Tuesday, May 01, 2007

It was the sort of idyllic spring day that made you thankful for living in the mountains. The sky was that amazing robin's egg blue and there was just a soft kiss of a warm breeze. The air was clear and it was a perfect day to be outdoors. I was going to attend my very first river baptism this day.

I had attended my first service at the Edwina Church of God in Jesus' Name the previous evening. I'm not quite sure what I was expecting.

Friend Scott and I had arrived a bit before the service that Saturday evening. They hold services at 7 p.m. on Saturday which is their actual sabbath. Then they also hold another service on Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m.

We met a couple of professors who were also there to observe the service for the first time. One taught folk history and the other taught Medieval literature. Jimmy showed us the archives. The small closet was a treasure trove of the history of his people and the Jesus' Name Snakehandlers. There was an amazingly carved snake box that Jimmy said was over 100 years old. As I stood in the small room, my eye was drawn to some hand bound journals. The patch-worked leather of the covers were saddle stitched by hand and lovingly worn. I carefully picked one up and found each page covered in hand written scriptures. There was something sacred about them. Something holy. You could sense it when you touched them. I didn't know who they belonged to or when they were created, but they were works of art.

Service was about to start so we sat with the professors in the back pew.

The service began with a prayer and moved swiftly into the singing. After the group hymns, the people were invited to come up and sing individually...to offer a joyful noise to the Lord. All of the singing is done a Capella. Friend Scott got up and sang filling the little church with his vibrant baritone. People couldn't help but picking up a tambourine or clapping. Jimmy's wife, Pam, sang several hymns despite what must have been terrible pain from a recent ear operation.

I couldn't help but be completely caught up in the singing. I found myself dropping all of my Anglican church stiffness and clapping in time with the music. Every once in a while, someone would raise a palm in the air. I wasn't sure what it meant, but I wanted to do it too.

One of the pre-teen girls got up and did a rendition of Maybelle Carter's "In the Highways". Everyone applauded wildly and in truth, she sounded remarkably like the track from the "Oh, Brother, Where Art Though" soundtrack.

Requests were taken from the congregation to remember people in prayer, offer thanks, or to say how thankful they were for God's blessings.

Then it was time for Jimmy's sermon. He started out by asking us to turn to a certain scripture passage in the Bible. Jimmy's sermon can only be compared to watching one of the great blues masters perform live. He starts out slowly with the passage, then rifts into related passages. The words all ran together, sort of like listening to an auctioneer, but slower and more musical. His breathing during the sermon is seamless. You can only tell where it begins and ends by the occasional "heh" at the end of a phrase. It is music. I was clearly listening to music. It was hypnotic and completely engrossing.

I found myself rocking back and forth. I just couldn't stop myself. My foot tapped on the floor. Friend Scott looked at me a few times quizzically. He was used to this. I was not, yet I found myself being swept away in the cadence of Jimmy's masterful use of language, tone and cadence.

Jimmy would get to the end of a long stream of words, and finally lose breath control. He would shout, "Woooo! Hallelujah!" Then he's take a deep breath and start all over again.

As he progressed into the sermon, his face changed. He seemed more intense. Jimmy, and all of the Jesus' Name followers typically have a very blissful expression on their faces, I've noticed. This was different, this expression. I think I was witnessing "the anointing".

He made his way toward the snake box. I, with the two professors, had eagerly looked over into the pulpit area before the service to look at the jewel-toned copperhead in the box on the floor.

"I feel like a tourist!" One of them said.

I felt awkward as well. I come from a spiritual background redolent in incense and hushed voices where one never claps in church. It is steeped into my bones.

Jimmy bent down to get the snake out of the box. The little girl who sang earlier dashed to the back of the church. They do not allow children near the snakes. Children are never allowed to handle them. With very few exceptions, you must be 18 to practice the taking up of serpents. They do not take this lightly.

Jimmy pulled the lovely and deadly copperhead from the box. He held it in one hand and then transferred it to the other. I watched, fascinated, as the snake twined in his hands without showing any sign of aggression. His wife, Pam, was softly speaking in tongues a few rows ahead of us. I couldn't make out what she was saying, but it was soft and rhythmic. We all sang.

Jimmy returned the copperhead to his box and sat down behind the pulpit. He was clearly exhausted. Living by the Signs seems physically taxing, whether by the force of his sermon or the amount of spiritual energy that seemed to infuse him during that time. I'm not sure. But it looked like a "good" tired.

We sang some more and offered more requests for prayers. I said how thankful I was to have found them. That I would most certainly be back.

And I did. The very next day for the river baptism. Sunday's service did not include snakes, but there was much singing and some guitar playing. Jimmy's sermon was yet another amazing spiritual blues rift. I wish you could hear this. It is truly amazing. I found myself better able to follow the cadence of his words the second time.

After the service, we all drove out to the French Broad River. There is a quiet spot near a railroad trestle where Big Creek flows into the French Broad. Scott and I let the professors follow us since we knew where we were going.

There were a few fisherman there when we arrived. They seemed to know what was getting ready to happen and left respectfully.

We got out and waited for everyone else. A train sounded down the track and we all moved from underneath the trestle to watch it clatter by, upsetting the quiet for a few moments.

Three little girls from the church arrived in their Sunday best and immediately jumped into the water, dresses and all. They were baptized this day, but I suspect they were more interested in an excuse for an early swim. The main one to be baptized was a serious young man.

While we waited on Jimmy to arrive, some of the church goers traded stories about their baptisms. They perform them in the river all year round in all weathers. An older gentleman, one of the Pack family, said that he was baptized in January. Scott said that when his mother was baptized, they had to break the ice in the creek. There's a bit of pride in all of this. But as cold as this water is in the summer, I can only imagine taking such a plunge in mid-winter.

Jimmy arrived and we all sang a bit of "Shall We Gather at the River", before he waded out into the deep part of the creek. The three little girls were dunked first. There was much giggling and Jimmy smiled as he lowered each of them backwards into the water. It was very gentle and sweet. They love and dote on their children in this faith.

The young man was more serious. This was a serious commitment for him. He repented his sins and now was ready to be born again into the Jesus' Name Snakehandlers. He may or may not ever handle snakes or drink "the deadly thing." Not everyone does. It depends on whether or not they are gifted with the anointing. But this is the all important first step.

Next, he baptized a woman a few years older than me. She shook and jerked a bit while Jimmy was doing the benediction. He gave her the option of going over backwards or forwards. She chose forwards and was dunked under that way. She came up glowing and saying "Hallelujah!" Everyone raised their palms in the air. I did too.

At one point during the service, Jimmy had looked straight at me.

"Ready to go get baptized?"

I said under my breath to Scott, "Did he just ask if I was going to get baptized?"

"Sure sounded like it." Scott deadpanned.

I didn't get baptized that day in the river. I just watched.

But it was lovely and touching and I think it might be something I'd like to experience. So, perhaps, before the summer is out, I'll ask Jimmy if he would baptize me in the river.

But I want to go backwards into the water.

Full immersion. That's what I'm into.


  1. Peggy said...
    What a wonderful post! I have went to one church that had snakes but it was stressful. Your church service sounded wonderful like it should be. I miss my mountain church.
    cmhl said...
    fascinating post---
    bonnie said...
    When you first mentioned you would be writing about this I refrained from saying "Wow, sounds like that scene from 'Oh Brother Where Art Thou'", because I thought that would be silly. But it is the best movie soundtrack ever. The baptism scene with the Alison Krauss hymn - I love that. Well, of COURSE I love a hymn that talks about going down to the river to pray.

    Funny, the tambourines & singing remind me of Sunday morning - I was heading out to the club to finish off my raised bed & ended up walking down Flatbush Avenue right around church time. Now Flatbush is a powerfully Caribbean neighborhood & there are all these little storefront churches - and on Sunday every one was full up & island hymns & tambourines ringing out the doors...

    total non-sequiter - HEY! I paddled a piece of the French Broad one time! It was a NC piece but same river. Pretty. Herons, and deer, and kingfishers. Pretty nice.

    TQ's sister sent him an article a couple of weeks later - they'd found a little alligator in the river right around where we'd been!

    Well, if you can handle snakes, I'd imagine a plain old alligator wouldn't be a big deal, right?

    Glad you like my Ballad so far! I'm figuring that I will threaten 20 verses, and then I'll tell my Irish music friends that I will shave off a verse in exchange for...oh, I don't know, should I shave a verse for a pint, or should the price of one less verse be a nice single-malt? Hm. Don't want to sell them too cheaply...

    And glad to hear you got some garden help. Looking forward to hearing how your garden grows. Hey, was that asparagus wild?
    kazari_lu said...
    A beautiful post Rosie. I, too, grew up with the Anglican flavour of Christianity. And I think I can tell from your post that I've missed something special.
    I've always been interested in the ways people celebrate their faith. I'll keep waiting on your posts with much anticipation.
    Anne Johnson said...
    We at "The Gods Are Bored" heartily endorse any kind of religious fervor that leads to good and righteous living. (We must add, admittedly snarkily, that neither a copperhead nor a rattlesnake bite is lethal unless administered to the jugular vein, provided that a hospital is in the same Zip code. Rattler bites do more damage locally to human musculature than systemically.)

    None of this matters, of course, if the snake handlers actually believe they'll be killed if the snake bites them. Then they are truly working on faith.
    Rosie said...
    Hey Bonnie,

    If you paddled the NC branch of the FB...you were very close to where I live. That asparagus is planted. What most people call "wild asparagus" here is a different plant.

    Hey Anne, yes...many people also do not know that 20 percent of venonous snake bites are "blanks", either. I think the thing that freaks me out more than the snakes...which don't actually freak me that much...is the drinking of "the deadly thing." Part of their system of belief involves not treating the snake bites. They do ask anyone who gets bit if they want to go to the hospital...but the "true believers" usually decline medical help.
    bonnie said...
    We paddled through the Biltmore Estate one day, and then a nearby piece the next?

    Beautiful country down there. TQ's sister & brother-in-law have the most beautiful place there. He's from there, she moved there - sounds like holidays are amazing the amount of family that gathers around.

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