all the deaths in Louisiana are of African Americans.”
And not just in Louisiana. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data last week “suggesting that black populations might be disproportionately affected by COVID-19.” In Chicago, black patients represented 72 percent of the coronavirus-related deaths, even though the city is 32 percent black. Black people are 14 percent of the population in Michigan but represent 41 percent of the deaths. There was a smaller discrepancy in Los Angeles, where the black population is 9 percent but 17 percent of the deaths. There have also been disproportionate rates of infection and death for black people reported in Connecticut, North Carolina, South Carolina, and the Las Vegas area, among others.
Antoinette Franklin was a regular at Ebenezer Baptist before Landrum, 47, was even born.
She and her late husband Herman Franklin Sr. raised their 12 children in New Orleans’ 3rd Ward neighborhood. Over the years “Ms. Antoinette,” as she was known, gradually became a matriarch to many in the community. “She was like everyone’s Big Mama,” said her grandson Anthony Franklin Jr., who also lost his father and two uncles to the virus. “She wasn’t big. But she was a Big Mama.”
Antoinette celebrated her 86th birthday on March 2, a week before the first case of the coronavirus was reported in the New Orleans area, and well before Louisiana’s governor issued a stay-at-home order. On March 2, going to church and meeting up with friends were still part of the daily routine in New Orleans.
Instead of a birthday party, Franklin’s family members and friends streamed in and out of her neat little shotgun home throughout the day. It was then, her family believes (though they cannot know for sure), that someone brought the coronavirus into her house. A few days later, many of Antoinette’s visitors started feeling sick. Antoinette was admitted to the hospital on March 7.
“Next thing I know,” Jacqueline Franklin said, “it was the whole family.”
Anthony Franklin Sr. went to the emergency room five days later. His brothers Herman and Tim were also hospitalized, both of them suffering from pneumonia. They were all placed on ventilators in neighboring rooms.
On the same day his father went to the hospital, Anthony Franklin Jr. left work with a fever and chills. He fell asleep as soon as he got home. In the morning, he texted his father, who was still in the emergency room.
“Me and him were talking about LeBron [James],” Anthony Jr. said. “The next day he was in the ICU. That was the last time I spoke with him.”
Within days of each other, they were all gone. Herman Franklin Jr. died on March 21, Antoinette Franklin on March 23, Anthony Franklin on March 26, and Timothy Franklin on March 29.
Despite his misgivings, Landrum acquiesced to the family’s desire to hold a memorial service at the church. It was a small ceremony where people were only allowed to sit in every other pew and at opposite ends of the bench.
“I just couldn’t say no,” Landrum said. “I just said a prayer and sacrificed for that. It wasn’t long, and we did everything as best we could. But a lot of church members wanted to be there and didn’t come.”
The remaining Franklins can’t believe how quickly they went from celebrating their matriarch’s life to mourning so many deaths. The family’s story has become national news, a macabre oddity even among so many other COVID-19 tragedies. (The Franklins are joined in their staggering grief by a Detroit-area woman who endured the deaths of her husband and only son and a family in New Jersey that lost four to the virus early on.)
“People have been calling us from all over the country, all over the world,” Jacqueline Franklin said. “What I want people to know is that this is real. Stop saying this is a hoax.”
Dead at only 28, Ronald Rhodes represents another sort of anomaly: a member of the relatively small group of people under the age of 50 killed by the coronavirus. A recent analysis from the Washington Post showed that only 8 percent of people who have died from COVID-19 in Louisiana were under 50. (It is not yet clear if Rhodes had any preexisting health conditions.)
Known as “Bo,” Rhodes brought a youthful energy to a church of mostly older members. Landrum came to count on him, even putting him in a couple of leadership roles in the church. He didn’t quite have a voice for Ebenezer’s choir, but he made sure he was heard.
“He was trying to over-sing the choir,” said Dajhawn Varnado, one of his longtime friends and an Ebenezer congregant. “He loved to sing. You could not tell him he wasn’t hitting the right notes.”
Rhodes started feeling sick in mid-March and went to the hospital on March 21 but was sent home, Varnado said. When Rhodes went back on March 23, complaining of chest discomfort and shortness of breath, doctors confirmed he had pneumonia in both of his lungs.
“He called me and said he was in the hospital,” Landrum said. “He said, ‘Pastor, pray for me.’ ”
A couple of days later, Landrum and Rhodes’ family members and friends got news that he was doing better and might be able to go home.
“I knew in my heart that he was going to make it,” said Varnado, who works as a medical assistant at the hospital where Rhodes was admitted. ”Then it just took a turn.”
Rhodes was placed on a ventilator, and his kidneys failed soon after. He died on a Sunday morning, March 29. He is survived by his longtime partner Unique Veals and their 4-year-old son, Ronald Jr.
“The reality of it is it will never be the same,” Varnado said of losing her friend, whose Facebook profile still reads, “Live life you only get one.” “I don’t even know how it is going to feel when we go back in the church.”
No one does. I spoke to Landrum in the middle of Holy Week. He told me that only in the past few days have he and the members had a chance to free themselves from the cycle of sickness, hospitalization, and grief. They have been attempting to summon energy and optimism all week, he said, while grappling with the losses. Just imagine trying to celebrate eternal life amid so much death.
Up until now, Katrina had been the line of demarcation for many native New Orleanians. There was the city before the hurricane and subsequent floods, and the city after. When the storm hit in 2005, some Ebenezer members found themselves trapped in the Superdome awaiting rescue from the drowning city. The church itself was completely destroyed, and many members simply couldn’t return home when Ebenezer eventually reopened later that year. This plague, Landrum said, reminds him of that time.
Unlike many churches, Ebenezer hasn’t been regularly livestreaming services, though Landrum delivered a sermon and hosted five musicians on Facebook Live last week. Several church members also took part in a Good Friday prayer group over the phone with Landrum.
But by Saturday, he still wasn’t sure there would be an Easter Sunday service.
“Some people have asked me about it,” Landrum said. “But I don’t think I’m going to do anything special.”
When I checked Facebook Live on Easter Sunday morning, there was nothing.