Pastor Greg Locke has grown his congregation over the last year by preaching that Covid-19 is a “fake pandemic” and the vaccine is a scam.
Many people who were eager to get around pandemic restrictions drove from out of state to attend services at Locke’s Global Vision Bible Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee.
His following has grown since December when CNN interviewed him. He preaches under a circus tent twice the size of his old one. He’s got big, professional lighting rigs and a restroom trailer. He said he’s now even more opposed to the vaccine.
“I ain’t getting it. I ain’t promoting it,” he said during his Sunday service on May 23, which CNN attended. “And I discourage everybody under this tent to get it.”
But Locke’s preaching on Covid-19, and the vaccines designed to combat it, had already caused a rift in one family when a member died from the virus.
Coburn Kennedy, an attendee of Locke’s church, died from Covid-19 on April 13, his son, William, confirmed to CNN.
Since then, his family has mourned his death – but are divided on Locke’s views on the virus.
“I lost my relationship with my uncle over the church,” Chip Davis, Coburn Kennedy’s nephew, told CNN. “There can be no justice for my uncle. He’s gone. I think if Greg would find a modicum of humility, and just say ‘I was wrong.’ … Change is possible.”
In phone calls and interviews and family visits that spanned two weeks and included two bluegrass performances, a story unfolded of the Kennedy-Davis clan, and the way a mix of music and faith brought it from the coal mines of West Virginia to Nashville’s country music scene.
Davis and his brother Billy, who are singer-songwriters outside of Nashville, said they didn’t attend their uncle’s funeral.
“Because that would have meant being in the presence of Greg Locke, and a lot of people that I don’t think are thinking right right now,” Billy Davis said.
Chip Davis didn’t go either. He said Locke’s spreading of misinformation could be harmful.
“If you don’t want to take a vaccination that’s entirely up to you,” he said. “But to spread misinformation about it is dead wrong, in my, in my opinion. And it could potentially lead to more loss of life.”
Locke agreed to an in-person interview with CNN on May 24, but canceled 20 minutes before it was to start. He did not respond to CNN’s email with questions, including ones about Kennedy’s death.
However, in a statement on Facebook, Locke said when he pulled up to the interview he was supposed to have with CNN, he felt nauseous, and then God told him to cancel it.
A few hours later, he did a Facebook livestream, in which he called CNN’s crew of three women “diabolical jezebel spirits.”
“They’re trying to say we’re killing people,” he said. “They’re trying to say that we’ve had a Covid outbreak. … If you’re going to run me out of church with a whip, you better be a full-grown man, ladies and gentlemen, a full-grown man is what I’m telling you. And I’m sick of their nonsense.”
A tragic death and love of music brought the family together
Davis’ parents married as teenagers in McDowell County, West Virginia. They were strict Evangelicals. Their church preached faith healing, and going to the doctor was forbidden.
The idea, Davis explained, is that if you can trust God with your immortal soul, you can trust him with your mortal body.
His mother, Arlene Davis, gave birth to her first child, a daughter, at 16. When she was about 7 months old, she got very sick.
The preacher, Davis said, “came and prayed for my sister around 5 p.m. He told my mom that her baby was going to be all-right. And she died at 9 p.m. that evening. That affected our whole life.”
“I don’t know why that did. But it did,” Arlene Davis told CNN.
In an old oil painting, a teenage Arlene Davis is seen smiling under a giant pile of bright red hair. At 84, she still wears a long red braid.
“I always included her in everything, in my kids’ lives,” Arlene Davis said of her daughter. “They always knew how I felt about her. And they love her dearly. Oh they do, they love her dearly. … It was always vivid in our family that she existed, at least.”
Both Chip and Billy Davis recounted this story to CNN.
“I know mom blamed herself a lot, but I don’t blame my mother. Because she was a kid. She went into this cult, and that’s what they told her. … She just went along with it because she felt like she was pleasing God.”
With their uncle’s death, Billy said they see history repeating itself.
“I asked Chip, ‘Don’t you think it’s funny that after all of these years, my mom is losing someone else to another demagogue? Who’s telling people that science is funny or not right?’” Chip said, “She lost a baby in 1953. And then, here we are, in 2021, and she loses a brother, basically, over the same doctrine.”
When Chip was little, his father Raymond Davis said he received a call from God to become a preacher.
Raymond Davis has a catchphrase: “from the coal pit to the pulpit.” The family moved to Baltimore, and Raymond led an Evangelical church.
“We did not have a TV. We did not dance. We couldn’t go to movies,” Chip Davis said. Music was their only entertainment.
In the 60s, Coburn Kennedy became a country music singer in the Detroit area under the name Ken Kennedy.
As a kid, Chip Davis walked door to door trying to sell his uncle’s record for 75 cents. In the 90s, Chip and Billy Davis moved to Nashville to be songwriters and backup singers. They wrote gospel songs, even as Chip Davis left Christianity. They wrote songs for major country stars.
Eventually their parents and siblings followed. So did Coburn Kennedy and his family.
But the family was torn when it came to the pandemic and Covid vaccines
When CNN interviewed Locke in December, the vaccine was not yet widely available.
“People can call us conspiracy theorists or whatever they want to but you know, there are aborted fetal tissue within the context of all these vaccines,” Locke told CNN at the time.
Though fetal cell lines were used to develop the vaccines, they do not contain any fetal tissue.
Several members of the church repeated Locke’s false claim when talking to CNN.
Some members of the Kennedy-Davis family also echoed it.
After two Kennedy-Davis family gatherings in December, several family members told CNN they got Covid. Arlene Davis, Chip and Billy’s mother, was hospitalized.
In February, according to screenshots viewed by CNN, the vaccine came up in a family group chat.
A cousin in West Virginia had shared information about how to get the vaccine in the area.
Coburn Kennedy replied: “Well … that’s good and all … but there’s stuff in this vaccine … such as aborted fetuses … so … as for me … I’ll do as I have for many, many years … I’ll put all my trust in my Almighty God … but that’s just me … each one do what you feel … (heart emoji) my family.”
The cousin said: “There are not any aborted fetuses in the vaccines. Yes you are correct in trusting in the Almighty God. That is where I put my trust is in Him also. I know that he has gave people the knowledge to make the vaccines.”
Coburn Kennedy responded again, saying: “Well … to each his own … but it’s proven to be true … so be it … take the vaccine if you choose so … and God’s blessings on you … I will not take it.”
Two months later, Coburn Kennedy got sick on Easter Sunday. After he didn’t get better for several days, he was hospitalized, and soon put on a ventilator.
Days later, he died. Locke preached at the memorial service.
Still, the family remains close – even with their political differences
The family is close, though they are politically divided.
Early in the 2016 campaign, Chip Davis said he and his mom posed for a photo, he in a Sen. Bernie Sanders shirt, her in a Donald Trump shirt. At the time, they thought it was funny. But after the election, the divide widened.
“They think me and their mother are stupid, OK?” Raymond said. “Why? Because of their views, and they can’t believe we believe the way we do.”
“Of course Chip don’t like him, and Billy didn’t like him,” Arlene Davis, his mom, said of Trump “But I did like him. That’s been a little rift. But it’ll work through. I’m sure it will be OK.”
Chip Davis said he also couldn’t understand what drew his family toward Locke, another polarizing figure.
He said he had encountered Locke’s videos on social media, recalling one that involved a dispute over masks with a Dunkin’ Donuts worker. In it, Locke said he threatened, “If you call me a liar one more time, I’m going to take these work boots, and I’m going to kick your teeth down your throat.”
“It was like watching a wreck,” Chip Davis said. “You don’t want to watch but like, you can’t turn away.”
When his family invited him to go to Global Vision, he refused, which he said created tension between them.
“I was just trying to show my family, like, how can you guys say this is a man of God?”
But on Sunday, after Locke’s service in which he called himself an anti-vaxxer, Chip Davis said his mom called in tears. She hadn’t been able to talk to CNN about her brother on camera, but there were things she wanted us to know.
“I listened to that sermon Sunday, and it sort of hurt me a little bit,” Arlene Davis told CNN.
She said she didn’t want to say harsh words about Locke. But she said she also didn’t know Locke was preaching against the vaccine.
“I think that preachers – my personal opinion – should preach about the Bible,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what the doctor does. It don’t matter what lawyers do. You keep your nose in the word, and keep it there.”
Still, the Kennedy-Davis family remains torn over vaccines.
Arlene Davis said she remains unsure about whether she’ll get the vaccine herself.
William Kennedy, Coburn’s son, said even after his father’s death, he believes that “in the grand scheme of things, it’s (Covid-19) not worth shutting down the whole country over.”