The Turn of the Dial: Seeking God in the Fringes, by Susan Ishmael

Handling serpents at the Pentecostal Church of God. September 15, 1946. Photograph by Russell Lee. Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky

Handling serpents at the Pentecostal Church of God. September 15, 1946. Photograph by Russell Lee. Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky

A tale of snake handlers, faith healers, and speakers in tongues

And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
Mark 16:17-18

In Eastern Kentucky in the 1970s, roadside snake pits were a common curiosity.
From Montgomery County to Powell and into Estill, the country roads wound into deep forest and low Appalachian Mountains. We’d watch for the signs—my sisters and I—hand-painted or stenciled wooden boards with the words “SNAKES” or sometimes, “REPTILES.” We’d beg our mother to stop. On occasion she would, and we’d run from pit to pit, shrieking in a terror that was only partial play. My memory is hazy when I attempt to conjure the image of the snake pits: the bright green summer leaves of tall trees; my mother, shaking her head and laughing; the snake man, telling us in his deep holler drawl about each reptile in his charge. I’ve heard that these pits are still there. Eastern Kentucky teems with venomous snakes. It only makes sense that they’re gathered together for a greater purpose.

Growing up, on Wednesday nights Mom would take us to Faith Full Gospel Church. It was a church that was really a two-story clapboard house out in the country, and the services were held in what I suppose was the former living room. The bathroom had an antiquated slide lock I never trusted, and you entered and exited the church through a slamming metal kitchen door. I liked going to Faith, because sometimes the preacher would let me shake the tambourine, and there was always a lot happening at once, unlike our Sunday mornings at the First Baptist. These services were all about noise: loud, twangy, and lively hymns, lots of clapping, a rolling chorus of “Praise Jesus” and “Hallelujah.” There was a certain cadence to the hallelujahs, a flowing out of repetitive sing-song uttered by those with closed eyes and palms pointing to the ceiling, wrists cracked back, arms extended. Hallelujah. The hollering and boisterous singing came first, then the sermon, then lots of swaying and more singing that was softer than before and more heartfelt.

At this point, when everyone was sitting down and it seemed time to go home, someone would stand and begin to speak in a language unknown. On occasion that person would be my mother. This was called speaking in tongues. This was anointed. This was when people would get really excited, and the soliloquy would continue on for quite a while. I remember straining my ears, listening for a pattern to the language. The speaker was always incredibly earnest: this was not intentional trickery. After the speech ended, people would sing independently and pray out loud until someone else stood up to translate what had been said.

Almost every service had an altar call, but it wasn’t for the lost so much as it was for the lame. Our preacher frequently healed bad backs, and a crowd would surround the injured person and lay hands. Laying hands just meant touching, but “time to lay hands” seemed to carry a heavier weight than a simple touch. The healing of the bad backs meant that two legs, uneven in length, would be prayed over until the shortened leg grew to meet the length of the other one. This meant the person was healed. I’d never known that so many people had legs that were different lengths, and I’d watch this miracle in sincere amazement.

There was a young man in my town who’d stuck his finger in a live socket as a baby and walked with a limp ever since. He was a photographer, and my mom always told me that he was a smart man and that I wasn’t to judge him by his gait. I wanted to take him with us to Faith Full Gospel Church. I wanted to see a miracle that I could be certain was real, but mom always shook her head at this suggestion.

“He doesn’t believe like we believe,” she’d explained.

“So what? Jesus heals the lame,” I’d answered.

“You have to believe. It’s by your faith that you are healed, not just because you are in need of healing.”

I couldn’t much argue with that. I wanted to be faithful. I wanted to believe. Who was to say what was a miracle, what was the mind, and what was pure hopefulness?

There were never snakes at Faith, and everyone I knew looked down upon that kind of lunacy. Yet how many clicks of the dial did it take to go from straight-laced and conservative Southern Baptist to miracle-performing charismatic? How many more clicks to handling snakes [a way of showing faith in God’s protection against harm]? I didn’t know anyone who’d admitted to going to a snake-handling church, but I knew they were out there. Why else would the snake pits exist? People talked. The deeper you went into the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, the more likely it was you could find such a church. I’d seen enough healings and heard enough tongues spoken to know at a young age that people would do just about anything to get right with the Lord.

Gregory James “Jamie” Coots, a preacher I never met, was born twenty days after my own Kentucky birth back in 1971. He died on February 15, 2014, from a snakebite during a church service at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky. He came from a long line of snake-handling preachers. His son, Cody Coots, 21, was bitten three months after his father’s death and survived. The elder Coots starred in a National Geographic reality show, Snake Salvation, and believed fervently that he followed God’s will by taking up serpents. He lost the tip of a finger following a strike in 1998, and refused medical treatment for several bites, including the one that killed him. Each time, he had prepared a signed letter refusing medical care, stating that it was against his religion.

Middlesboro is 140 miles south of my hometown. It’s near the Cumberland Gap, where my ancestors came to Kentucky from North Carolina via Tennessee almost 250 years ago. I think about Jamie Coots as someone I could have gone to school with, or stood next to playing the tambourine during a Wednesday night prayer meeting. According to an Associated Press article by Travis Loller written after Coots’s death, an average of five people a year die from handling snakes as a part of testing their faith, and seven thousand to eight thousand people handle snakes annually. All of these deaths, presumably, occur in the Appalachian region with known snake-handling churches: Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and South Carolina. Of these states, it’s only legally protected in West Virginia. It’s illegal everywhere else.

Those who take up serpents believe God will protect them from harm if their faith is strong enough. Most who handle snakes aren’t bitten, which they take as a sign of their devotion. Those who are bitten often survive, yet many do not. Handlers, in general, are adamant believers in fate, and subscribe to the notion that God takes each person at their designated time. They continue to choose to incorporate snakes into their worship services regardless of the danger or the law.

What is it, deep in these Appalachian hills, that instills such intense religious fervor, turning the dial further away from mainstream religion? Eastern Kentucky is remote, poor, and littered with pockets of hopelessness: burned out single-wide trailers, blasted mountainsides laid waste by mountaintop removal, and the illnesses and drug addictions treated in the regional emergency rooms. Some say the elevated rate of cancer and early mortality in Eastern Kentucky is because of the environmental destruction and pollution brought by the mining industry. Drinking tap water is discouraged, and public drinking fountains are sometimes closed. Sludge and waste from the blasted mountaintops fills the formerly fertile streams and valleys. Shattering mountains to expose hidden seams of coal is quicker and easier than traditional, underground mining.

Handling serpents at the Pentecostal Church of God. September 15, 1946. Photograph by Russell Lee. Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky

Handling serpents at the Pentecostal Church of God. September 15, 1946. Photograph by Russell Lee. Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky

And yet the people of Kentucky are resilient, and witty, and musical. They can also be despondent, cynical, and undereducated. They are hopeful when they can be. For the most part, they are fiercely loyal to place and heritage, and concerned that the younger generation may be moving away too quickly because of the absence of jobs. Many who stay turn to the faith of their forefathers for comfort, and this Old Time Religion can include the handling of snakes. Sometimes, a traditional Pentecostal church or non-denominational charismatic church, like the one of my youth, is enough. There is no doubt that religious beliefs are held closely here. Family Bibles are handed down for generations and often serve as the best record of ancestry. Church leaders are most likely conservative, passionate, and above all, literal in their interpretation of the Bible.

The people of eastern Kentucky are deeply tied to the land. Because of the remoteness of the region, they often rely on vegetable gardens and family farms for subsistence. Many men and women hunt for food, not for sport, and a large buck or elk can last the winter with plenty to share. Most of the counties in the region are dry—meaning no legal alcohol can be purchased there, furthering the proliferation of the stereotypical moonshiner with his own still or the bootlegger who runs liquor over the mountains from wet counties. At one point in the 1980s, the mountains were covered in the bright green leaf of illegal marijuana. Not so much anymore—I’d been told once at a nondescript liquor store outside of Hazard.

“Pills is cheaper”” the longhaired clerk told me.

“That so,” I answered, unsure if he was offering to sell me something under the table to go with my bourbon, or if he was just making conversation. “DEA flies over us now,” he said, his hand, held flat, moved between us like an airplane. “They can see the pot. Can’t see the oxy from the skies though.”

In downtown Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, the First Baptist Church stood at the corner of Howard Avenue and High Street from 1914 to 2000, when the congregation abandoned the old building for a new sanctuary near the bypass. My grandparents were married in this church, as were my own parents, as was I. Although the shell of the red brick structure still stands, when the congregation moved, they stripped the building of its stained glass windows and, I assume, anything of value. I found photos of the interior of the church at abandonedonline.com: the pew-less space seemed vast and small simultaneously. The pipes from the organ and the peeling golden walls of the sanctuary stood in hazy bright light streaming through the clear panes that replaced the original colorful stained glass. My childhood rushed to meet me. I’d been baptized here in 1977 and scolded for leaving a service early in 1980 because my friend dared me to go check the time and I was bored enough to do so. I’d sung alto in the choir, played hand bells at Christmas, and dressed in scratchy bath towels as a shepherd for a Nativity play. I’d married here in 1995 wearing my mother’s wedding dress, feeling very much like a child playing dress up.

This is where I learned to sit without wiggling, to doodle on tithing envelopes, and to stage whisper down a pew: “What’s for lunch?” We sang from the Baptist Hymnal: “Just As I Am,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Amazing Grace.” I learned about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego here, about baby Moses turned loose in a basket in the rushes. I learned of Ruth and Naomi, Esther the Queen, and Mary and Martha. Bible Drill leaders taught me how to locate Psalms, or Leviticus, or Romans with a quick flick of the fingers. I also learned—in obvious conflict to my Wednesday night teachings at Faith Full Gospel—that modern-day miracles did not exist, gifts of the spirit were a thing of olden days, and that above all, proper behavior in church was of the highest virtue. There were no tambourines at the First Baptist Church. When things would get spirited, an elderly man from the back of the sanctuary would bellow a low and loud “Amen.” Beyond that occasional outburst, the sermons continued dogmatically on, the congregation sitting primly and completely silent. We didn’t even clap.

I knew that although our Wednesday night excursions were not a secret, we weren’t exactly to talk about them openly, either. None of my extended family attended a second church and they remained fully loyal to the First Baptist, as far as I knew. Yet we continued, my sisters, my mother and me, to drive out county roads once a week for faith healings and jubilance, tongues and tambourines. It was like an affair: we were committed to the First Baptist for the long haul, but the allure of Wednesday nights kept us coming back.

In both places—the First Baptist and Faith Full Gospel—one thing that was certain was the surety of the church leaders. Neither place gave much credence to doubt. How was I to rectify the two conflicting versions of the same Bible? How was I to discern who was right and who was wrong? Even on this small scale of theological seeking, I peppered my mother with questions. What about Presbyterians? Episcopals? Goodness, what of the Catholics? The knowledge of the existence of Muslims or Hindus was outside of my worldview, and although I’d heard of Jews, I’d never actually met one, yet agreed with a nod to feel sympathetic for their plight. I spent serious time ruminating on the concept of burning in hell—leaving little time to ponder the fate of a Muslim or Jew. Who would make it to heaven and who would burn for all eternity? And then, what about me? My sins weighed heavy on my heart. What if I’d forgotten a sin and hadn’t asked for proper forgiveness? What then? And what, pray tell, was I to do about the drinking of all that moonshine?

If my younger sister and I were to walk downtown, we’d cut through an alley between the church and their educational building. This is how we learned that the Catholic Church was never locked, and more than once we tested the doors to sneak inside their sanctuary to see what we could find. Church interiors were fascinating. Faith Full Gospel’s uncovered windows, creaky hardwood floors, and folding chairs were in stark contrast to the high golden walls and gleaming stained glass of the First Baptist. But the Catholic sanctuary was like nothing we’d seen anywhere else. The crucified Jesus, hanging high on the wall and life-sized, bled with an anguished face, spear in the side, nails through palms. My younger sister and I would creep soundlessly, our mouths agape. All of the crosses we’d ever known had been old and wooden and not draped in the body of a bloody Christ. Beautiful Mary in her blue robe looked serenely passive and accepting of her fate.

Once, a woman—perhaps a nun—found my sister and I in the sanctuary and scolded us loudly. We ran for home, our hearts pounding, our souls once again in some sort of jeopardy even though we weren’t sure if sneaking around was a real sin or not. We decided that it had to be, because the woman had scared us. She wouldn’t have yelled if our intentions and curiosity had been pure.

The faith of a Catholic was just as foreign to me as a child as the faith of a snake-handler. Up close, I found Catholicism comforting, if a bit austere and frightening. Their bloody icons had stunned my sister and me, the same way the thought of lifting a snake from a pit and holding it toward heaven elicited shrieks of terror. It was the dial of religion turning once again, yet nothing like snake handling, not at all.

I graduated from high school in 1989 and started college before my eighteenth birthday. The greatest luxury of moving away from home, beyond the lack of a curfew, was my decadent choice to sleep in on Sunday mornings. I didn’t seek out a church, or join the Baptist Student Union. I was ready to get away from what I’d come to see as a tedious commitment to prayer meetings, Sunday school, and the multitude of choirs.

I married. I moved away. I birthed my own daughters, and a few years ago I became a Methodist. Slowly, I began to embrace some of the indoctrination from my childhood as a blessing. I could answer the theological questions from the mouths of my babes with Biblical authority. I could discern a false prophet from miles away. I found that church could be comforting and reliable and a place for the community to come together. And I found a way to turn the dial somewhere closer to where I felt comfortable with my own story and my own path. Not my mother’s or the faith of my childhood, but rather a place I could find comfort and peace within my doubt.

A few summers ago I took my daughters to Natural Bridge, Kentucky, in Powell County. We drove the road where my sisters and I would shriek at the snake pits, and my trained eye watched around each curve for a hand-painted wooden board nailed to a tree reading “SNAKE.” I never found it. Instead, I told my girls the stories of the pits and of the churches that lift serpents, and they listened, wide-eyed and curious. It was as though I were speaking in tongues: how foreign this must sound to their ears, and how familiar to my own.

I’ve often wondered what my mother was looking for on the country road to Faith Full Gospel Church. What did my sister and I seek by trespassing in Catholic spaces? What did I find in the stability and routine of the Southern Baptist Church? Religion is the road, but the spirit is what takes the journey. I found that religion can be both something to cling to and something to flee. It can create holy spaces and misguided teachings and so many questions. I learned that to seek God is perhaps the important part—whether it’s through the Bible or the Torah or the Koran. This belief has shaped my spirituality far more than the strictures of my childhood, or perhaps, because of it.

It took time and distance for me to see things clearly, and I’m not sure how clearly I see things, even now. Perhaps it’s because each religious influence of my youth seemed to be at odds with the others. I now embrace each person’s spiritual journey as their own, and not mine to question. I’ve found my own path, and it’s full of doubt, and questions, and seeking. Perhaps that’s why Jamie Coots picked up snakes, held them toward the ceiling of his small church in front of his congregation, and prayed for God to show him pure enough in heart to be worthy of love. He had his own questions and doubts, how could he not? And as he died, the venom clutching his forty-two-year-old heart and claiming his life, who’s to say that he wasn’t just as worthy of God’s grace as any of the rest of us? ♦

From our current issue Parabola Volume 42, No. 1, “The Search for Meaning,” Spring 2017. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.

 

About the Author

Susan Ishmael works as a freelance writer and editor and has had short stories, poetry, and articles published in multiple magazines, newspapers, and journals. She is the co-founder of WhatWomenWriteTX.blogspot.com, a blog devoted to issues of writing craft and publishing.

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