Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The day was really beautiful, that Sunday. I went back to the Edwina Church of God in Jesus' Name and this time I went alone. Friend Scott has been working really hard with a construction company and is not always available to accompany me on my jaunts.

I will probably just share some pictures and general impressions with you this time. My observations during this trip have more to do with issues I feel would be better addressed later. I think this trip said more to me about Pastor Jimmy's struggle to document and archive the history of his church. And by doing so, to project a future for his people and the followers of The Signs.

There were almost as many observers there this Sunday as there were worshipers. They were all very important intellectuals and artists... well, except for me. One of them was an acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Morten Parker, who I, myself, had studied when I was an undergrad. Dr. Ralph Hood, Jimmy's collaborator and editor, was there and I got a chance to tell him how much I admired his work on Handling Serpents. He must have had to fight very hard to preserve Jimmy's "voice" for that work. There was also a very wonderful and talented photographer named Don Dudenbostel who I really enjoyed and hope to see more of.

Pastor Jimmy attracts such lofty company, not just because of the fact that he practices a form of Christianity that is looked upon with curiosity from the outside world, but also because he is such a open and giving person. There are, after all, other Holiness churches that live by The Signs. I think that Pastor Jimmy's dedication and scholarship attracts like-minded people.

He explained the hand-burned wooden gates that hang on either side of the pulpit. He made them himself so that the children would know when there were snakes in boxes behind the dividing wall that separates the congregation from the stage. If the gates are closed, the children know they must sing on the other side of the wall. When no snakes are present, the children are welcome to come back and sing on the stage.

I was also interested that my perceptions of Pastor Jimmy's relationship with his wife, Pam, were also shared by the other observers. At one point in the service, Pam got up to sing in that amazing Lorretta Lynn voice of hers and Jimmy grinned like a teenager. He ducked his head shyly and said, "That's my Baby Doll!"

My heart gave a little lurch just watching the love these two shared. If you are anything like me, it does your heart good to see two people so in love.

Today, Pastor Jimmy had two Osage Copperheads with him. This subspecies of copperhead does not actually live in this area but lives in eastern Missouri to eastern Kansas and south to northeastern Oklahoma. Pastor Jimmy says these snakes came from Oregon. Most people assume that they only handle the serpents indigenous to the local area. They call successfully handling a serpent "claiming victory". In other words, Jesus has allowed them to claim victory over the serpent. Pastor Jimmy has claimed victory over many species of poisonous serpents, including Black Mambas, Cobras, Taipans, Death Adders and Australian Brown Snakes.

The list is probably much more extensive and I will probably have to sit down with Jimmy and figure out exactly which species he has handled. It may be easier to point out the ones he has not handled.

Another thing that strikes me is how delicate and prayerful Pastor Jimmy's hands become when he handles serpents. There is something very uncanny about it and I wonder if this is an element of the "anointing". I've read about some people who become so anointed that the snake actually dies.

But Pastor Jimmy handles them with reverence and delicacy.

When the snakes are not being used in services, they are kept much as any herpetological enthusiast keeps snakes. They are fed mice and kept with a heat source and in climate controlled conditions ideal for their species. They are largely wild-caught snakes. Pastor Jimmy sets out sheets of tin as traps to catch them. Sometimes, he is called to a place where he knows there will be a snake by an inner voice he attributes to God. After a time, he releases them into the wild. He does not do this with the more exotic species, but his wild-caught indigenous snakes return to the wild after a time.

As always, I came away with something from Pastor Jimmy's service. This time, I left thoughtful. I met some really wonderful people of the sort that I ran with in my former life. It was a lovely treat for me. It was a bit surreal to meet them in the cozy confines of Pastor Jimmy's church, rather than at an art opening at the High Museum or a theater reception at the Alliance....or any of the other venues in large cities or small countries I've called home in my life. There, we might have politely smiled as we sipped our bad champagne and wondered when we could leave and get these painful shoes off our tortured feet.

But I no longer wear painful shoes. It's true that I occasionally miss the comradery of other highly educated people. But as I've often said, there are different kinds of "smart".

When I came home, I put on my barn clothes and went out on my back porch and called my milking does to me. As I sat next to the milking stanchion, rythmically coaxing the two gallons of milk I get each day from the girls, I hummed softly. I could see practically to North Carolina from my perch, 300 feet above Big Creek. The air was clean and there were no traffic sounds.

I don't wear painful shoes anymore. And somehow, that I ever did, seems odder to me than snakes in a church.

And that was the lesson I took home that Sunday from Pastor Jimmy's church.


  1. Peggy said...
    I really enjoyed this post! Gave me food for thought.
    samuel said...
    Just wanted to say thanks for these posts about the snake handlers. Having been raised baptist and grown into an atheist, I'm usually a little aghast at religion in general. There's something though about the particular faith or types of belief that seem to have grown in the mountains around here, and not just the snake handlers. I've not only enjoyed the stories but also your approach to the people.
    Anne Johnson said...
    Some bored gods endorse snakes in church, particularly North American deities.
    Housewife said...
    I think I'm Jimmy's newest fan.

    It doesn't sound weird when you talk about it.
    SusieQ said...
    Rosie, what I like about this account of Jimmy and his handling of snakes is that you write with such respect for the man.
    Karen said...
    This makes it sound REAL and meaningful, not just some flamboyant show.

    No new posts for a few days--hope that just means you're busy in the garden...
    Jbeeky said...
    Hope you are doing OK?
    Googie Baba said...
    Hey Rosie - are you ok?
    busybusymomma said...
    Very interesting. I don't know anyone who handles snakes but of course seen references to it. It's interesting to see the thought they put into it.
    Karen said...
    Housewife says you're okay, you're just cleaning house, and I must say, I'm relieved. I've been worried about you. Glad to hear you're okay--

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