"And they shall take up serpents . . ."
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 16:18, KJV
I have been fortunate to have access to a local church where snake handling is practiced. Even more fortunate that the preacher has allowed me to take pictures, even knowing that I am a Roman Catholic. I had been warned in the past about the isolationism of many of these Pentecostal churches, and told it would be dangerous for me as an outsider to venture into one. I was told that I should only go with covered head, long skirt, and my camera well out of sight.
The pastor of the congregation , Andrew Hamblin, was one of two preachers featured in National Geographic's television show, Snake Salvation. The other preacher, Jamie Coots, was fatally bitten by a snake earlier this year.
In conversation with Hamblin, he mentioned to me that he wanted to make his church more open to all, that he wanted people of other traditions to come and see. In essence, he wanted to make his brand of Christianity more mainstream, or at least more visible to the public, to dispel myths about their practices.
That plan is having some setbacks now. The news is that the congregation was evicted from the church building by the landlord, who complained that Hamblin was spending too much time with the serpents. In addition, it seems Hamblin and his wife are divorcing, which no doubt will be messy as she is pregnant with the couple's sixth child. I do not know the details, nor will I speculate what is going on - as a former Family Law attorney, I do know this won't be an easy fix.
But I do want to say something about the serpent handling to provide a true picture of what goes on during one of their services. To begin, the services are long - it can start at 7:30 pom and go past midnight, if the Spirit is moving. I attended one for nearly three hours and during that time, estimated that the snakes (and believe me, these are venomous, being mostly Eastern Timber rattlesnakes) were out of their cages for maybe 20 minutes.
Yes, the services are not "all about the snakes." Most of the service is focused on faith healing, with people coming forward to have hands laid on them, prayers said over them, and perhaps anointed with oil. A good portion is spent either with preaching or prophesying - the last service, a fellow went on for a good half hour, pacing back and forth, moaning, and occasionally saying in a high, breathy voice, "Oh, Lord . . . children listen . . . ohhhhh . . . bad times are coming . . . . yesssss . . . . ohhhhh . . . but chlidren . . . he is with you . . . . Jesus . . . ."
The snakes appear when someone feels they are being moved by the Holy Spirit to handle a serpent. The snakes are not passed around, they do not leave the area used as a sanctuary in the front of the church, they are not flung or twirled around.
Those handling the serpents seem to be in a trance-like state. And for their part, so do the snakes. They do not seem agitated and no rattling is heard. I think, having owned snakes as pets, that the vibrations in the air - these services are noisy, with loud, live music (and actually, some of the best damn guitar playing you will hear, a sort of a rock-blues-gospel sound), foot stomping, and shouting - serve to mesmerize the serpents a bit. If anything, they seem curious, with tongues flitting out, as to what is going on. Snakes have poor eye sight and hearing, generally, so vibrations and hums are significant stimuli for them.
For those unfamiliar with the Bible, read the last chapter of the Gospel of Mark. There is reason to think that this chapter was not part of the original gospel, but added later, as the style seems incongruous with the rest of the gospel. Nevertheless, this remains the primary source of Scripture form which people like Hamblin and his flock receive what they consider a mandate to include venomous serpents in their services.
As I said to Hamblin once, "And if Mark sad to take up toaster overs . . .?
He smiled and replied, "Then I take up toaster ovens, if that is what Jesus is telling me to do."
View the gallery of images below:
From a photographer's standpoint, there are some challenges. The lighting is terrible and any flash is not permitted. Access is limited - I could not get up into the sanctuary, and there were times when a rush of people would be in front of the podium - at 5'6" tall, I sometimes had to use live view and hold my camera up. And, despite the permission of the pastor, certain street photography "rules" had to come into play - these people do live isolated lives, and there is going to be unease at seeing a stranger with a camera. My advantage is, I think, the fact that I am a middle-aged female and thereby more likely to be viewed as "safe." The women occasionally congregate in the back, so sometimes I would join them, and ask innocuous questions like, "Is that your little boy? He's adorable - how old is he?" Then we would get to talking about our kids, and that led to asking me why I was there, and I would explain my interest. The other thing I have done in the past is share my images on Facebook with the congregation, so for some, I am recognized.
And above all - treat people like this with respect. I try to do that in my photos. I do not follow their traditions, but for them it is a very meaningful thing. Many of these people are living below poverty level and their faith is what is most important in their lives. Honor that.