Playing God with public health

Seven weeks after officiating the now infamous East Millinocket wedding that has resulted in the deaths of eight Maine residents, Sanford pastor Todd Bell continues to defy state and local orders aimed at controlling the spread of COVID-19.
Pastor Todd Bell and his wife pose for a selfie.
Pastor Todd Bell tweeted this image of him and his wife the day before officiating an East Millinocket wedding that has sparked Maine's largest outbreak of COVID-19. The Aug. 7 wedding and reception is responsible for the deaths of eight people.

SANFORD — Yellow caution tape winds around empty playgrounds, ball fields and basketball courts. Schools, no longer safe for in-person learning, are shut down. Outbreaks at social clubs, schools, fire departments and local businesses continue to spike. 

Like seeds in the wind, the coronavirus continues to spread in this city of 22,000 and throughout York County, now Maine’s hot spot with 44 percent of the state’s new cases. 

“COVID-19,” said Maine Center for Disease Control Director Dr. Nirav Shah, “has now infected virtually every aspect of life in the Sanford area.”

Caution tape surrounds playground equipment at Benton Park in Sanford. The park is closed due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the city. Photo by Fred J. Field

“We’ve got an ever-shrinking window in which to get a lid on what is happening in York County,” Shah warned on Thursday.

If efforts are not successful in containing the virus, the pattern of transmission, Shah said, could lead to exponential growth − meaning on average, the virus could double about every 2 1/2 days. 

As city and county officials grapple to contain COVID-19, the Sanford pastor who officiated the East Millinocket wedding that triggered Maine’s biggest outbreak infecting 180 people and killing eight remains unrepentant and continues to flout Maine’s masking and social distancing mandates.

“There’s really no good conversation with him right now,” said Sanford city councilor Maura Herlihy of the pastor, Todd Bell. “He wants to do what he wants on his pulpit, and he’s chosen his line in the sand.”

An evangelical who moved from North Carolina to Maine 24 years ago to plant churches and save souls, Bell has railed against Maine’s virus regulations despite having an outbreak at his Sanford church. 

Regardless of conversations with the Sanford police chief and others in town, Bell remains steadfast that “God not government” will control the pandemic. The preacher is also fed up with the misdirected wrath over the Millinocket-area wedding and reception at Big Moose Inn, in which masks and social distancing were ignored. 

Since Bell officiated the Aug. 7 wedding in East Millinocket, a firestorm of criticism has rained down on the preacher.

Twitter and Facebook comments have excoriated Bell for his part in the wedding, his lack of remorse for the eight people who have died and his continued scorn against social distancing and masking. 

Angry social media posts have labeled him a murderer, Pastor COVID, a criminal.

A self-described preacher pilot, Bell flies around New England and Maine in his private planes delivering fiery and passionate sermons. Since the outbreak, he has shunned the media and declined to talk about the wedding. He also has refused to talk about the tens of thousands of dollars raised by his followers to fund his Wings of the Word aviation ministry.

In three weeks, the controversial pastor will draw more attention as he attends his son Benjamin’s wedding in Portsmouth, N.H. at a Unitarian Universalist church, where administrators have vowed that “no one gets in without a mask.”

On Friday morning, Bell continued to ignore local ordinances at his Sanford Christian Academy. Days after Sanford city councilors voted to close outdoor parks and fine citizens $100 for not wearing masks indoors or in a confined outdoor space, students filed into Sanford Christian Academy unmasked. 

Like the private 70-student school run by Bell, where masks are exempt, the preacher’s Calvary Baptist Church continues to gather for indoor services with choir singing and little regard for masking or social distancing. Because the church and school are private institutions, the city has no authority to enforce its virus mandates. 

“The church isn’t like a Cumberland Farms,” said Herlihy. “We have no right to go on private property.”

Sanford Councilor Maura Herlihy says “there’s really no good conversation” with Pastor Todd Bell right now. Photo by Fred J. Field.

Though seven weeks have passed since the super-spreader event,  the truth about the outbreak remains elusive. The Maine CDC has linked the wedding to a Madison nursing home outbreak where seven residents died due to thirdhand exposure to the event. The virus also ran rampant through the York County Jail, where an employee who attended the event spread COVID-19 to 80 inmates and staffers.

A third outbreak occurred at Bell’s Calvary Baptist Church, where 10 congregants, including Bell’s father, tested positive for the virus. Though Bell officiated the wedding at the Tri Town Church, a ministry he founded in 1996, the CDC has yet to link the Sanford church to the super-spreader event.

While Shah said Thursday that the Calvary Baptist infections are “strongly suspected” to be linked to the wedding outbreak, investigations into the Sanford church have been “tricky,” according to Sara Robinson, the CDC’s director of infectious disease epidemiology. 

“We hear a lot of rumors and don’t know what’s true and what’s not true,” said Robinson of the church and Bell’s ties to the wedding outbreak. “We can’t say for certain people were lying to us. But we had a sense we weren’t getting the big picture, and that’s not limited to this church. It happens in other groups, as well.”

It’s unclear who initiated the outbreak at the wedding where guests and the bride and groom gathered in the days prior to the service. Twenty-four hours before the event, Bell tweeted a photo of himself and his wife Amy in his private plane moments before flying north. 

Two days prior, Bell attended a Rhode Island Baptist ministry convention that drew preachers from throughout New England from states with higher infection rates than Maine. Despite the risk of contracting COVID-19 at the convention – where several anti-masking pastors gathered – Bell did not quarantine for 14 days as recommended by the CDC.

The Rev. Jane Field outside Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland. Field, executive director for the Maine Council of Churches, said Bell is being reckless with his congregation. Photo by Fred J. Field.

The preacher’s disregard for the virus that has killed more than 200,000 nationally and 140 in Maine, astounds other faith leaders throughout the state. A recent letter co-written by Rev. Jane Field, executive director of Maine Council of Churches, expressed gratitude for religious freedom but added that she and the 80 other faith leaders who signed the letter support “efforts to protect members of the community from infectious disease, especially students and teachers along with the elderly, the incarcerated, and others in congregant living settings.”

Field, who worked closely with the CDC to develop a guide on best practices regarding COVID-19 and in-person worship, called Bell’s disregard for public health guidelines “reckless.”

“His actions are absolutely reckless and causing harm to people,” said Field, whose Faith Lutheran Church in Windham has held outdoor and virtual services since March. “I just don’t know what kind of religion thinks that’s what we’re called to do, to put people in harm’s way in order to worship together, when we can worship just fine in safe ways.”

Theresa Dentremont, center, died Aug. 21 at age 83 after she contracted COVID-19 from a guest at the East Millinocket wedding. Courtesy of Frank Dentremont Jr.

Field, who was ordained in 1991, also remains flummoxed over Bell’s lack of remorse or regret over the seven deaths of elderly residents at Maplecrest Rehabilitation Center and the wedding outbreak’s first loss, Theresa Dentremont, an 88-year-old woman who loved to quilt and was infected by someone who attended the wedding.

Over the past several weeks, Bell has shouted unmasked from his pulpit: “It’s our right before almighty God to meet!” He warned his followers on social media to beware of the media’s lies. Photographs of his expansive two-story home with three dormers and an eight-window office cupola were also posted on his Twitter account. Yet the preacher has offered no comments regarding the eight deaths resulting from the wedding he officiated.

“It is just so antithetical to my understanding of what faith is about,” Field said of Bell’s lack of remorse. “We stand with people when they grieve, walk with them through the shadow of death, heal the sick, visit the lonely. 

“And as a pastor for the gospel to be silent when something he did to cause people to fall ill and die? I literally can’t imagine not expressing the deepest anguish and remorse over that. And (Bell) has said nothing.”

Bell, who has hired David Gibbs III of the National Center for Life and Liberty to defend his Sanford church’s religious rights, said he is limited to what he can say about the wedding outbreak “because our attorney has counseled us not to.” 

An independent evangelical Baptist minister, Bell describes himself as a “Blood Washed Child of God that is passionate about the lost and getting other churches started and or reopened in the Northeast and Canada… that wants to see everyone in the Northeast come to Christ before it is eternally too late.”

Bell’s decision to move from North Carolina to save souls in Maine is not surprising, said Field. Nearly 50 percent of Mainers seldom or never attend church, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center report

“If you are in North Carolina, where everyone and their brother goes to church and a study shows that Maine is one of the most unchurched places in the Union,” Field said, “it would be reasonable if you are an evangelical to think God is calling you there to save these poor souls before they are condemned to eternal damnation.” 

Bell’s evangelical Baptist beliefs are an outlier in Maine, where 7 percent of the population are Baptists, other Protestants make up 28 percent and Catholics represent 21 percent.  

Unlike Catholic or Protestant churches, which have layers of oversight, councils, bishops and policies, the preacher pilot and his ministry appear to have little accountability.

“There’s not a lot of oversight in a lot of evangelical congregations,” said Field, who has served churches in Connecticut, New York and Maine. “It truly is whatever is decided by the pastor.” 

As Bell continues to preach in Sanford and at the five satellite churches he founded in Islesboro, Jackman, Fort Kent, New Vineyard and Whiting, there is no one, Field said, to sanction or discipline the pastor for ignoring Maine’s masking and social distancing guidelines.

On Sept. 1, Pastor Todd Bell tweeted this picture of staff orientation at Sanford Christian Academy.

On Sept. 1, Bell tweeted a photograph of his school’s orientation: “Staff Orientation 2020! Thrilling to see how God is advancing in the midst of everything around us! Glory to God! #ChristianEducation.” Sixteen people sat around a table shoulder to shoulder unmasked as Bell addressed them from his podium.

Bell declined to talk about his school or his masking philosophies, but the recent photo taken as Sanford and York County battle multiple COVID-19 outbreaks stunned Field.

“Oh, dear god,” Field said. “If you look up reckless in the dictionary, that picture should be there. After everything they’ve been through with people sick and dying, why are they sitting in that room with no masks on?”

Bell’s belief that God will keep his congregation safe from the virus, Field said, stems from faulty logic and misconstruing the Bible’s teachings. Field noted a Bible passage in which the devil tempts Jesus to jump off the highest point of a temple, taunting that God will command angels to save him.

“But Jesus replied, ‘Do not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’” Field said. “That, in my opinion, is what Bell is doing (tempting God), and it’s not in line with what Jesus thought.”

Unlike Catholic, Protestant or Episcopal churches, which have financial reviews, there appears to be little oversight of Bell’s church or his school’s finances. Bell’s wife Amy serves as the Sanford church’s administrator and the secretary at its private school, which costs $3,400 annually in tuition. 

Soon after moving to Sanford in 2003 and founding Calvary Baptist Church, Bell began asking for thousands of dollars — as much as $55,000 — in his Wings for the Word aviation blogs.

Bell declined to talk about oversight for his ministry or how he receives financial or real estate gifts. 

In 2005, Sanford assessor’s records show that Sanford resident Eleanor Williams transferred approximately 95 acres and an 1800s home on Grammar Road to Todd and Amy Bell as a gift. After renovating the home, the Bells sold two acres and the house for $325,000 and moved into a temporary trailer on the remaining 93 acres as they build a new two-story home.  

Attempts to locate Williams or her relatives to determine why the initial 95 acres and home were “gifted” to Bell were unsuccessful.

After threatening to sue and “settle the score” with The Maine Monitor if it printed quotes Bell sent in an email, Bell wrote a follow-up message.

“Would you like to report that upon receiving the gift I logged the property and gave the proceeds to the church? $103,000…. would you like to also know we donated two, two acre parcels for the church to (sell) and they did?… This is nonsense.  Would also like to know that God’s people bought the plane I fly??? It cost $125,000 … this isn’t journalism this is defamation of a good man’s reputation!”

As Sanford and York County struggle with containing COVID-19 outbreaks, the preacher’s son Benjamin prepares for his Oct. 17 wedding at the Unitarian Universalist South Church in Portsmouth, N.H. It is unclear who is officiating the event, and Bell declined to say if he was performing the ceremony.

The wedding is the only one that was not canceled or rescheduled due to the pandemic, said Jennifer Leyden, the church administrator.

The church, Leyden said, requires guests to wear masks and stipulates that guests not from the same family socially distance and spread out in the 500-seat sanctuary. Leyden was surprised when she learned the groom was Bell’s son. 

“Good God,” she said. “That is so alarming.”

Leyden said the couple has 75 guests and has been told the ceremony must be 20 minutes or less. To ensure that the rules are followed, Leyden and another church worker will stand at the door and monitor every guest who enters. Masks and sanitizer will be offered, and names and phone numbers will also be taken in the event someone at the event contracts COVID-19. Since early March, South Church has reverted to online services and does not plan to resume indoor gatherings until April or May.

“There are times when your religious beliefs can’t be in the forefront when there is a public health concern,” Leyden said. “Because of that wedding in Maine, eight people have passed away. It probably could have been mitigated if everyone did what they were supposed to and keep safe.”

Leyden hopes that she will have few issues on Oct. 17.

“We are a welcoming church, kind of like come as you are,” Leyden said. “We accept all beliefs.”

But, she added, none of the church’s leaders will accept putting their elderly congregants or community at risk. 

“I hope Pastor Bell will wear a mask,” Leyden said. “To ask another person of faith to leave is an incredibly hard thing. But unfortunately, I have to be a hard-ass. If you’re not wearing a mask, you’re not coming in.”


Barbara A. Walsh

Barbara A. Walsh is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for newspapers in Ireland, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Florida. While working at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, Walsh reported on first-degree killer William Horton Jr. and Massachusetts’ flawed prison-furlough system. The series changed in-state sentencing and furlough laws and won a 1988 Pulitzer Prize. During her career at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Barbara wrote in-depth series on several social issues in Maine. Many of her stories changed laws and earned national, state and regional awards.
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